Starved Rock State Park offers views, indigenous history

April 4, 2023

Layered sandstone cliffs covered in moss and lichen are split by a stories-high waterfall tumbling down into a stream, which meanders its way through a forest of oak, maple and aspen trees toward the sandy banks of the Illinois River. This scene is almost commonplace in Starved Rock State Park, which abounds with spectacular cliffs, bluffs, waterfalls and other geologic formations practically unseen in Illinois, famous for its flatness. 

Even in the early spring, Starved Rock State Park is a fantastic place for any length or difficulty of hike. Trails offer views and sights special enough to make it worth the significant, nearly two-hour drive from Chicago to Oglesby.

The park’s namesake landmark, Starved Rock, is only a few minutes’ hike from parking via a paved trail. The trails leading up and around the almost sheer bluffs which make up the landmark are dotted with signs explaining the area’s rich pre-colonial Native American history. According to partially substantiated legend, this was the site of the downfall of the Illinois Confederation of Native Americans, who, fleeing from several other tribes, had no choice but to climb the cliffs of Starved Rock and defend themselves. A battle eventually turned into a siege, and the Illinois Confederation slowly starved. Whether that particular story is true, the area, like many others in Illinois, is full of history describing the Native Americans’ growing desperation and hardship as European settlers encroached on their land and massacred their people. 

The view from the top of Starved Rock, if somewhat eerie, will be refreshing for most Chicagoans: forest, sliced by the wide Illinois River, stretches out in every direction, an expansive amount of horizon. Walk the trails on top of it, and you’ll also be able to see the breathtaking, river-facing side of the bluffs, which meet the river like a 40-foot wall.

While Starved Rock itself has some stunning scenery, it’s only the beginning of what the park has to offer. Several miles of trails, fairly well-maintained even in the early spring, follow the river upstream, providing a scenic mixture of riverside views and deciduous forest. While the forest doesn’t become lush until the late spring, the lack of leaves makes the beautiful geology more visible. The highlights here are the waterfalls, which flow in full force during the middle of spring and are always spectacular to witness. If you plan on going, the falls in Wildcat Canyon (two miles round trip) and LaSalle Canyon (four miles round trip) are some of the best, having carved the sandstone over which they flow into nearly alien rock formations. 

The Starved Rock Lodge website touts the park as “a world apart from anything else in Illinois!” While this is arguably true, it’s worth mentioning that it doesn’t have a lot of competition. Hikers expecting the postcard-level beauty more abundant in other places of the country might be somewhat disappointed. The park is pleasant, often beautiful, but not necessarily awe-inspiring. 

However, Starved Rock State Park doesn’t really need to be awe-inspiring to be worth a trip. It almost feels like a theme park stuffed full of geology, water, views and history, coaxing you longer and longer along its peaceful trails until you can hardly imagine you’re just a few hours away from the city. 

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