Starved Rock State Park in northern Illinois is a well-known summer travel spot. Perched atop cliffs overlooking the Illinois River, Starved Rock has long been a weekend destination for day-trippers from the Chicago area, and the park’s historic lodge has been in operation since the 1930s. Located just outside the twin cities of LaSalle and Peru near the intersection of Interstate 39 and Interstate 80, Starved Rock is only a 90-mile drive from downtown Chicago.
What many don’t know, however, is that Starved Rock is an excellent winter destination as well. The main attractions at the park are the many canyons within the bluffs above the river. Because the area is primarily sandstone, each creek that flows toward the Illinois River has, over the years, carved deep canyons into the bluffs. And because many of these creeks are spring-fed, the water keeps flowing during the winter, creating massive ice waterfalls on the walls of the canyons. It really has to be seen to be believed.
Here are some tips for visiting Starved Rock State Park in the winter.
1. Stay At The Lodge
Perhaps the best part of my January trip to Starved Rock was my stay at Starved Rock Lodge. Built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the lodge features 69 guest rooms that accommodate groups of all sizes.
We chose to stay in the old lodge itself, mostly for the history. Knotty pine walls, historic furniture -- we wanted the authentic experience. If you’re looking for an updated room, the lodge has those as well. Ask for a room in the hotel wing, which was built in the 1980s, and you’ll find more contemporary accommodations.
The entire lodge is a treat. The lounges, the restaurant, the pool, the gift shop -- many travelers love to stay at historic lodges in the national parks out west, but Starved Rock provides that experience in the heart of the Midwest.
2. Pack Warm Clothes And Shoes
If you’re planning to walk to view the ice formations, you’re likely going to have to contend with temperatures below freezing. Be sure to bring along several warm layers.
Don’t forget comfortable, warm shoes. Several of the canyons can be accessed on flat trails with no inclines, but the ground will be frozen (and sometimes snow-covered), so warm boots and warm socks are a must.
3. Drive To The Ottawa And Kaskaskia Canyons For Easier Access
The lodge sits atop the bluff, but the bases of the canyons are all down near the river level. There is a set of stairs that leads from the lodge down to the canyons, and if you’re up for a hike, you can walk directly from the lodge to the canyons. Remember, though, that you’ll have to climb back up those stairs!
If you’d prefer to avoid that much walking, then your best bet would be to view the ice formations in the Ottawa and Kaskaskia Canyons at the far end of the park. This will require a short drive, but it’s worth it, since all of the climbing will be handled by your car!
To get to these canyons, take the park entrance road (known as 875th Road) back out to the entrance. Turn left on Route 71 and drive 3 miles until you see a sign that says Ottawa Canyon, Kaskaskia Canyon, Council Overhang. Park in that lot and follow the signs to the two canyons.
You can also access the Illinois Canyon from this parking lot. The trail to the Illinois Canyon is not flat like the trails to the Ottawa and Kaskaskia Canyons, so you’ll have to do a little hiking, but the view from the end of the canyon is spectacular.
4. Follow The Bluff Trail For A View From Above
There are 18 canyons in the park, and the trail difficulty ranges from easy to difficult. While LaSalle Canyon offers great views, the hike to it isn't an easy one. Perhaps the most spectacular view is from Starved Rock itself, but be prepared to climb 80 stairs if you want to experience it.
Another option is to view several of the canyons from above by taking the bluff trail. For example, if you’d rather not walk down the 90 stairs to the French Canyon, you can follow the bluff trail to see it from above. From the main parking lot by the lodge, you’ll find signs directing visitors toward this trail. From the bluff trail, it’s less than half a mile to the platforms overlooking Pontiac Canyon and Wildcat Canyon. This is a great way to view the canyons without the physical exertion.
5. Stop By The Visitor Center
The history of Starved Rock extends back centuries. The name, if you’re curious, comes from a certain bluff in the area where, during a battle between two Native American tribes, the last remaining warriors from the Illinois tribe took refuge. They were surrounded and “starved out” by the Pottawatomie tribe until they surrendered, so the bluff came to be known as Starved Rock.
You can learn about this battle and much more at the Starved Rock Visitor Center in the park. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day). Be sure to ask to see the informational videos if you’re looking to learn more about the history of the area.
6. Don’t Miss Sunday Brunch
The best meal of my entire trip was by far Sunday brunch at the lodge restaurant. We thoroughly enjoyed the massive dining room, endless buffet, stone fireplace, bottomless coffee, and more. It was the perfect way to spend a Sunday morning after a day viewing the canyons.
It’s a good idea to call ahead and make reservations, since the restaurant is crowded on Sundays. We didn’t, so we had to wait a bit for a table. And be sure to bring your appetite! There’s a full breakfast buffet and a full lunch buffet, so your options are basically unlimited. And once you think you’re finished, you’ll visit the dessert buffet in the back and somehow find room for one more plate of food.
7. Drive Across The Bridge To August Hill Winery
If you’d like to get out and explore the area surrounding the park, plan a trip to August Hill Winery in Utica, Illinois, just across the river. The tasting room is open year-round, but in the winter, be sure to call ahead and ask about the winery’s hours. During the summer, the winery hosts many events, including live bands, but in the winter there are fewer of these. You can still visit the tasting room, try the wines, and warm up in the indoor lounge, however.
To get to August Hill, follow the park road out to Route 178. There are two entrances to the park, one off of Route 71 and one off of Route 178 -- you’ll take the 178 exit. Turn right on Route 178, cross the bridge over the Illinois River, and continue for a mile to Utica. Turn right on Mill Street, go one block, and August Hill Winery will be on your right.
8. Sit Around The Fire
Even if you’re not staying at the lodge, you must go inside and sit around the fire -- especially if you’ve been outside most of the day viewing the canyons.
When the lodge was constructed in the 1930s, the owners were aware that the area would be a winter destination, so they had a massive fireplace built in the center of the main hall. The many chairs, tables, and couches around the fireplace are free for visitors to use.
There’s really no better way to end a day at Starved Rock than by sitting around this massive fireplace, enjoying a drink and thinking back on your incredible day.