From the Visitor Center, take the trail to the park’s namesake: Starved Rock. It’s a 0.3-mile hike and stair-climb, but you’ll be rewarded with views of the river, Starved Rock Lock and Dam, Leopold Island and Plum Island. You can also contemplate the origins of the rock’s name, which is rooted in a conflict between the Illini and the Ottawa Indians. After the Illini chief killed the Ottawa chief, the Illini sought refuge on the rock. The Ottawa surrounded them, cutting off any escape routes and leaving the Illini to starve on the rock.
Return back from the rock, and you can explore the parks creeks, valleys and waterfalls. From the Visitor Center, follow the signs to French Canyon, a 0.4-mile hike. If the waterfall is flowing, a portion of the trail leads straight up the center of the creek, so be prepared for wet feet! The view at the top is worth soggy socks, as the waterfall flows over layers of eroded St. Peter’s Sandstone.
Families with experienced hikers can continue along the main trail to see Wildcat Canyon, Basswood Canyon and more. However, the park, which runs east and west along the Illinois River, features numerous parking lots with access points along the main trail.
For those who want to spend less time hiking and more time seeing waterfalls, hop back in the car for a short drive to the parking lot off Route 71 closest to Council Overhang, and Ottawa and Kaskaskia canyons. This hike through a forked canyon (one direction leads to a waterfall in Ottawa Canyon, the other leads to a waterfall in Kaskaskia Canyon) is packed with scenery and easy on little and inexperienced hikers.
Those with a bit more hiking experience should visit Lasalle Canyon. It’s 2 miles from the Visitor Center (rated as a hard hike), but much closer from the first park lot on the north side of Route 71. The photogenic waterfall cascades over a sandstone outcrop. Visitors can walk completely around and through the base of the waterfall. The creek then flows over sandstone, making a natural water slide before creating another waterfall to the canyon below. The trail from Route 71 is mostly flat and easy, featuring sweeping views of the Illinois River, but as you turn into Lasalle Canyon, expect a few steep drop-offs and a few short sections of treacherous trail.
About 225 miles north of St. Louis, the Starved Rock State Park is a little more than a 3-hour drive along I-55 and I-39 from the arch. The park does get crowded, and when the parking lots are full, you will not be allowed in. The best times to visit on the weekends are before 9:30 a.m. and in the late afternoons. Be sure to go after rain or in the spring or after a summer rainstorm to ensure the creeks and waterfalls are actually wet.
Lodging is available at Starved Rock State Park Lodge. You might also check out Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort, which has an indoor waterpark and is located just outside the park. Additional accommodations are available in the charming town of North Utica and about 15 minutes away in Peru.
Other nearby attractions:
Matthiesson State Park features similar geology as Starved Rock and is located along the banks of the Vermillion River.
Watch the operation of the Starved Rock Lock and Dam and learn about the Illinois River at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center. In the winter, you might also see a bald eagle.
A mom of three boys, Jessica Pupillo, founding editor of St. Louis Sprout & About, knows the trick to household harmony is keeping her kids busy. Jessica is an award-winning writer and editor whose work has been published in more than a dozen magazines and other publications.
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