If you’re as captivated by the grandeur of Mother Nature as I am, then you’ve GOT to check out the waterfalls at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois. We had the most wonderful time chasing these Starved Rock State Park waterfalls on our last visit.
Curious as to why this park is home to so many cascades? It’s all thanks to that fantastic force of nature called erosion. Over millennia, rivers and creeks have sculpted these amazing canyons, creating a perfect situation for waterfalls.
So, why should you visit them? The answer is simple: because there’s magic in moving water, and the natural beauty of Starved Rock State Park is unforgettable.
BEST Starved Rock Waterfalls
1. LaSalle Canyon
To get to this Starved Rock waterfall, you’ll embark on a 2.6-mile trek, taking the River Trail from Parkman’s Plain to reach LaSalle Canyon. Trust me when I say, this is regarded as one of the most beautiful hikes in Starved Rock. I mean, how many places at Starved Rock get you this close to the river? Almost none! It’s like a secret rendezvous with the Illinois River itself!
Walking along, in many areas, you’re flanked by a tranquil river on one side and a stunning forest canopy on the other. You have a front-row seat to the natural beauty that is Starved Rock State Park. I’ve got to say, it’s a breathtaking alternative to the dense forest trails that envelop most of the park.
LaSalle Canyon Starved Rock is the only waterfall in the entire park where you can actually always walk behind the waterfall. Yes, you read that right! As you step behind the curtain of cascading water, it’s like stepping into another world. This waterfall isn’t typically a big one (unless there has been a lot of recent rain), but it’s still pretty fun to walk behind it, and LaSalle Canyon is one of the most photographed spots in the entire park.
If you only have time for one hike at Starved Rock State Park, make it this one – it will give you a fabulous feel for the park, and since it’s so pretty you won’t feel like you are missing out.
2. Ottawa Canyon
Who’s ready to escape the beaten path and get their boots a little muddy? If that sounds like your kind of day, then Ottawa Canyon is the Starved Rock gem you’ve been waiting for! At 3.9 miles from the Visitors Center, this Starved Rock waterfall trail is far enough to escape the crowds but close enough to keep the adventure manageable.
Ottawa Canyon Starved Rock is a more rugged and natural hike that takes you through a creek bed. The trail offers a raw, unfiltered Starved Rock experience. So slap on those waterproof hiking boots or pack an extra pair of shoes, because you’re gonna get wet.
The canyon itself and its accompanying waterfall are roughly the same size as those in French Canyon. But here’s a bonus that makes this trip extra special: depending on the icefall formation, if you hike it in the winter, you might just get the chance to walk behind the waterfall.
In terms of difficulty, we’re looking at a moderate to strenuous hike. There are several big staircases that’ll give your legs a good workout, and a road crossing that keeps the hike interesting. But if you’re short on time or looking for a quicker jaunt, there’s a 1-mile option starting from the Ottawa Canyon parking lot along State Route 71.
3. St. Louis Canyon
St. Louis Canyon is a Starved Rock superstar. It is an absolute hit, one of the best waterfalls at Starved Rock, and it’s not hard to see why. St. Louis Canyon is the only waterfall in the park that’s spring-fed, meaning this beauty is in action for a longer time compared to others – so if there hasn’t been a lot of rain, this is your best bet for seeing a waterfall.
Located just 1.5 miles from the Visitors Center or an even shorter 0.6 miles from the St. Louis Canyon parking area, this Starved Rock waterfall hike is incredibly accessible. But get this—the canyon was the site of a dramatic wall collapse back in 2004. Nature’s evidence is still very much there, in the form of a massive sand and boulder pile on the eastern wall near the waterfall. Kiddos love to play on this natural sandbox, so if you’re hiking with little ones, this will be a total hit!
If you’re coming in from the Visitor Center, be prepared for some dirt and stone surfaces, as well as major staircases, especially if you’re accessing the bluff trail. The Aurora Canyon trail junction has a minor staircase, and there’s another big one right before you enter the canyon.
