I have driven between St. Louis and Chicago several times throughout my life, and I have to say that the I-55 corridor is less than exhilarating. Crossing over Lake Springfield near the capital is one of a few reprieves from the otherwise monotonous mile after mile of open farmland. As this was my only real experience with central Illinois — until recently — I made the unfortunate assumption that all of Illinois mirrored this lackluster landscape. My recent journey to the Starved Rock State Park region opened my eyes to the true beauty and diverse landscape of the Land of Lincoln.
The region has not one, not two, but three gorgeous state parks within minutes of each other, preserving nearly 5,000 acres of wooded trails and towering bluffs near the confluence of the Vermilion and Illinois rivers. Starved Rock State Park is the flagship attraction, but Matthiessen is just as beautiful and well worth a day or two of hiking or horseback riding. Buffalo Rock is perched on the north bank of the Illinois River, offering spectacular views of the surrounding area. While smaller than its neighbors to the south, you won’t want to miss the view it affords.
The charming small towns along this portion of the Illinois Waterway connecting Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River are another highlight of the region. North Utica — or simply ‘Utica’ to the locals — in particular, lies just minutes north of the parks and is devoid of big chains, remaining true to its mom-and-pop roots. “Not North” Utica, as I began to call it, is flanked by Ottawa to the east and Peru to the west. Both towns are packed with numerous quaint shops and eateries to enjoy. With so much to see and do, you should plan to spend a long weekend — or an entire week — near the parks to truly enjoy all that there is to do. From secluded cabins and luxury glamping, to family-friendly resorts and a charming B&B, here are my picks for the best places to stay near Starved Rock State Park.
Pro-tip: The parks can fill up quickly each day, so arriving before 10 a.m. is recommended if you want to beat the crowds and find a parking space.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Kishauwau Cabins during my visit. All opinions are strictly my own based on my experiences.
Kishauwau Cabins: Secluded Cabin Getaway
In its second generation of family ownership, Kishauwau Cabins has been welcoming guests to the Starved Rock area for over three decades. You will find 17 distinct cabins tucked away around the property. Cabins vary in size from cozy cabins for two to bungalows fit for four to eight. My wife and I had the privilege of staying in a couple’s cabin, with ample room for two, a spacious bedroom, a large jacuzzi tub, and a full kitchen. The jacuzzi tub in particular was a great way to unwind with a glass of wine after a long day of hiking through and enjoying nature.
One of the best features of Kishauwau is that it is designed as a true getaway — meaning a chance to unplug. Leave your computer and cable news at home and spend the time you would normally spend on the internet or channel surfing reconnecting with those around you. The office is stocked with books, board games, and an array of movies and TV on DVD to take back to your cabin, so you won’t have to necessarily shut out all media. My wife and I found several of our favorite 90s movies and enjoyed a bit of nostalgia.
Other on-site amenities include fire pits and grills with each cabin, a large open field, several disc golf baskets, and a hiking path down to the Vermilion River along the back edge of the property. The parks are only a 10-15 minute drive from Kishauwau, making this an ideal basecamp for a weekend of hiking.
Pro-tip: Adventure seekers will find Vermillion River Rafting halfway between Kishauwau and the parks, an opportunity to experience a self-guided trip through the seasonal white water May 1 through mid-July.
Grand Bear Resort: Location, Location, Location
Starved Rock’s visitor center is a short three-minute drive from Grand Bear Resort. Moreso, the resort is located across the street from a smaller side entrance to the park that leads to the trailhead for the St. Louis Canyon trail. You will ‘bear’ly break a sweat getting from your room to the park — though I can’t promise you will remain dry whilst in the park. This family-friendly lodge has on-site dining, an arcade for the kids, and an indoor waterpark for the whole group to enjoy after a long day.
Grand Bear Resort offers various guest rooms from whirlpool suites designed for two to family suites that can accommodate up to eight. The rustic log decor will even set the mood for your outdoorsy getaway. If you are looking for more space, consider one of their two-story villas for up to nine guests or a three-story luxury cabin designed to entertain up to 18!
