Aptly nicknamed “The Prairie State,” Illinois is a natural wonderland known especially for its peaceful, sprawling meadows, farmland, gentle rolling hills, and wetlands. Of course, this state has more to show off than prairies. With dramatic rock formations, canyons and valleys, scenic bluffs, lakes and rivers, and even cascading waterfalls, Illinois is an amazing place for nature lovers to explore, and we’ve got some of the best hikes in Illinois in this article to get you started.
There are a whopping 41 state parks, not to mention state wildlife areas, recreation areas, and state forests, that cover over 475,000 acres of land here. Is there any question that there are wonderful opportunities for hiking in Illinois? If your adventurous side is calling and you are looking for the best places to hike in Illinois, you have come to the right place.
Best Hikes in Illinois
There so many incredible places to discover here – to wander and to wonder. Whether you are looking for an easy, accessible or family-friendly hike, a way to challenge yourself a bit and develop your skills, or an adrenaline-packed adventure, there is something for everyone. Let’s start with some of the overall best hikes in Illinois.
1. Starved Rock and Sandstone Point Overlook Trail Location: Oglesby Mileage: 4.4-mile loop trail Difficulty: Moderate FYI: The park and open daily from 7 a.m. to sunset and trail is open year-round. Trail requires the ability to climb steps. Dogs are welcome but must be leashed.
This 4.4-mile loop in the scenic
Starved Rock State Park Overlook Trail
features beautiful views of the river valley and is especially known for spotting eagles and other birds. The trail is clearly marked and well-maintained, with pretty boardwalk sections and opportunities to explore canyons and waterfalls as well. The trail can be a bit steep in some areas and does require the ability to climb steps, but is considered a family-friendly adventure that is stunning any time of the year. The park Visitor Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
2. Garden of the Gods Observation Trail Location: Karbers Ridge Mileage: 0.5-mile loop trail Difficulty: Easy FYI: Trail is open year-round. Not accessible for wheelchairs or strollers due to steep and uneven surface. Bring your dog but make sure he is on a leash.
Garden of the Gods Observation Trail
is only half of a mile in length but rewards visitors with some of the most incredible views in the state. The majority of the trail is paved with flagstone which can be uneven with gaps between stones, and most of the trail is moderately steep with some parts very steep, so caution and non-slip shoes are recommended. The amazing sandstone rock formations are just one reason this trail is so popular. There are several rock outcroppings along the way that provide stunning panoramic views of the surrounding wilderness and the Shawnee National Forest. There are also options to take several longer trails.
3. Waterfall Glen Trail Location: Willowbrook Mileage: 9.3-mile loop trail Difficulty: Easy FYI: The best times to hike this trail are April through October. Parking lots are located at several spots along the trail. Dogs can join the fun, but must be on a leash.
Waterfall Glen Trail
is nestled in the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve and leads hikers past several small bodies of water, a wooden bridge, wildflowers, wildlife, and finally, a wide cascading waterfall. The trail is fairly long at just over nine miles, but it is flat and easy, perfect for beginner hikers, families with kids, and bicyclists. There are educational boards and shaded picnic tables along the trail. This is a popular trail and can be a bit crowded on warm summer days and weekends, but you may find some solitude by visiting on weekday mornings.
Best Short & Easy Hikes in Illinois
Some folks mistakenly think that hiking and nature adventures are only for the intrepid, but truth be told, some of the most beautiful vistas in the state are actually surprisingly accessible. Whether you are a novice hiker, want a trail that is kid-friendly, or just looking for a relaxing nature trail, you have many options. Here are just a few of the best hikes in Illinois that are quick and easy.
4. Pontiac Canyon, Wildcat Canyon and Beehive Overlook Location: Oglesby Mileage: 2-mile loop trail Difficulty: Easy FYI: Trail is open from 7:00 am to sunset daily, year-round, and is suitable for all levels. The trail is dog-friendly as long as they are leashed.