Now, if stairs aren’t your jam, I’ve got some good news. You can reach St. Louis Canyon via the parking area nearby, where the first portion is paved and free from major staircases. That’s more my speed – I HATE stairs!
4. Wildcat Canyon
It’s just a mile-long hike one way from the Visitors Center, making it a 2-mile round trip. But be warned, to get into the canyon, you’ll have to cross a creek, which can get pretty deep after a strong rain. There are also a lot of stairs involved in this hike.
If you decide not to venture into the canyon—no judgment, by the way—you’ll still get a killer view from the end of the boardwalk. If you do head down into the canyon, when you’re standing in front of its waterfall, you’ll be staring up at a whooping 70-foot cascade—making it the tallest in the park!
But wait, there’s more! This canyon isn’t just about height; it’s also the deepest canyon in the park, plunging approximately 90 feet down. Just imagine the walls around you soaring upwards as you explore its depths. It’s like wandering through a natural cathedral carved by the hands of time. It’s really quite magical.
Because of all these incredible features, Wildcat Canyon is worth a visit any time of the year. Whether you’re looking to gaze in awe at the towering falls, explore the deepest depths, or even take on the icy challenge in winter, this canyon has something for everyone. It’s an all-season, all-reason kind of natural wonder.
5. French Canyon
For anyone who wants a quick yet comprehensive glimpse of what Starved Rock canyons are like, the 0.8-mile hike (down and back) to French Canyon near the lodge is an excellent starting point. It is the closest waterfall to kickstart your Starved Rock waterfall exploration.
The trail surface is mostly dirt and gravel with a few stairs here and there, but wait until you get to the entrance of the canyon. You’ll find a bit of a dropoff—nothing too intimidating, but it adds that extra oomph of adventure. And yes, there’s a bit of a narrow squeeze to get in, so if it’s a bustling day, you might have a brief wait, but trust me, it’s so worth it!
Here’s where it gets even more exciting. To actually enter the canyon, you have to get your feet wet! For about 20 feet, you’ll be stepping into toeholds in the creek bed. It’s a whole tactile, toe-wiggling experience that makes you feel like a true explorer. Wear appropriate footwear for this wet and wild escapade, okay? Trust me, you’ll want that grip – we had regular tennis shoes on and ended up getting a bit wet when we did this hike.
6. Kaskaskia Canyon
Nestled at the eastern edge of Starved Rock State Park, Kaskaskia Canyon is a bit of a trek but oh-so-rewarding. To get there, you’ll be starting from the Canyon parking lot off State Route 71. The journey is a solid 4.0 miles one way from the visitor center or lodge parking lots, so it’s perfect for those craving a longer hike.
When you finally arrive, you’re greeted by this stunning sight—large tree trunks acting like stoic guardians to a 20-foot waterfall cascading into a charming little pond. The canyon is named after Kaskaskia, an early French settlement in Illinois. Originally, the Kaskaskia tribe lived just across the river from Starved Rock in the Grand Village during the 1600s, until the French began to settle there, and Kaskaskia became the first Illinois capital. So as you explore, it’s like you’re walking through the pages of history!
This hike is not a cakewalk. We’re talking moderate to strenuous levels of difficulty with several major staircases to conquer. And there’s a trail crossing at State Route 71 that’ll take you from Hennepin Canyon to this eastern gem. So make sure you’re pumped and ready for a workout with a side of history and scenic beauty,
7. Illinois Canyon
Last but not least, Illinois Canyon, is a smaller treasure tucked away on the eastern boundary of Starved Rock State Park. Now, don’t let its size fool you—this place packs a punch, especially if you’re a flower enthusiast. Just imagine, you’re on the trail and suddenly the world explodes in color! Springtime here is simply magical, with wildflowers everywhere, especially BlueBells.
Conveniently, there’s an Illinois Canyon parking lot right on State Route 71, making it super easy to start your trek. From the lot to the canyon and back, you’re looking at a 1-mile round-trip hike—short and sweet, perfect for when you’re strapped for time but still want a taste of the great outdoors!
