A Guide to Starved Rock State Park’s Scenic Trails

Are you looking for adventure this summer? Do you want to challenge your mettle as you trek through the best nature Illinois has to offer? Head to Starved Rock State Park.

Mariyam Syed, Managing Editor

For many Illinoisans, Starved Rock State Park is a premier destination for a summer trip into the canyons. The large forest preserve area is known for its waterfalls, hiking trails, riverside walks and towering canyons you’d only expect to see in a mountainous state. In the prairie state, this rocky terrain is a valuable sightseeing trip for geologists, photographers and hikers alike. However, there are things hikers should be aware of when visiting.

Even though Starved Rock is a beautiful park, it’s not “a walk in the park.” The hike can be brutal, and it’s composed of a maze of wooden stairways and dirt paths. Some paths are closed for construction at times, forcing you to reroute as you go. It could be easy to get lost, even though there are large map posts along the paths at Starved Rock. Of these paths, you’ll have to walk a couple of miles before you see the first big canyons. The trek can get exhausting, but don’t let it sap all the fun from the trip.

You have to be ready for the trek and meet the wilderness with open arms and steady feet. On hot summer days, just remember to pace yourself, rest often and bring a light pack of water and snacks. Don’t leave your trash in the natural areas though! You can also bring some friends or your dog as hiking buddies, so you have someone to encourage you to keep going. Here are my tips for the quickest path to Sandstone Canyon, which takes about an hour and offers some of the best canyon sights.

  1. To start with, the parking lots and picnic areas are always crowded. If you find a grassy spot under a tree, it makes for a nice picnic and playing place before you hike.
  2. Next, head to the Starved Rock visitors center museum, which I really liked! It has an Illinois River diorama, exhibits about the flora and fauna of Starved Rock, and information about the Indigenous people who lived in this area. 
  3. Exit from the back entrance of the museum, and follow the straight path near the big map of Starved Rock trails. It will lead to narrow wooden stairs that you climb up for about 10 minutes.
  4. Take a left turn as you ascend the steps, which will lead to the first landmark, Lover’s Leap Overlook. You’ll be almost 100 feet high and get a beautiful view of the Illinois River and the huge dam to your right. 
  5. Continue forward for 5 minutes to Eagle Cliff Overlook. Eagle Cliff also has a great view of the river and benches to rest. However, it’s a dead end, so walk back the way you came. To your left will be some descending stairs that you can take for 10 minutes, or about 0.3 miles, until Beehive Overlook. 
  6. Wildcat Canyon is one the largest falls in the Park, and it is 0.5 miles inland from Beehive. However, the path was closed on my trip there. From Beehive, you will leave behind the wooden stairs and cross onto dirt paths of the River Trail. You can enjoy the green foliage of Starved Rock and take breaks on fallen tree trunks. This will be the longest stretch of the journey, about a mile long or a 25-minute walk on the River Trail.
  7. Eventually, you will cross the bridge at Horseshoe Bend, which is a thick stream branching off the river. It is also known as the Bridge to Terabithia, as a hiker wrote on the wooden railing because you will be crossing into magical territory soon. 
  8. Another five minutes of walking, and you’ll reach the base of the Sandstone Overlook Canyon, which rises around 40-50 feet high. To your right, carefully trek up a steep climb to a special cave structure. There are small caves in the canyon you can sit inside, like a little bear. It’s so beautiful to observe the round, curving shapes in the canyon, carved out by a history of glacial meltwater.
  9. Many waterfalls are dry in the summer because it’s so hot, but you can go to the sandy riverbank in Sandstone Overlook, to wade in the shallow water. You might even see daring swimmers venture into the river, though it isn’t allowed by the park.

If you enjoyed the scenic riverwalk to Sandstone Canyon, the Illinois River may have enticed you to your next adventure. Here’s a bonus trip to take when you visit Starved Rock:

Visit the Heritage Harbor Marina, which offers a range of boats you can take for a spin on a beautiful 10-mile stretch of the Illinois River. We rented a pontoon, which goes just fast enough to have your hair flying into your face or your hats fly off your head. (Hold onto it!)

The marina allows you to take a 90-minute boat trip by yourself, with the help of maps and a live GPS of your location on the river, speed and trajectory, so you can navigate like a true sailor. Some boaters even stop along the coast at riverside restaurants or fishing spots.

You have to time your boat trip to make sure you return at the 90-minute deadline. On the way back, keep a lookout on the north coast for the Heritage Harbor Marina sign and an inlet leading to the harbor. Don’t miss it like we did, which led to us boating upstream almost all the way to the dam. It was also storming, heavy rain droplets hitting our faces as we slowly maneuvered back around and tried to find the Marina Harbor, 5 minutes from our ending time. High-stakes naval missions like these are another fun feature of the Illinois River you shouldn’t miss out on!

If you also decide to stop by, I recommend Allen Park as a fun fishing location with grills and gazebo areas. There are also many cool sculptures, such as metal bridge joints (don’t climb up these as I did) for those enthusiastic about engineering. 

These are located in Oglesby Ill., and other towns surrounding Starved Rock have many interesting features for visitors. Stop by these bonus locations to make it a great weekend trip in the Starved Rock neighborhood!