Part of the 13 miles of trails in Starved Rock State Park,
Pontiac Canyon, Wildcat Canyon and Beehive Overlook
is a 2-mile loop trail suitable for all skill levels. The trail goes through the canyons, where you will often see seasonal waterfalls, and along past some of the most beautiful and popular overlooks along the Illinois River, including Lovers Leap Overlook and Beehive Overlook. Hikers can view Pontiac and Wildcat canyons from the boardwalk trail and have the choice to climb the stairs down into the 90-foot Wildcat Canyon for spectacular views.
5. Saint Louis Canyon Trail Location: Utica Mileage: 2.1-mile out-and-back trail Difficulty: Easy FYI: Trail is open from 7:00 am to sunset daily. Best times to visit are May through October. Leashed dogs are welcome on the trail.
Saint Louis Canyon Trail
in Starved Rock State Park is a short and easy hike just 1.5 hours outside of Chicago. This beautiful trail leads hikers of all levels through lush foliage and trees and past interesting rock outcroppings, tall sandstone cliffs, caves, and at last, a waterfall flowing over the carved sandstone walls. You can even dip your toes in the pool at the base of the falls.
6. Giant City Nature Trail Location: Makanda Mileage: 1-mile loop trail Difficulty: Easy FYI: Trail is open 7 a.m. to dusk and is open year-round. Visitors center is open 8 a.m. to 3:30pm. Dogs are allowed, as long as they are leashed.
Giant City Nature Trail
is the home of what has been called “Giant City Streets,” huge 12,000-year-old sandstone walls, bluffs, and structures - like a giant stone shelf and massive balanced rock - that make you feel like you have entered another world or some strange, ancient city. Ferns, moss, Dogwood and maple trees, wildflowers, and other vibrant foliage add to the enchantment of this short but splendid trail. This trail is as thrilling for children as it is for adults as it features climb-worthy low walls, nooks and crevices, and little tunnels.
Hardest Hikes in Illinois
If you are a serious hiker and adventure-seeker, a gentle walk will simply not do it for you. If you want a real challenge, something to stretch your skills and endurance, these are some of the most highly-rated strenuous hikes in the state. Grab your hiking boots and plenty of water, and get ready to break a sweat with the best hikes in Illinois for a challenge.
7. Dry Run Trail to Illinois River Bluff Trail Location: Peoria Mileage: 16.7-mile out-and-back trail Difficulty: Hard FYI: Trail is open year-round. Leashed dogs are welcome to join this hike.
Dry Run Trail to Illinois River Bluff Trail
in Detweiler Park is a great hike that combines two popular trails for hiking, running, and camping - Dry Run and Illinois River Bluff - and affords hikers the opportunity to customize their route by incorporating loop portions along the way. This is a long hike that gains a lot of elevation through hilly sections that require hiking up and down, so the elevation is cumulative and is quite a workout. The trail is shaded much of the way, which makes nearly 17 miles of hiking that much more pleasant. With lush wooded areas, a creek, wooden bridges, steps, a tunnel, wildlife, and beautiful bluff overlooks, this trail is as rewarding as it is challenging.
8. Atwood Ridge and Hamburg Hill Location: Jonesboro Mileage: 19.8-mile out-and-back trail Difficulty: Hard FYI: Trail is open year-round. Dogs on leashes are allowed on the trail.
Located in Southern Illinois, in the Shawnee National Forest
Atwood Ridge and Hamburg Hill
is a strenuous hike through the woods, and is especially enjoyable for bird-watchers. The trail is a forest service road that descends into a canyon with deep ravines and ascends a mountain ridge above the Mississippi River, reaching a peak elevation of around 900 feet, nearly 600 feet above the river. The rugged natural area makes for a beautiful hike any time of the year, but some hikers recommend the views during the fall and winter months.
9. Detweiler Park to Camp Wakonda Location: Peoria Mileage: 14-mile out-and-back trail Difficulty: Hard FYI: Open all year and dogs are welcome, but must be on a leash.
This hike from
Detweiler Park to Camp Wakonda
is considered challenging and links parts of several local trails. There are hills to conquer and switchbacks that work their way along the bluffs - where you will also enjoy some lovely views - as well as pretty backwoods sections with places to stop and rest. Previous hikers suggest that the best times to visit are from fall to spring when the creek is flowing and colors are changing. There are lots of loops and other great trails in the area so you can make this a longer or shorter hike, or come back and alter your route for a different experience.