Camp Aramoni: Luxury Glamping
While driving to Starved Rock one morning, my wife and I noticed a sign in the small town of Lowell that said “Camp Aramoni.” Our curiosity got the better of us and we made the turn and stumbled upon a truly unique and hidden gem nestled just minutes from the parks along the banks of the Vermilion. We were lucky enough to run into the owner and she graciously gave us a tour of their event facilities used for weddings and corporate gatherings, set amongst the remains of a 19th-century brickyard. The property is a stunning blend of rugged history and modern comfort.
Down the hill from the beautiful refurbished brickyard, the team at Aramoni is installing safari-style tents set to open in August of 2021, for those that prefer to lounge in the lap of luxury. These spacious, semi-permanent tents provide a climate-controlled environment complete with king-sized beds, private bathrooms, and hardwood floors. What truly sets Aramoni apart is the service: En-suite dining is offered as part of the food and beverage program spearheaded by the on-site director of hospitality and renowned chef, Cleetus Friedman.
Enjoy wine tastings and cooking demonstrations with other guests, take part in morning yoga sessions, or kick up your feet in the privacy of your tent and enjoy views of the river while sipping your favorite cocktail. If you prefer to enjoy the great outdoors whilst being pampered, Camp Aramoni is the perfect fit.
Brightwood Inn: Charming Bed And Breakfast
This charming bed and breakfast backs up to Matthiessen, and 2nd- and 3rd-floor rooms offer excellent views of the nearby state park. Brightwood Inn is even tucked back off the highway for added privacy. Choose between their nine unique guest rooms, including one three-room suite on the third floor if you desire additional space and are not opposed to stairs. The ground floor includes two guest rooms, one of which is wheelchair accessible.
Upon waking, make your way down to the breakfast room for fresh fruit and muffins before enjoying a hot breakfast served to your table there or in the spacious library or on the back patio. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, and a hot, hearty meal is my idea of the true bed and breakfast experience. Peruse their collection of books or saunter into the gathering room to interact with other guests. While there, select one of the many available games or movies to enjoy in the privacy of your room.
Fox River Resort: Family-Friendly Fun
Fox River Resort lies 30 minutes northeast of the parks but provides a great base if you plan to not only enjoy the parks but make a day trip to the Windy City as well. Years before I was even aware of the beauty of Starved Rock, my wife and I stayed at Fox River Resort. We were looking for a quiet getaway within reach of Chicago as part of our “babymoon” before welcoming our first child into the world.
This family-friendly resort is an ideal location if you are bringing along young children, especially those who enjoy the water. Canoes and paddleboats are available for rent to enjoy on the Fox River. Head over to either the indoor or outdoor swimming pools for a quick dip or to splash around with your family. Best of all is the on-site Pirate’s Cay Indoor Waterpark that offers up hours of enjoyment for all ages between the lazy river and water slides. Entrance to the water park is not included with your stay.
Most units are two bedrooms with a full kitchen and living room, sleeping up to six people, though smaller units for four without kitchens are also available. The kitchens and room to spread out make Fox River great for an extended stay in the area within reach of both the parks and the greater Chicago area. After a long day of hiking, relax on the covered patio or unwind with your partner in the tub.
Camp In Or Near The Parks
If you prefer to camp or arrive in an RV, there are a few great options nearby. Staying on-site has its obvious advantages, and Starved Rock offers 129 electric-equipped sites allowing you to keep your car parked for the duration of your stay. Sites go fast, so reserve online up to six months in advance. Matthiessen offers first come, first served campsites for those with horses, conveniently located near the horseback trails. Both parks prohibit alcohol, so keep this in mind if you plan to imbibe.
Cozy Corner Campground is located across the street from the main entrance to Matthiessen, and only minutes south of Starved Rock, making it a convenient base for exploring both parks. New to the scene, Pleasant Creek Campground includes primitive tent campsites, water and electric hookups for RVs, as well as cabins near Oglesby.
Whether you are looking for a cozy hideaway, a family-friendly hotel, or a luxurious glamping experience, the Starved Rock area has something for everyone.