Illinois Canyon has the park’s smallest waterfall, just a few feet high. This tiny but mighty wonder spills over into a shallow pond at the back of the canyon. It’s like a pocket-sized paradise where you can enjoy a tranquil moment, and believe me, it’s well worth the visit.
Safety Tips for Exploring Waterfalls
Stay on marked trails. Avoid slippery surfaces, and wear sturdy footwear. Trust me, those Instagram photos are not worth a sprained ankle. And always, always, respect nature.
If you decide to hike in the winter (and the park is gorgeous in the winter months), be sure to dress very warmly and wear shoes with some grip- the snow can be quite slippery. When you get to see the starved rock frozen waterfalls, you’ll get an entirely new perspective.
Capturing the Moments: Photography Tips
Golden hours are your friends here for the best waterfall pictures! The soft light really brings out the colors and creates this ethereal glow around the waterfalls. And if you can, bring a collapsable tripod. It makes a world of difference for those long-exposure shots.
The Experience Beyond Waterfalls
Beyond these water-laden wonders, Starved Rock offers fishing, boating, and even some history! Remember the story about the Native American lore tied to the park? If you want to learn more, check out the book Kaskaskia: The Lost Capital of Illinois. If you like history, it’s a must-read before you visit.
The Starved Rock Lodge is amazing and it’s smart to start your visit there, see if there are any programs you want to sign up for, do a little shopping, and maybe even grab a bite to eat. You should also be able to pick up a Starved Rock waterfalls map so you can plan out your hikes according to the ones you want to view.
Outside the parks, make sure you visit the Visitors Center in Ottawa, IL. On one of our recent visits, we found them super helpful and they had tons of suggestions for more fun things to do!
Finally, consider a day trip to Chicago. Chicago to Starved Rock State Park is only about an hour and a half drive, so if you feel like you’d like a bit of city life to round out the natural experiences at the park, it’s a fun option.
Insider Tips for a Memorable Visit
Where to Stay
Consider the Starved Rock Lodge for that rustic charm, or camp out for a full-on nature immersion! My other favorite option is to stay at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Ottawa, IL.
👉 Book your stay at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Ottawa, IL for a terrific location for your visit to Starved Rock State Park.
If you are looking for lodging with a full kitchen, consider the Holiday Inn Club Vacations at Fox River in Sheridan, Illinois. We stayed here on a visit and although the rooms were older, the location was beautiful and we had a ton of fun playing mini-golf, ping pong, and more – and were able to make breakfast each morning before heading out on our hikes and other adventures.
Plus, I loved enjoying my coffee and a good book on the balcony every morning!
👉 Book your stay at the Holiday Inn Club Vacations at Fox River in Sheridan if you prefer more space and a full kitchen – plus mini-golf onsite!
When to Visit
Although you should encounter some waterfalls year-round, in the spring and after heavy rains they will be the most abundant. In Illinois, that means March through May. The weather in Starved Rock might be a little wet but temperatures should be fairly mild.
We’ve visited in October and there were still plenty of waterfalls to view, they just may not have been quite as dramatic as they would have been in the spring. However, on the flip side, we had gorgeous weather for hiking.
Where to Eat
FAQs: Starved Rock Waterfalls
Are the trails dog-friendly?
Yes, but keep Fido on a leash!
Is swimming allowed?
No, admire the beauty but keep a safe distance.
How many canyons are there at Starved Rock State Park?
There are 18 canyons – 7 of which have consistent waterfalls.
Conclusion: Waterfalls at Starved Rock State Park
Starved Rock State Park’s waterfalls are more than just natural formations; they are a beautiful experience, an encounter with the raw beauty that our parks have to offer. Every single cascade has its personality, its aura, and its set of wonders.
I found the variety at Starved Rock State Park to be some of the best waterfall hiking I’ve enjoyed in the past few years. If you like unique hikes that include waterfalls, it is well worth a visit.
What are you waiting for? Pack those hiking boots, charge up your camera, and get ready for an unforgettable adventure! Let’s go chase some waterfalls!