Best Waterfront Hikes in Illinois
From creeks and lakes to cascading waterfalls, there is something incredibly refreshing, and grounding, about being near water. If that is what you are looking for, here are some of the best hikes in Illinois that will take you on an invigorating journey to the water’s edge.
10. Dells Canyon and Bluff Trail Location: Oglesby Mileage: 2-mile loop trail Difficulty: Moderate FYI: Trails are open 7 a.m. to sunset. There are partial closures during turkey hunting season, generally until 1 p.m. for several weeks in April and May. The Dells area closes down when parking lots are full on weekends from May to October. Pups must be on a leash to join the hike.
Dells Canyon and Bluff Trail
is located in Matthiessen State Park, within easy driving distance of Chicago. The trail is considered moderately challenging due to long, narrow staircases, slippery rocks and steps in some places, and mud after a good rain. That being said, this hike is short enough for most levels and ages to enjoy, and the views are a reward that outweighs the effort, including waterfalls, canyons, cool rock formations, and beautiful foliage. This is a popular hike, so you won’t find yourself alone here, but it is hard to regret (or resist!) such a beautiful hike.
11. The Fort Sheridan Loop Trail Location: Lake Forest Mileage: 1.9-mile loop trail Difficulty: Easy FYI: Trail is open year-round. Leashed dogs are welcome on the trail.
Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve is full of stunning scenery and historic interest. The
Fort Sheridan Loop Trail
is relatively flat and easy, leading through the nature preserve, starting at a veterans’ cemetery and bringing visitors past more historic sites with interpretive signs, as well as river crossings, forested areas, prairies, and the picturesque shores and blue waters of Lake Michigan. In the spring and summer, enjoy wildflowers, fishing hiking, and biking. In fall, the forest shows off gorgeous changing colors, and in winter months, the trails are great for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
12. Cache River and Heron Pond State Natural Areas Location: Belknap Mileage: 7.4-mile loop trail Difficulty: Easy FYI: This trail is open-round. Unfortunately, pups are not allowed on the trail.
The loop trail known as
Cache River and Heron Pond State Natural Areas
is well-maintained, relatively flat (only gaining about 340 feet in elevation over the entire length) and suitable for all skill levels. It is a scenic route through a nature preserve known for its wetlands, old-growth trees, and natural diversity. This hike wanders through four different ecological systems and offers widely varying scenery including pine forests, a river, and an otherworldly swampland with huge stately cypress trees that rise from the wetlands. This incredible river trail and natural area is home to over 200 species of birds, so if bird watching is one of your passions, you will love this place.
Best Winter Hikes in Illinois
Winter in the midwest brings rain and snow and may send us all indoors seeking warmth and shelter. But we still need some time outdoors, don’t we? Fortunately, Illinois has some amazing and beautiful places to hike in the winter, some of which are even more amazing than at other times of the year. Here are a few of the best hikes in Illinois to tackle this winter.
13. Grant Woods Trail Location: Ingleside Mileage: 4.9-mile loop trail Difficulty: Moderate FYI: Trail is open year-round. Keep dogs leashed on park trails.
Part of the Lake County Forest Preserves system, Grant Woods is a natural playground with six miles of maintained paths popular all year for hiking, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and birding. The main trail in the preserve is
Grant Woods Trail
, a 4.9-mile loop that turns into a beautiful winter wonderland when blanketed with snow. The beautiful, varied landscape includes rolling hills, prairie flatland, marshlands, and dense woods, not to mention plentiful wildlife.
14. French Canyon Loop Trail Location: Oglesby Mileage: 2.5-mile out-and-back trail Difficulty: Moderate FYI: Trail is open year-round. Visitor Center is closed on Federal holidays from November to March. All pups must be leashed. Starved Rock State Park
is a spectacular place to visit during the winter, particularly after the water throughout the park has frozen over. The many canyons, waterfalls, and streams become an icy wonderland and the French Canyon Trail may be the best for winter hiking in Illinois with its tall, carved walls and stream from the falls that make this place simply stunning.
