Illinois’ Top 4 Hidden Gems for Nature Lovers (And 10 Secret Landmarks!)

Illinois is ripe with places to visit. Visitors can learn much from the history of America and Indigenous cultures present before the coast was colonized. The Cahokia Mounds are evidence of an indigenous culture larger than London. The Railway Museum is a snapshot of the history of trains and railroads. And that’s before we even mention Chicago.

Just about every visitor to Illinois knows about Chicago– how could you not? Sports fans come for the Bears, Cubs, Blackhawks, and White Sox. Music fans come from all over the globe for Lollapalooza. Chicago’s Navy Pier and Shakespearean Theater are top visitor destinations. The Lincoln Park Zoo, the Shedd Aquarium, the Willis Tower Skydeck, the Magnificent Mile— all of these tend to crown every list of famous Illinois attractions— for good reason! But there is more to the Prarie State than its capital city. 

In this list of top attractions in Illinois, we’ll move away from the hustle and bustle of Chicago and introduce you to some of Illinois’ best natural hidden gems— plus a handful of things to see along the way. Make sure you pack your camera!

Starved Rock State Park

Experience 13+ miles of hiking trails ripe with waterfalls and canyons. During the spring or heavy rain is one of the best times to go. Or, aim for equinoxes and solstices to experience nighttime hikes! The Register of National Historic Landmarks and the National Register of Historic Places list this park and all the buildings.

You can dine in the lodge or go picnicking, both if you spend all day. Other activities include boating, fishing, camping, and horseback riding. Two thousand acres of gorgeous landscape with a tragic namesake.

Shawnee National Forest

Explore 290,000 acres of oak-hickory forests, deep canyons, thriving wetlands, and unique rock formations. Shawnee National Forest is nestled between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The forest houses both Garden of the Gods and Giant City State Park. Walk the River to River Trail or just curl up under a tree and enjoy a good picnic and book surrounded by the sounds of nature. Set up a camping spot and enjoy kayaking and horseback riding, as well.

Garden of the Gods

Admire marvelous rock formations and breathtaking vistas, sandstone formations, springs, and waterfalls. You can view the gorgeous formations from all sides with a quick walk around the quarter-mile observation trail. For an extended hike, there is a 5.5-mile trail across the Garden. You can see all sorts of wildflowers or autumnal colors; you can also find a horseback riding trail. Picnics and camping are welcome.

Giant City State Park

Yet more horseback riding and hiking await you in the Giant City State Park, but you can also go rappelling! A popular attraction is the “Giant City Streets,” a hiking trail featuring steep sandstone bluff walls estimated to be 12,000 years old. The wildlife is lush with fern, moss, wildflowers, flowering mints, and several varieties of trees. If you’re ready for a break, head to Giant City Lodge for dining, lounging, swimming, and, of course, souvenir shopping.

Matthiessen State Park

This remote state park has all the beauty of Starved Rock with fewer crowds. Lush vegetation, resident wildlife, and stunning rock formations are just waiting to be discovered. Descend the stairs into the upper and lower dells to find Deer Park Lake and Cascade Falls. Be sure to wear shoes that can get wet, and enjoy the creeks, streams, and waterfalls scattered throughout. Luxurious colors paint the canyon walls thanks to the minerals in the area’s water.

Now, Matthiessen State Park does have a few special rules. No swimming or rock climbing, for instance. No drones, so you’ll have to take those stellar shots yourself. If you’re our hiking, please stick to the marked trails.

Buffalo Rock State Park 

Nature meets history at Buffalo Rock State Park. Of course, you can explore the hiking trails and go camping. But you can also investigate a large earthen exhibit Effigy Tumuli. This tribute is molded from Illinois clay in honor of Indigenous burial grounds. The exhibit displays five clay sculptures of animals native to Illinois: a catfish, a frog, a snack, a turtle, and a water strider.

In addition to learning about the culture of Illinois’ original inhabitants, you can also view American bison. The bison are kept separate from public areas of the parks, but viewers can still admire them from afar.

If you get tired of exploring the park, you can head to more developed areas and find athletic fields, playgrounds, and more for a nice change of pace.

The 10 Secret Landmarks

Every road trip has its quirky landmarks. Take a break at the following locations for a leg stretch and a good photo op!

  • Cave-in-Rock

Outlaws and pirates and gangs, oh my! This natural cave set into a sheer cliff was a popular hideout in its time.

  • Hot Dog Muffler Man

This massive statue called Tall Paul has stood alongside Route 66 since 2003. Originally, his home was right beside Bunyon’s, a drive-in restaurant. When the owner closed shop, a neighboring town offered the statue a place of honor.

  • Leaning Tower of Niles

Half the size of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, this replica was built in 1934. The bells included are believed to be older and Italian-made.

  • Kaskasia Dragon

Enjoy this epic living sculpture! For the full experience, buy a dragon coin from the nearby liquor shop for the coin box beneath the dragon. The 35’ tall beast of metal comes to life, breathing fire while its eyes glow red. The effects continue for ten minutes, so get your cameras ready!

  • Pomona Natural Bridge

A short hike brings you to a 90’ long, 8’ wide bridge of sandstone 20’ in the air. Nature itself guides you down the path and across. 

  • The Oakwood Beach Mermaid

This stone-sculpted mermaid of the coast of Lake Michigan was a local mystery for several years. It was the creation of a laid-off steelworker and some friends. 

  • The Piasa Bird

Born from Indigenous folklore, the Piasa bird was a man-hungry monster. The legend is preserved in a cliffside painting of monstrous size. The massive bird was etched into the limestone cliff by the Illini tribe. The original sadly faded with time, but the current image is a close depiction. The painting is regularly restored.

  • The Viking

Built for the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893, this replica of the Gokstad stretches 78 feet. The replica was built in Norway and sailed across the Atlantic and down the Hudson to reach Lake Michigan. 

  • Wooden Block Alley

A piece of history tucked away in Chicago. A single alley of wooden block roadways survived the Chicago fire. It has been preserved all these years.

  • World’s Largest Rocking Chair

This rocking chair is 56’6 tall, weighs 46,200 lbs, and was finished in 2015. It was made from recycled wood and pipe. When Guinness visited for the official record, the chair was pushed by several men to get it rocking.

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