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The 10 Best Hiking Trails In Illinois

With vast expanses of wilderness to explore, Illinois has some of the best hiking trails in the entire country. However, with so many to choose from, it can be tough to narrow down your selection of which one to try next. So, what are the best trails in Illinois?

The 10 best hiking trails in Illinois are:

  1. Starved Rock State Park
  2. Kankakee River Trail
  3. Buffalo Viewing Trail
  4. Little Grand Canyon Trail
  5. Buffalo Rock State Park
  6. River Route Nature Trail
  7. Waterfall Glen Trail
  8. Ferne Clyffe Waterfall Trail
  9. Castle Rock North Trails
  10.  Dells Area to Vermillion River Trail Loop

Illinois has more than 250 different and well-established trails to explore, located in various national parks. The 10 listed below are all excellent trails, and may very well encourage you to get out and start exploring the nature that surrounds you.

The 10 Best Hiking Trails In Illinois

1. Starved Rock State Park

Length: 13 miles | Difficulty: Varied | Elevation gain: Varied

Starved Rock State Park has a total of 13 miles of hiking trails for you to explore, and you will do so surrounded by some stunning scenery. At the same time, it also has a total of 18 different canyons ready to explore, more than 10 of which have waterfalls to check out.

Trails Of Various Lengths

These hiking trails are accessible throughout the year, but they do remain popular no matter when you might wish to explore them. The park also has guided hikes available, so if you are new to the area this may be an idea.

The shortest trail listed in the park is the Starved Rock trail at just 0.3 miles long. The longest individual trail is the Illinois Canyon at 4.7 miles in length. However, there are multiple trails available of different lengths between those two extremes.

Parking is available in different locations across the park. It’s advisable to examine a map of the area first to allow you to park closer to your desired hike, as the distance between points can be huge.

Great For Waterfalls

Here is a tip if you love waterfalls – Head out on one of the many trails in spring or when there has been heavy rain in the area. At these moments the waterfalls are spectacular.

Alternatively, if you enjoy indulging in some bird watching, the area is known as a hot-spot for eagles in the winter. The chances of you spotting several are high, even during a short hike.

2. Kankakee River Trail

Length: 10.5 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation gain: 259 ft

The Kanakakee River Trail is viewed as being a moderate, level trail covering some 10.5 miles. However, even though it is seen as a moderate trail, it is still classed as suitable for people of all abilities.

With an elevation totaling some 259ft, it’s not going to be too arduous or testing for most people, and that is something to love about this trail.

Ideal Trail For All Abilities

When it comes to the underfoot conditions, the first three miles of this trail have a gravel base before it turns into paved asphalt. This adds to the ease with which the trail can be completed, and it also explains why it is viewed as perfect for people of all skill levels.

However, be aware that the ground conditions do mean the trail tends to lend itself to cyclists who love to speed along. Keep that in mind when out for a hike, and make sure you have your wits about you at all times.

In general, the trail is flat with a few short sections where there is an incline in the region of 5%. At this point, individuals using a walking aid may require some additional help, but the sections are short so it may not always be a problem.

Two Designated Parking Areas

Accessing the park is best done through either the southeast part of the trail, or off Country Road North 224 West. Those are the two areas designated as parking, and it does then provide you with clear access to the trail itself.

Also, even though it is popular with cyclists, this is the perfect trail for families. There are no aspects of it deemed dangerous, so even young children have the opportunity to explore the trail without unduly stressing their parents.

Finally, the trail does have an adequate number of picnic tables and spots to rest for the weary hiker. This allows you to take your time along the full length and to absorb the amazing views that surround you on all sides.

3. Buffalo Viewing Trail

Length: 3.6 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation gain: 52 ft

The Buffalo Viewing Trail can be found in the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, and it’s one of the best trails in a park that has more than 29 miles of hiking trails to explore. This is also a loop hike, so at least you start and end at the same spot.

Family And Dog Friendly Trail

The Buffalo Viewing Trail is used by a range of people, and it’s also very accessible to families thanks to its extremely flat nature. Don’t be surprised if you encounter not only a number of hikers, but also people out running and cycling.

If you love bird watching, then this is also the perfect trail for you. It’s quiet enough to allow you to stop and see what you can spot.

You are allowed to take your dog with you on the trail, but be aware they must be on their leash at all times. This is certainly one rule they will enforce, so don’t think you can allow even a well-behaved dog off their leash.

Easy Accessibility

The path is open to the public throughout the year. The path is wide and easy to walk on. You will also find that the trail is clearly marked throughout its whole length and therefore difficult to stray off the path.

Parking is available at the starting point, and there is ample space considering this is a popular trail. You will be rewarded with some stunning views of the parkland and its open expanses throughout your hike.

Overall, this trail is one of the best because it is so accessible and has a difficulty level classed as easy, meaning anybody can take advantage of getting out into nature.

4. Little Grand Canyon Trail

Length: 3.4 miles | Difficulty: Hard | Elevation gain: 508 ft

The Little Grand Canyon Trail can be found in the Shawnee National Park and is a 3.4 mile hike. Once again, this is a loop trail, and be aware that it is extremely popular and can be busy throughout the year.

