I grew up in Southern Illinois. I now live in Central Illinois. So I’ve explored this state for my entire life, first with my outdoor-loving family when I was a kid and now with my hiking-obsessed wife (and dog).
I’m also keenly aware of the debate on Northern versus Southern Illinois. Because more than three-quarters of the population in the state resides in the Chicago area, many claim that Southern Illinois is everything south of I-80 (which runs across the top portion of the state). The top 15 percent? That’s Northern Illinois. The bottom 85 percent? Southern Illinois.
As someone who grew up in that southern part of the state and now lives right in the middle, I don’t subscribe to that. Interstate 80 isn’t the dividing line -- Interstate 72 is. I-72 runs across the center of the state from Jacksonville to Springfield to Decatur and on to Champaign. So for this article, anything north of that line is fair game. And there are some great hikes north of that line.
1. River Trail, Starved Rock State Park
If I was asked to name the number one hiking destination in the northern half of Illinois, I would name Starved Rock State Park, not just for the River Trail but for all the small connecting trails that loop into and out of the canyons. Canyons in Illinois? Yes, canyons in Illinois.
Starved Rock is a series of canyons carved out of the bluffs by the Illinois River just outside of Oglesby. And the River Trail connects many of the canyons. The experience is different from the normal loop trail or “out-and-back” hikes many are used to taking. Here, you’ll hike along the river and then take several spur trails into and out of the canyons. That brings you back to the River Trail where you can walk to the next canyon.
I’ve been to Starved Rock a half dozen times, and my favorite experience is when we walked the full length of the park. Starting at the visitors center, we walked the River Trail and then linked in with the Bluff Trail to get to the far end of the park (this map will help). The last canyon (and the deepest) is the Illinois Canyon, and that was our turning around point, approximately five miles from the visitors center. This made for an all-day hike of just over 10 miles (probably more than that as we ducked into and out of several canyons), but we got to see the entire park in one day.
2. Waterfall Glen Trail, Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve
Hiking trails in Chicago are a lot closer than many realize because of all the forest preserves in the area. Chicago’s suburbs seem to go on forever, so it might feel like you’d have to drive more than an hour to find a good hike, but forest preserves in the area bring the hiking to you.
One of the most popular is the Waterfall Glen Trail in Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. There is a lot of history here. The full trail here will take you on a loop around the Argonne National Laboratory, a massive Department of Energy lab with history dating back to the Manhattan Project. You’ll only catch glimpses of the lab on this hike -- you’ll mostly be in the forest -- but that’s the area you’ll be hiking through.
The full loop here is mostly gravel and very well maintained, so expect to see a lot of people exercising. There’s not much elevation change, so this is a fairly easy hike. But it can be long. If you want to do the full outer loop trail, it’s nearly 9.5 miles around the entire preserve. With no elevation change and a consistent surface, though, you might surprise yourself with how quickly you can cover the nine miles.
3. Buffalo Viewing Trail, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Along the same lines as Waterfall Glen and its World War II history, the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie also shares a similar background. This area used to be the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, a World War II facility that built explosives during the war. The Army still uses part of the site for a training facility, but the majority of the area was transformed into the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
Given that Illinois is known as the Prairie State, it seems fitting that one of our hikes be located within a tallgrass prairie. This area of Illinois wasn’t ever known for forests. While Indiana to the east and Missouri to the west are known for deep forests, the native landscape in Illinois was mostly tallgrass prairie.
The Buffalo Viewing Trail will take you through a lot of these prairie areas. And because there’s a program at Midewin to reintroduce bison to the tallgrass prairie, you might see some bison roaming around. Centuries ago, bison were a big part of the prairie ecosystem, and this protected grassland allows for their reintroduction. The Buffalo Trail provides an easy 3.6-mile loop through the prairie grasses with your best chance of seeing some bison.
4. Kickapoo State Recreation Area Trails
This one just barely makes the cut. And by that, I mean that Kickapoo State Park borders the east-west interstate I’m using to differentiate Northern Illinois from Southern Illinois, so parts of this trail are maybe 200 yards from “Southern Illinois.” But I think it counts.
Kickapoo State Recreation Area is mostly reclaimed strip mines that have formed many lakes. This reclamation project took place over 70 years ago, so you won’t really be able to tell that this was once a mining operation. But the lakes left behind by all the mining operations are fascinating, and there are many trails connecting all of the lakes. The hike I took combined the Clear Lake Trail and the Out-And-Back trail. There are a few climbs on this route (nothing all that steep), and the hike around Clear Lake was especially beautiful. Print a trail map before you go and then choose to hike whatever distance you want.
5. Plank Trail Loop, Jubilee College State Park
First, you probably want to know about the name. Jubilee College was a college established just west of Peoria in 1839. It was operated by an Episcopal bishop, and when he died in 1862, Jubilee College closed down. The land was eventually turned over to the state and became Jubilee College State Park.
