Sure, Illinois is pretty flat and is covered in a lot of corn and soybeans. But if you know where to look, there are some absolutely AMAZING natural wonders hiding right under your nose in Illinois. Here are nine of the very best.
1. Garden of the Gods
We say Garden of the Gods, but you might as well include all of the Shawnee National Forest (although this is the crown jewel). Wow! Few people from Illinois seem to get here, because it is way at the bottom of the state. But really, it is worth the drive. The views are breathtaking. The rock formations (300 million years old) are particularly stunning against the gorgeous trees. This might be the best place to catch a sunset in all of Illinois.
2. Grandview River Drive
So the drive itself is manmade....but the rest is thanks to nature. This stretch in Peoria is the only linear park on the National Historic Register. It was constructed in 1903 and, while it is only 2.5 miles long, you will get stunning views of the Illinois River Valley. President Theodore Roosevelt called it "the world's most beautiful drive." We agree.
3. Cave in Rock
Down in southern Illinois, right off of the Ohio River, is this HUGE iconic cave. It is 55 feet wide, just to give you a sense of just how big it is. It was carved by water many thousands of years ago. Today, thousands of people visit annually to explore by the cave and on the many trails.
4. Starved Rock State Park
Starved Rock State Park is probably the most famous park on this list, voted #1 attraction in the state by many outlets. This place has huge, beautiful trees, canyons, waterfalls, and wildlife. You can camp and spend a few days to take it all in.
5. Matthiessen State Park
In North Utica. Matthiesen State Park is just around the corner from Starved Rock. This place does not get as much love as Starved Rock does, and that is a shame. You can find some gorgeous waterfalls and canyons here, too. In addition, there are gorgeous forest shots as well as prairies. Lake Falls (pictured here) is absolutely fantastic and might be better than anything going on over at Starved Rock (I love you Starved Rock, but Matthiessen gets treated like the ugly step-sister).
6. Illinois Beach State Park
Illinois has beaches? Yes. There aren't tons of miles of shoreline, but if you're looking for a beach in Illinois, you'll want to check out Illinois Beach State Park. There, you will find 6.5 miles of sandy shoreline against Lake Michigan. The views are beautiful, even as the weather begins to turn.
7. Cache River State Natural Area
I had absolutely no idea that this place existed until this year. Wow. Check out these cypress trees. They are roughly 1,000 years old. The base (called a buttress) is about 40 feet in circumference. This whole area was carved many moons ago by glacial floodwater from the Ohio River. It's spectacular, and even though it truly is in the southernmost part of Illinois, you need to make the trip down.
8. Chain O'Lakes State Park
Chain O' Lakes is actually composed of a whopping 15 lakes. It is in northern Illinois, in Lake and McHenry counties. What's really awesome about these lake is that they are next to some gorgeous natural areas: Grass, Marie and Nippersink. All in all, you're talking about 6,500 acres of water and 488 miles of shoreline.
9. Mississippi Palisades State Park
If you have never been to Savanna, you need to go there immediately and take in the beautiful Mississippi Palisades State Park. It is located at the confluence of the Apple and Mississippi Rivers. The result: incredibly lush scenery set against huge rivers. There are 2,500 acres here for you to explore. And if you are into rock climbing, rock climbing is possible in some areas. Erosion has resulted in some really, really interesting rock formations--most famously, Indian Head and Twin Sisters.
Even though the weather is getting colder and the days shorter, it doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate these beautiful places. And, hey, if you happen to take a picture of one of these awesome sites, be sure to post it on the Only in Illinois Facebook page!