A Hiker’s Trail

The trail is aimed primarily at hikers, so you should not encounter cyclists throughout its duration. It is relatively short, but with a reasonable amount of elevation incorporated into the trail. That means there are areas where you may feel it tests you a bit.

There are areas where you will require some scrambling ability, with passages where you will be climbing down to the canyon to reach the creek. That does mean individuals with some mobility issues may find this hike tough to complete.

The trail itself is considered difficult thanks to the terrain on these parts. It is essential that you have good footwear.

A Trail For Drier Conditions

Accessing the trail itself is easy thanks to adequate parking at the starting spot. However, as we mentioned above, the actual trail is not suitable for every individual. Dogs are allowed, but you need to keep them on their leash rather than allowing them to run free.

With those trickier sections in mind, it is best you only attempt the trail when you know the area is dry if you are at all concerned about slipping or falling. Trying to complete this hike when there is heavy rain is something only experienced hikers should consider.

Overall, the scenery you will encounter throughout this hike makes the difficult terrain worthwhile. It is stunning and even though it is a popular hike, there is still enough space to enjoy your surroundings.

5. Buffalo Rock State Park

Length: 2.6 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation gain: 72 ft

The River Bluff Trail Loop is the main hiking trail in the Buffalo Rock State Park. At only 2.6 miles long, it’s something you can easily complete in around an hour without too much stress. This loop is relatively flat, with a total elevation of 72 ft across the entire trail. It is open throughout the year and is popular with people of all ages and ability levels.

Easy Level Trail

This trail is classed as being of an easy level as it is relatively flat, making it perfect for people simply wanting to get out into nature and enjoy the views. There should be no point where you feel it is too taxing.

The trail is suitable not only for hikers but also cyclists, so keep that in mind in case a cyclist does indeed whizz past you. Dogs are also welcome on the trail, but it is important they always remain on their leash.

The trail has a number of activities available along its length. This includes various sculptures for you to check out, with many visitors recommending that you should go counterclockwise to see the sculptures in their best light. Also, you may come across bison in the area, so watch out for them!

Good Accessibility For Families

This trail is very accessible and comes with substantial parking at the start. The number of parking spots available indicates how popular this trail tends to be. The trail also has areas where you can stop and eat while enjoying the views. However, with the trail being relatively short, there are not so many of these areas compared to some other trails.

Thanks to the nature of the path, you will find this to be a fantastic trail to take kids as there is no need to worry about their safety at any point. The only thing to be aware of is a gun range nearby. This can be something of a distraction from the views.

Overall, this is the sort of trail that can work well as an introduction to hiking. It is very easy to complete and yet still gets you out into nature without putting your body under too much stress.

6. River Route Nature Trail

Length: 1 mile | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 180 ft

The River Route Nature Trail is one of several hiking trails that can be found at the Apple River Canyon State Park. At only 1 mile long, it is very short, and yet it still packs a reasonable amount of elevation throughout its length.

Spectacularly Scenic Trail

This trail is regarded as being of a moderate level, so it does have a bit of a punch even though it is relatively short in length. However, the reason this trail makes it on to this list is because of the beautiful scenery.

Dogs are welcome on the trail, but they must be kept on a leash at all times. The trail is also an out and back route, so you will eventually work your way back to the starting point. You’ll also find a number of activities around the trail, including a hotspot for fishing. The trail also provides ample spots to stop and have a picnic, or somewhere to just sit for a while and soak up the views.

Year Round Accessibility

The trail is open throughout the year, but as there are a few slightly tougher sections, it may not be a trail that is perfect for people just starting out with hiking. The Apple River also runs along the trail, and you could have some opportunity to explore the river itself if you have the right footwear.

However, this is perhaps not the best trail if you have very young children. There are a lot of spots where you would need to pay attention to where they are to make sure they are safe. Also, if you do check out the river keep your eyes open for trout swimming past. They should be easy to spot thanks to the water being so clear.

Overall, this trail offers some degree of difficulty. However, it is still short enough that most hikers should be able to complete it in less than an hour, and without feeling as if they have been challenged too much.

7. Waterfall Glen Trail

Length: 9.3 miles | Difficulty: Hard | Elevation gain: 400 ft

The Waterfall Glen Trail is fairly lengthy at around 9.3 miles long. It also incorporates some 400 ft of elevation throughout the trail, so that does mean it has a few slopes to contend with. Be aware that this loop trail is very busy. It is popular throughout the year, so you likely will not be able to get this trail to yourself.

A Trail With Good Underfoot Conditions

The trail forms a loop, around which it remains relatively good underfoot. This does mean you may encounter some cyclists making use of the trail too.

Be aware that the length means it takes a couple of hours to complete. The trail offers a range of activities, such as bird watching. For most people, it is accepted that the best time to visit is between April and October, to really see the wildflowers at their best.

Best From Late Spring To Early Fall

The trail itself is open throughout the entire yeareven though it is more popular in late spring through to early fall. It is also available to people of all experience levels even though it can be slightly lengthier than some beginners may be used to.