15. Little Grand Canyon Trail Location: Pomona Mileage: 3.4-mile loop trail Difficulty: Moderate FYI: Trail is open all year long, but can be slippery and difficult in winter. Dogs are allowed on the trail, but must be on a leash.
Little Grand Canyon Trail
is like a winter hidden gem, and may very well be the highlight of the cold season for adventurous hikers. Shaped by beautiful waterfalls, this enchanting place features a wide natural staircase and sweeping views of the Shawnee Forest from the canyon bluffs. Frozen falls, sparkling snow, hanging icicles, and winter birds turn this small canyon into something dramatic and unforgettable. The trail is not long but is challenging in the snow and ice, so hikers should only undertake this hike if they have enough experience to confidently conquer it. Those who do will not regret it.
Best Hikes near Springfield
Like any city, the capital of Illinois may not be the place most people picture when it comes to hiking and enjoying the natural beauty. That being said, for those without the time or desire to travel far from the city, some of the best hikes in Illinois include some beautiful nature-filled places in and near Springfield. Check out just a few below.
16. Lost Bridge Trail Location: Springfield Mileage: 11.1-mile out-and-back trail Difficulty: Easy FYI: Trail is open and maintained year-round, and a popular bike trail. Trail is accessible for wheelchairs and strollers, and is dog-friendly, but keep pups on a leash.
Lost Bridge Trail
is a fun and easy walking and biking route that crosses two historic railroad bridges as it runs through an abandoned rail corridor. It is also one of the earliest multi-use trails in Springfield. This flat, paved trail also runs through a small tunnel and the pretty, shaded areas of vibrant foliage. There is a slight grade on part of the trail where wheelchair or stroller users may need assistance. The trail has tables and benches along the way for those who want to rest or just soak in the scenery. With one trailhead along South Dirksen Parkway in Springfield and another in Rochester, this can also be a point-to-point route with half the mileage.
17. Lick Creek Wildlife Preserve Location: Springfield Mileage: 4.8-mile out-and-back trail Difficulty: Easy FYI: Open year-round. Dog-friendly trail, but pets must be leashed. Lick Creek Wildlife Preserve
is a beautiful and diverse 340-acre space characterized by wooded hills and marshy lowlands, as well as a variety of native plants and wildlife. The main Lick Creek Trail and other trails, both paved and off-road, are lovely to explore and suitable for virtually any skill level, as well as biking.
18. Carpenter Park Location: Springfield Mileage: 11.3-mile loop trail Difficulty: Moderate FYI: Best times to visit are from April through October. Leashed dogs are welcome on the trail. Carpenter Park
is located on the outskirts of Springfield and is anything but a typical park. The park trail is made up of an interconnected series of loops, popular for hiking, walking, birding, and nature observation. Hike beneath a canopy of trees in this largely wooded park near the Sangamon River. The trail is long and can be a bit muddy after heavy rain, but most of the paths are fairly flat and well-defined, suitable for most skill levels and beautiful for a day of hiking.
There is nothing like exploring one (or several) of the best hiking trails in Illinois to truly appreciate the amazing and diverse natural beauty of this great state. So, whether you head out on a short, easy jaunt or an epic, arduous journey, lace up those boots, fill your water bottle, and hit the trail.
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More to Explore
18 Best Hikes in Illinois: The Top-Rated Hiking Trails to Visit in 2023
Does Illinois have good hiking trails?
Yes! Illinois has many good hiking trails. From picturesque lakes, rivers, and waterfalls to scenic canyons, valleys, and rock formations, there are wonderful hiking trails throughout the Prairie State for every skill level and every season.
What are the best months to hike in Illinois?
The best months to hike in Illinois are generally agreed to be between April and September. From mid-spring to early fall, trails are less likely to be slippery or muddy, and temperatures are most comfortable for outdoor activities. That being said, many of the best trails in the state are beautiful all year long, and in fact, some of the most enchanting natural landscapes, such as frozen waterfalls and pristine white meadows, can only be seen in the dead of winter.