What to Do in Starved Rock State Park: Essential Tips & Top Attractions

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Nestled in the heart of Illinois, Starved Rock State Park beckons nature lovers and adventurers alike with its tapestry of canyons, waterfalls, and verdant landscapes.

Living in the Midwest, I’ve hiked many of the beautiful parks we have in many Midwestern states, and Starved Rock State Park is by far my favorite.

Whether you’re enjoying the winding hiking trails, capturing the fleeting moments of birdlife through your lens, or simply savoring a serene picnic amidst nature’s backdrop, this state park has something for everyone.

Beyond its boundaries, the neighboring (and adorable) town of Ottawa offers a slice of local culture, while back within, winter transforms the park into a wonderland of activities.

From camping under the starlit sky to indulging in the rustic charm of the park’s lodge, Starved Rock promises a treasure trove of experiences waiting to be explored. Let me guide you through the myriad adventures this iconic state park has to offer.

Standing in one of the Starved Rock State Park canyons.

15 Best Things to Do at Starved Rock State Park

1. Hiking is the most popular of the things to do in Starved Rock

This park is fantastic for hiking. When we travel, I love to hike, especially at state parks, and the hiking at Starved Rock Park, Illinois is top-notch. Aside from maybe Gatlinburg, it’s my favorite place to hike within driving distance of my home.

Starved Rock boasts 13 miles of well-marked trails that cater to hikers of all experience levels. From easily navigable paths that weave through lush forests to more challenging terrains leading to the deep interiors of the canyons, there’s a trail for every adventurer.

There are 18 canyons in the park, formed by thousands of years of glacial meltwater and stream erosion. Many of these canyons, like the French, Wildcat, and LaSalle, offer unique hiking experiences as they are adorned with sandstone walls, intriguing rock formations, waterfalls, and diverse vegetation.

Starved Rock Illinois has well-maintained trail maps, clear signages, restrooms, and a visitor center that provides essential information, making it accessible even for those new to hiking. We had no problem following the trails and enjoyed a nice variety of hikes on our last visit.

Starved Rock State Park, Oglesby, IL

Hiking along one of the trails at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois.

2. Bird watching at Starved Rock Park Illinois

The park’s avian residents vary with the seasons. The spring migration brings in a colorful array of warblers, orioles, and tanagers. Come fall, raptors such as hawks and eagles glide gracefully across the skies, using the river valley’s updrafts for their southward migration.

Starved Rock is perhaps most well-known for its winter congregation of bald eagles. As the waters of the Mississippi freeze, these majestic birds flock to the open waters of the Illinois River near the park, offering a breathtaking spectacle. January and February are peak months, and the sight of these raptors perched on tree limbs or soaring against the backdrop of icy canyons is genuinely unforgettable. We have a few bald eagles near our house and they are truly amazing to watch and terrific to photograph.

If you are new to bird watching, the park’s visitor center provides valuable insights, offering bird checklists and sometimes even guided bird-watching tours. Plus, strategically placed observation decks and lookout points make it easier to spot and appreciate the birds in their natural habitats.

Climbing the root system at Starved Rock State Park.

3. Starved Rock State Park: a photographers dream

I’m the first to admit that photography is not my strong suit, but even I could take amazing photos at Starved Rock State Park! To this day, I use one of my kids that I took there as my screensaver – and that particular picture was so many years ago the kids don’t even look the same as they do today!

Thanks to the park’s enchanting vistas and unique geological wonders, it is nothing short of a paradise for photographers. With deep canyons such as the French Canyon, tons of exposed roots, lovely waterfalls, and stunning vistas, there are plenty of options for unique and beautiful photos.

Plus, each season paints Starved Rock in a new light. Autumn cloaks it in fiery foliage, winter blankets its canyons in pristine snow and ice, spring breathes life with fresh blooms and gushing waterfalls, while summer bathes it in a warm, golden hue. This ever-changing face promises fresh perspectives with every visit.

Rock canyon at Starved Rock State Park

4. Relax with a tasty picnic on your Starved Rock visit

Picnicking at Starved Rock State Park offers a delightful respite from the daily hustle and bustle. The park provides numerous idyllic spots for families and friends to lay out their blankets and coolers, so definitely include a picnic on your list of Starved Rock things to do.

Whether it’s beneath the shade of towering oaks or overlooking panoramic vistas from designated picnic areas, a meal here becomes a memorable affair. As birds serenade from above and gentle breezes rustle through the foliage, picnickers at Starved Rock indulge in not just delicious food, but also the rejuvenating ambiance of one of Illinois’ most cherished natural sanctuaries.