The trail also offers a waterfall to check out, which is a real highlight of the trail. Do be aware that this is clearly one of the most popular areas, so expect some crowds especially in the middle of the summer. The trail is also only partly paved, and that may make things more difficult for people who are slightly unsure of their footing.

Overall, this lengthy trail will take several hours to complete, but its difficulty level is connected more to the length rather than any substantial inclines. If you love the sights and sounds of waterfalls, then this trail could very well be perfect for you!

8. Ferne Clyffe Waterfall Trail

Length: 1.3 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 206 ft

The Ferne Clyffe Waterfall Trail may be relatively short at 1.3 miles, but it is able to cram in so much amazing scenery in such a short distance. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that it is one of the busiest in the area as it offers so much for the intrepid hiker to check out.

Take A Trail Map

This trail is classed as being of a moderate difficulty level, so you will need to make sure you have the correct footwear, especially if you wish to get closer to the main feature which is the waterfall.

The actual trail starts at the Deer Ridge Campground before it winds its way through 1.3 miles of exquisite scenery. However, be aware that a number of other hikers report that the trail itself is quite poor when it comes to markings.

What we suggest is downloading a trail map/app before starting out. Aside from the waterfall, the main feature from a nature perspective has to be the wildflowers. The trail is also popular with bird watchers, with ample opportunities to check out a range of birds along the length of the trail.

Best Between March And October

As already mentioned, the trail starts at the Deer Ridge Campground, so gaining access to the trail is exceptionally easy. The trail remains open throughout the entire year, but it’s best visited between March and October. This allows you to see the array of wildlife in the area before winter sweeps in and changes everything.

The path itself is not too problematic when it comes to the underfoot conditions. However, the point about the poor markings is very important and should not be overlooked. Finally, the trail is both kid and dog friendly, but dogs must remain on their leash at all times.

9. Castle Rock North Trails

Length: 3.5 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 387 ft

The Castle Rock North Trails is a 3.5 mile loop trail that is usually only somewhat busy compared to other trails in the area. However, it is popular with families thanks to it being of a moderate length and relatively easy to complete.

A Trail For All Abilities

This particular trail is perfect for people of all experience levels. It is proving to be popular not only with hikers, but also runners. Also, if you love bird watching, then you will have plenty of opportunities to check out the local wildlife throughout the 3.5 mile loop.

Thepaths themselves are relatively wide, so you have a feeling of space even when the trail is busy. Also, you have the option of choosing a smaller loop than the 3.5 mile distance, offering more opportunities to go and explore in the area.

Be aware that the trail does have some short spurts where there is an incline. This will certainly be enough to get the blood flowing, but it shouldn’t be enough to exhaust you even if you are just starting out hiking.

Closed Over Winter

This trail is not open throughout the year as it closes over the winter during hunting season. Check with the Illinois Parks website to see the dates when this is the case. Aside from that, the trail is more popular during summer months as this season offers the best scenery and a wider array of wildflowers and fauna to check out. The trail is open to families, and leashed dogs are also welcome.

Parking is available from one central point where the initial loop starts. After that, you have two directions you can head depending on your plans for tackling the loop. Be aware that the outermost loop is accessible via a junction from a second loop. You will then need to decide if you wish to continue on the smaller loop, or add in that extra mile for the outermost part of the walk.

10. Dells Area To Vermillion River Area Loop

Length: 6.5 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 564 ft

The Dells Area to Vermillion River Area Loop is a trail located in the Matthiessen State Park. Covering some 6.5 miles, it also contains 1,564 ft of total elevation. The trail is viewed as being only moderately busy, providing hikers with the real possibility of largely having the trail to themselves at different times.

A Trail Just For Hiking

The trail is only suitable for hiking, so that does reduce the number of people who will be using it at any given time, compared to some of the other trails that are popular with cyclists. Rated as moderately challenging, it contains spectacular scenery with an impressive waterfall at the heart of it all.

The trail will take you from South of the Dells Area, up to the Vermillion River, and back down to the Dells Area. Its main focus is undoubtedly on the views, while a selection of birds can often be spotted too.

There is relatively little in the way of a noticeable incline, as it is certainly far more gradual than you see on some of the other trails on this list. However, be aware that the trails are not the best when it comes to their markings. A map or app can prove useful on this trail.

The trail does close at different points in the winter due to the hunting season. Check the website for the State Park to see those dates to avoid disappointment. Apart from hunting season, the park is open to everyone. However, do keep in mind the length of the walk may make it tougher for younger children to complete.

Bring Bug Spray In The Summer Months

The parking lot is fairly small given the trail’s popularity. Be prepared to go early to make sure you get a spot, and to also enjoy the trail before it gets too busy. You will also need bug spray during the summer months. It can get bad at certain points, and those guys will certainly become very annoying rather quickly!

Final Thoughts

Illinois has a huge number of trails of varying lengths and difficulties. The 10 listed above only give a snapshot of what is out there. Check them out, go and explore, and take your time to enjoy the amazing scenery that surrounds you!