Looking for a great way to enjoy the beauty of nature and fit in some exercise all at the same time? Then pack up the kids into the car and head to Illinois’ top attraction: Starved Rock State Park. This free state park has something to please absolutely EVERYONE in the family and is a great way to unplug and get away from school, work, and anything else that is weighing on your mind. Even better? Take advantage my Starved Rock State Park Secrets in order to enjoy a one of a kind experience:
If your family is anything like mine, we can’t really do anything with our full effort and focus until our bellies are happy and full. That’s why on our drive to Starved Rock State Park, we love to stop in the adorable town of Utica for breakfast, lunch, or simply a snack. We have tried many different options and our hands down favorite is Nonie’s Bakery and Café. Everything is delicious, from the sammies to the salads, and there is also a wide array of sweets to choose from. We absolutely loved the beautiful dishes that were used (I felt like I was at my Nana’s house!) and I can’t wait to order a pot of tea during our next stop. Words cannot describe how adorable tea time can be at Nonie’s.
If you are staying in the area, be sure to try some of the local diners and breweries. Our family’s favorites? Cadillac Grill or Calico Cafe Sheridan. If you are looking for a great dinner, head to La Salle for Uptown Grill or The Lone Buffalo by Tangled Roots Brewing Company in Ottowa.
Once you are fed and ready to explore, here is my TOP SECRET tip for Starved Rock State Park. Don’t use the main entrance. Seriously. Go past it. A little further down you will find a secret entrance that will take you to the beautiful Saint Louis Canyon in only a ten minute walk compared to the thirty five minute walk from the main Starved Rock tourist lot.
The brave ones can even explore some small caves and enjoy some more elevated hiking (I’m terrified of bats so this isn’t for me, but if you know any Batman wannabes, definitely check it out!).
As for the best time of year to visit Starved Rock, it is a toss up between Spring and Fall. In the Spring, the waterfalls are full and vibrant because of the melting snow…but you have to deal with tons of mud throughout the trails. In the Fall, you can enjoy the gorgeous Fall colors in cooler weather. We are looking forward to planning a visit on a mild winter day to check out the ice falls in the canyons…that is, if Mother Nature doesn’t freeze us out!
If you have any questions about what trails to take or where to go to see certain things (waterfalls, the beach, waterways, etc.), chat with one of the extremely helpful guides at the Visitor’s Center.
But if you have questions about what to pack for Starved Rock, listen to me (an experienced mom of two active little boys). Here’s what to bring:
*Two pairs of shoes…one to get wet and one to stay dry. If you are looking to see any waterfalls, definitely switch to the wet shoes, because NO ONE wants to hike trails in wet and soggy shoes, right?
*A baby or toddler carrier. There are tons of stairs along the trails at Starved Rock, so bringing a stroller will most definitely restrict you. Even if you have a toddler who is pretty good on his or her own two feet, bring the carrier for when exhaustion sets in. No one likes a tired and cranky toddler, am I right?!?
*Lots of water and snacks. Although there are some places to purchase refreshments and snacks, you are better off bringing your own. Just be mindful that you are visiting a state park and that there aren’t a ton of garbage cans around. We bring a large gallon sized plastic bag to carry the garbage we create during the day and then toss the bag in the trash on our way out of Starved Rock State Park.
*Bug spray and sunscreen. There are some sunny spots on the trails, as well as lots of lush areas. You need protection from both. These are our top choices for eco friendly bug sprays and sun screens.
*Dress everyone in layers. The temperatures definitely fluctuate as you climb to different altitudes, and it is easy to work up a sweat. That’s why we all dress in layers of lightweight clothing (and try to put the kids in bright colors just in case they wander a little too far for your liking).
*A young person with an extra set of hands. Seriously. Lugging around gear and kiddos can be a bit challenging when navigating Starved Rock State Park. So we always invite an extra set of hands to help us out a bit…but the thing is, it works out a whole lot better if your helper is agile and strong (sorry, grandparents!). We have found that inviting a nephew or aunt is a fun way to bond in nature as an extended family.
Lastly, if you want to make a weekend out of it, you can stay at the lodge or one of their cozy cabins….or if you are really hoping to be one with nature, pitch a tent!