There are many great trails here. One of the most popular (and heavily trafficked) is the Plank Trail on the southern end of the park. This is a simple four-mile loop hike that takes you through some of the most beautiful areas in the park. It can be extended -- there are probably a dozen trails here, many with interconnected links -- so you can really design whatever kind of hike you want for the day.
6. Northerly Island Loop Trail
Hiking in downtown Chicago? Yes, hiking in downtown Chicago. Out on a peninsula in Lake Michigan, beyond Soldier Field and several museums, sat Meigs Field, a single-strip airport that ran the length of the peninsula. Meigs Field was closed in 2002 and the runway was demolished. In its place, the City of Chicago built Northerly Island Park. And inside that park, in the area where the old runway used to be, you’ll find a 1.3-mile loop trail.
Now, for most hikers, a mostly-paved 1.3-mile walk isn’t really a “hike.” But with the restored prairie areas, the new pond, and the views -- my goodness, the views -- this is a hike that simply must appear on this list. Where else can you be hiking around a pond next to one of the Great Lakes with migratory birds gathering among the reeds of the pond and then turn around and see the skyline of the third-largest city in the United States? It’s truly a unique experience.
7. Pierce Lake Trail, Rock Cut State Park
Rock Cut State Park is located just outside of Rockford in Loves Park. There are dozens of trails here -- the trail map looks like a spiderweb -- so it’s a bit daunting to choose a trail and then make sure you don’t take a wrong turn. One way to avoid that: Take the Pierce Lake Trail. As long as you’re walking around the perimeter of the lake, you haven’t taken a wrong turn.
My wife and I enjoy taking a hike around the perimeter of a lake with our dog. Actually, I should say it this way: Our dog really enjoys all lake hikes. She’s a lab who loves the water, so every hike like this means she’s going to get in the lake a dozen times.
One thing to note: This trail goes through the Hickory Hills campground area, so that part of the loop trail is basically walking along the campground roads. It might seem confusing on the map, but it’s fairly easy in practice. The trail comes out onto the campground road, keep walking in the same direction, and on the other end of the campground, you’ll see the trail peel off of the road and back into the woods.
8. Palos Orange Trail, Wolf Road Woods
This is another forest preserve in the Chicago area, located only a few miles from Waterfall Glen. The trail is located in Wolf Road Woods, which sits right near the junction of the two canals that connect Lake Michigan to the Illinois River (and then, further south near St. Louis, the Mississippi River).
The orange trail is a nearly six-mile loop in the southwestern portion of Wolf Road Woods. It’s also a mountain bike trail, so most experienced hikers know what that means: If there’s been a lot of rain recently, there are going to be muddy parts to the trail. But that’s just part of the adventure, right?
This is another trail where it’s easy to forget you’re right in the heart of the endless Chicago suburbs. There are hills to climb, a few small canyons, and lots of deep forest to walk through. A great escape very close to the city.
9. Dells Canyon, Matthiessen State Park
This is my pick for the best hike in Northern Illinois. Check out TravelAwaits’ picks for the best hikes in all 50 states here. If you were to ask me about a hiking “hidden gem” in the United States, my answer is probably Matthiessen State Park in Northern Illinois. Because the top hiking destination in the northern half of the state -- Starved Rock State Park -- is just a few miles away, Matthiessen gets completely lost in its shadow. But this canyon (and the surrounding trails) offer an incredible experience that will make you forget you’re in the Prairie State.
There are two main areas at Matthiessen State Park: the Dells Area and the River Area. The hikes I’m discussing here are in the Dells Area, so make sure to follow the signs to that parking lot. From there, you’ll descend down a long staircase into the canyon. Right at the start, as you walk the bridge over the waterfall, you’ll no longer think you’re in Illinois.
I’ve been there four or five times, and my favorite hike involves taking the Bluff Trail, which circles the entire Dells area. Then walk down the stairs at the south end and hike up the canyon floor. You’ll have incredible views from the top and then, after a jaunt down a stairway, walk the canyon floor and look up at the cliffs you were just peering over.
The canyons at both Starved Rock and Matthiessen are even better in the winter. One of my favorite hikes of all time was hiking up the canyon at Matthiessen all the way to the frozen waterfall. We had to wear warm clothes, hiking boots, and several layers of socks, but being able to walk right up to a frozen waterfall is a crazy experience. At Starved Rock, in some of the canyons, you might even spot ice climbers who have acquired permits from the park to climb up the ice waterfalls. A summer hike in these two places makes you feel like you’re in Utah somewhere; a winter hike makes you feel like you’re in Alaska.
This article is presented by KEEN Footwear. I basically spend the entire summer in my KEEN Newports. Because of the toe cage, and because I can get them wet, I pretty much wear them everywhere I go. On a hike, I zip the strap tight and they're just as good as my hiking boots. Shop KEEN’s Newports and other hiking shoes here.