Thanks to the beautiful setting, you’ll enjoy your picnic whether it’s a simple meal of PB&J and chips or a gourmet spread of fancy sandwiches and sides. Pack your own picnic or pick up a meal at a nearby sub shop or restaurant – you’ll be glad you brought food along so you can spend more time enjoying the park!

On a trail at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois.

5. An angler’s delight: fishing at Starved Rock State Park

Fishing at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois is an angler’s delight, offering a serene yet rewarding experience. Nestled along the shores of the Illinois River, the park boasts a rich aquatic ecosystem teeming with a variety of fish species, including catfish, bass, and walleye.

Whether you are a seasoned fisherman or just want your kids to experience the joy of fishing, you can cast your lines from the riverbanks or from boats, enjoying not only the thrill of the catch but also the picturesque surroundings. And if you aren’t a fisherman (like me) you will still enjoy the setting while the rest of the family competes for the biggest fish!

There are designated fishing areas and regular stocking programs, so Starved Rock ensures that this timeless pastime continues to flourish amidst its natural splendor.

Hiking in the snow

6. Things to do at Starved Rock in the winter

What to do at Starved Rock State Park in the winter? Just because it’s gotten cold outside, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan a trip to Starved Rock State Park. The park transforms into a winter wonderland when temperatures drop. This seasonal transformation uncovers a realm of frosty adventures and serene beauty. I’ve discovered that sometimes a trip to a state park in the winter is actually MORE relaxing – and it definitely helps make the winter fly by.

Hiking in the winter can be a lot of fun. As long as you dress properly (especially good boots), you can enjoy many of the trails in the park. Ask at the lodge before heading out for advice on the best trails to enjoy during the winter. Another fantastic way to explore the snow-covered trails and delve deep into the park’s winter beauty is snowshoeing. It provides a peaceful and immersive experience, especially after a fresh snowfall.

The park often hosts guided winter hikes and bald eagle-watching tours. These programs, led by knowledgeable guides, provide insights into the park’s winter ecology and wildlife, so if you are a little nervous about heading out in the winter, this would be a great way to get started.

Camping sign on a tree.

7. Extend your time outdoors by camping at Starved Rock State Park

The park’s campground is designed to cater to a range of camping experiences. It features over 120 class-A premium campsites, each equipped with electrical hookups, vehicle access, grills, and picnic tables. Modern shower and restroom facilities are strategically located throughout the campgrounds, ensuring convenience for all campers.

Each site has a designated fire ring, perfect for roasting marshmallows. Waking up to the chorus of birds, spotting wildlife like deer or squirrels near your tent, or being just a stone’s throw away from a hiking trail means that the essence of Starved Rock is always within reach.

The Starved Rock campground also has a camp store to help you with all your camping needs, and they sell firewood 24/7 for that fire pit! The camp store hours do change seasonally so be sure to check if you plan on getting supplies there.

Entrance to the Starved Rock Lodge

8. Spend time exploring all the Starved Rock Lodge has to offer

Definitely start your visit at the Starved Rock State Park Lodge. It is beautiful! This iconic lodge, nestled amidst the natural wonders of the park, seamlessly blends rustic charm with modern conveniences. It was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. With its large timber beams, native stone, and handcrafted woodwork, every corner speaks of a bygone era.

The lodge offers both standard guest rooms as well as a number of private starved rock cabins, so you can pick the lodging that works best for your party. Beyond its rooms and dining facilities, the lodge features a plethora of amenities. These include an indoor pool, saunas, an outdoor sunning patio, and even a gift shop stocked with unique Starved Rock memorabilia and local crafts.

Just a stone’s throw away from some of the park’s most renowned canyons and trails, guests can easily transition from the comfort of their rooms to the wild beauty of Starved Rock. Even if you choose not to stay there (and I prefer staying in nearby Ottawa myself), it’s well worth planning on visiting, and you might want to start your hiking from the lodge.

👉Don’t want to stay at the Lodge or a hotel? Why not rent a cabin near the park? You’ll get the advantage of your own space but still close to Starved Rock State Park. Check out this highly-rated one!

Bridge and waterfall at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois

9. Participate in a guided tour at Starved Rock State Park

This is a really cool way to enjoy the trails at Starved Rock State Park. The park guides are knowledgeable about the terrain, the history of the park, and hiking in general. Even if you hike a lot, it’s fun to get a different perspective which you definitely will on one of these guided hikes.

Most of the year there is a hike and lunch tour on the weekends, and in the winter months, they offer a guided winter hike, which would be a fantastic way to begin winter hiking in a safe manner. There are also a variety of special seasonal hikes, so check online or at the lodge to see what’s available when you visit.

With the expertise of the guides and the structured exploration of the park’s wonders, you are guaranteed not just scenic views but also memories enriched with knowledge and appreciation. Plus, it’s a great way to meet new people who love state parks and love to hike!

Starved Rock State Park rock formations

10. Enjoy a glass of wine at a winery near Starved Rock

Visiting a local winery is always a treat, and there are several wineries near Starved Rock State Park. My top choice would be a visit to August Hill Winery in Utica, IL. Located quite near the park, it’s a terrific way to take a little hiking break, taste a few wines and then enjoy a glass in the inside lounge or outdoor patio.

August Hill has a few small bites you can order and enjoy along with your wines such as a chocolate platter and charcuterie. On Tuesday and Friday they have a special lunch offering, so that would be a terrific time to plan your visit.

Both pets and children are allowed outside on the patio, so if you have them along on your trip to Starved Rock, they can come with you. We’ve brought both our kids and our dog to wineries before and as long as there is live music or games we can play the kids have enjoyed the visits! The dog is just happy to be included!

August Hill Winery, 106 Mill St. Utica, IL

Tangled Roots Brewing Co. in Ottawa, Illinois

11. Drink up at a brewery near Starved Rock

Tangled Roots Brewing Company in Ottawa, IL is actually one of the first microbreweries we ever went to – back in the day before we made visiting breweries a regular occurrence. Not only did we love the beer, but we also loved the food!

We had our kids with us on that trip and they were fairly young (late elementary/middle school) and even then they liked the atmosphere and what they ordered for dinner.

One of the unique aspects of Tangled Roots Brewing is that they make their beer from hops and barley grown on their own Ottawa, IL farm. Talk about a true farm-to-beer brew. They actually call them farm-to-foam which I love.

And let’s face it, after a day of hiking, a delicious beer and a good meal is the perfect reward.

Tangled Roots Brewing Company, 812 La Salle St. Ottawa, IL

View of the Illinois River

12. Admire the scenery on a lovely river cruise

Starved Rock State Park has a variety of interesting and fun river cruises on the Illinois River. From a one-hour waterfowl cruise to a lovely sunset cruise, you should definitely consider finding one that sounds like a good fit for your group.

Personally, I am a fan of the Autumn on the River cruises as the fall foliage along the Illinois River is stunning! Plus, our fall break is in October, so it’s a prime time for us to plan our visits.

The river cruises run from June through October, so it’s definitely something you’ll want to plan for on your summer and fall trips only. They all start at the Lodge and only hold a limited number of people, so I’d suggest booking your tour early.

Canyon at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois.

14. Enjoy the special activities at the park such as the Trolley Tour

There are quite a few other Starved Rock activities, so even if you aren’t an avid hiker, there are still ways to enjoy the park. I’m especially fond of the trolley tours. There are quite a few trolley tour options to choose from including a ghost tour, holiday lights, fall color, bald eagle, and more. Regardless of which one you choose, you’ll learn a lot and have fun!

Some other Starved Rock State Park activities include special meals, tribute bands, and enjoying a little retail therapy at the gift shop in the Lodge. Check out the Starved Rock Lodge entertainment schedule to see what’s happening during your planned visit.

There are also a variety of activities near Staved Rock such as museums, historical mansions, horseback riding, kayaking, and more! Plus, Chicago is within easy driving distance, so a day trip to the Windy City would be a nice break from the natural setting of the state park.

Playing Racko at Jeremiah Joe's in Ottawa, Illinois.

15. Spend time exploring nearby Ottawa

What to do around Starved Rock: If you are looking for a way to spend a day outside the park (or maybe it’s raining as happened to us on a recent visit), spend the afternoon exploring nearby Ottawa, IL.

Ottawa is a cute little town with a number of really good restaurants, adorable and unique boutiques, a terrific coffee shop (always important to us), and a movie theater. In fact on our rainy day in Ottawa, we grabbed a bag of popcorn from the movie theater and then ran into the coffee shop for some decadent mochas and spent a lazy afternoon playing Racko. It’s still a fond vacation memory!

There are a couple of little museums in Ottawa, and if you love historical homes you should definitely try to visit the Reddick Mansion & Gardens. These would be great choices for indoor activities near Starved Rock! We tried to do a ghost tour at Reddick on one of our visits, but it was sold out – so learn from me and book early if that sounds fun to you!

Map of Starved Rock

The closest airports to Starved Rock are in Chicago, Illinois. Luckily as a major hub for several airlines, you can almost always get a great deal on a flight. And, why not combine a weekend in Chicago with a few days at Starved Rock State Park for a fantastic vacation?

Places to Eat Near Starved Rock

If you are looking for restaurants near Starved Rock State Park, you’ll find a wonderful variety of really good spots!

Jeremiah Joe’s for coffee

We loved Jeremiah Joe’s for its delicious local coffee. We actually visited several times on our last trip. The coffee is smooth and strong, and the atmosphere can’t be beaten. It’s located on the main street in downtown Ottawa, so very convenient! And be sure to check out the story behind the name – very inspiring.

Jeremiah Joe Coffee Shop in Ottawa, IL

Starved Rock Lodge

After a day of hiking at the park, you may not feel like venturing far. That’s why it’s so perfect that the Starved Rock Lodge is home to a tasty restaurant. With a menu full of home-cooked favorites, you can fill up on some hearty pot roast and mashed potatoes or other similar dishes. There is also a cafe with more casual fare, and the Lounge for a bar atmosphere. In the summer you can dine at the Veranda which has a beautiful view. All of these choices are terrific and easy options.

The Lone Buffalo by Tangled Roots Brewing Company

The Lone Buffalo by Tangled Roots Brewing was one of our favorite places to eat near Starved Rock State Park. Located on the main street in Ottawa (across from Jeremiah Joe’s coffee shop), Tangled Roots is a brewery and a restaurant. The food is excellent – upscale pub food at its finest, and the beer is delicious. It’s definitely a must-stop for us when we are in the area.

Where to Stay in Starved Rock

In addition to the Starved Rock Lodge and rental cabins, there are several hotels near Starved Rock, so if you prefer staying at a standard hotel you’ll have your pick. My favorite choice of the Starved Rock hotels is the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Ottawa.

Another good choice in nearby Peru is the Fairfield Inn & Suites. Both properties have an indoor pool, free breakfast, and a choice of room types. So I don’t think you can go wrong either way!

How to Get Around Starved Rock

A car is necessary for getting around Starved Rock State Park. The park itself is best accessed by a vehicle and if you plan on visiting any of the towns nearby you’ll need a car to get there. Discover Cars is a good option if you need a rental.

What to Bring to Starved Rock

If you plan on hiking at Starved Rock State Parks, then the number one thing you should bring is a great pair of shoes for hiking. I also swear by my Sketchers Reggae sandals for easy walks around the lodge and giving my feet a break after a day of hiking.

Other than that, be sure to pack comfortable clothing, preferably layers, and if it’s raining include a raincoat with your gear. If your hotel has a swimming pool and/or hot tub, bring along your swimsuit. A dip in the pool or hot tub feels fantastic after a day of exploring.

Starved Rock State Park in Illinois waterfall.

FAQs: Starved Rock State Park Activities

When is the best time to hike Starved Rock State Park?

Every season is beautiful, but if you want fewer crowds, visit in the winter.

What is Starved Rock famous for?

Stared Rock is famous for its waterfalls and canyons.

What are the best things to do in Starved Rock State Park?

Hiking is the easy answer as the park is well-known throughout the Midwest as having some of the best hiking trails.

What to do in Starved Rock in winter?

Just like the rest of the year, hiking is a great winter activity at Starved Rock State Park. Snowshoeing is another fun winter activity.

Conclusion: What to Do in Starved Rock State Park

Starved Rock State Park is truly one of Illinois’ most captivating treasures and one of my favorite places to hike in the Midwest. Whether you’re trekking along its scenic trails, capturing the perfect photograph, embarking on a tranquil river cruise, or simply unwinding at the iconic lodge, the park promises a myriad of experiences to satiate every traveler’s spirit.

From the thrill of spotting a bald eagle during a bird-watching expedition to the serenity of a picnic by the riverbanks, Starved Rock ensures every moment is imbued with wonder. Next time you are looking to get away from it all, plan a weekend getaway to Starved Rock State Park!

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What to do in Starved Rock State Park. If you are heading to Illinois be sure to check out this fantastic park - you'll easily stay busy for a weekend or more!
What to do in Starved Rock State Park. If you are heading to Illinois be sure to check out this fantastic park - you'll easily stay busy for a weekend or more!