Photo: Tonya Kay/Shutterstock

Here’s Why Illinois Is Still Awesome Even if You Skip Chicago

Illinois Insider Guides
by Anna Sommer Feb 14, 2019

Just as there’s more to life than money, there’s more to Illinois than Chicago. Known as the Prairie State for the thousands of square miles of open prairie that encompass the state, Illinois is wide open once you venture beyond the crowded confines of the big city. It offers many beautiful places to see, quaint towns to photograph, and breathtaking parks to stroll through. The best way to see everything Illinois has to offer is to hit the road and explore. Here’s where to start.

Enjoy natural wonders and local wines.

Twin waterfalls crash into Tonti Canyon on a spring day at Starved Rock State Park

Photo: Jason Patrick Ross/Shutterstock

Starved Rock State Park is the most unique natural destination in Illinois, if not the entire Midwest, because it takes two things that are incredibly hot right now and blends them together. Those two draws — exploring natural wonders and drinking local booze — make the park a must-visit for craft culture lovers with a penchant for getting lost in the wilderness. The park is home to 18 canyons and more than 13 miles of hiking trails that take you by waterfalls, sandstone overhangs, and bluffs. You’re also likely to spot stunning wildlife along the way.

You can also camp here if you don’t feel like leaving, but if you’re looking for a more comfortable way to end a day book a room at the Starved Rock Lodge. The 1930s log lodge offers cabins and luxury rooms, along with a restaurant right on site. The cafe on the Veranda should not be missed, especially in fall, when the views of the shifting seasons are unrivaled, and you can almost smell the grape harvest happening in the nearby wine country. The fact that all of this is less than two hours from Chicago is icing on the cake.

Hike through incredible rock formations.

Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest IL

Photo: Tonya Kay/Shutterstock

Harrisburg, Illinois, is home to a beautiful sanctuary called Garden of the Gods, tucked in the expansive Shawnee National Forest. Here you’ll find a variety of spectacular rock formations, and the wilderness trails offer the perfect excuse to hop out of the car and stretch your legs. Even if your group isn’t up for a long hike, the well-maintained observation trail offers a striking overview of the area. This is a beautiful place to watch the sun rise or set over breathtaking views from the top of the natural rock outcroppings.

Use historic Galena as your outdoor adventure basecamp.

Downtown of Illinois Galena, with Christmas decorations

Photo: StelsONe/Shutterstock

Galena holds the unofficial title of Illinois’ most quaint city. For a town of just 3,500, Galena offers some of the most handsome architecture in the state, reflecting the town’s rich history. Although the town was originally settled in the 1600s, Galena boomed the early 1800s as a major mineral rush drew more than 10,000 people to the area. That rush was anchored by the mineral — alternately called galena or glance — from which the town draws its name.

Galena is the perfect spot to base yourself for outdoor adventures in the surrounding hills and forest, and it has a ski resort to hit during the day. After enjoying an apres ski session at Gobbie’s, walk over to The Market House or Vinny Vanucchi’s for dinner. The town has a handful of lovely spa resorts to relax and unwind in after your outdoor adventures, most within walking distance of Main Street and with views of the surrounding countryside. While Galena is relatively quiet during winter, it brings a dose of mountain town flare to the heart of the Midwest.

See the ruins of an advanced civilization.

Archeological Structure at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Pre Columbian Native American city in Illinois

Photo: PhilipR/Shutterstock

Cahokia Mounds is located in Collinsville, Illinois. If you’ve never heard of either Collinsville or Cahokia, you’re not alone — but know that you’re in for a treat at these fascinating ruins. Less than 800 years ago, Cahokia had a population greater than that of London. The area was home to the most advanced settlement north of Mexico, developed by the Mississippians tribe who lived in settlements along the Mississippi River until about 1600. They created a wide variety of elevated structures from the earth and turned them into practical homes for both everyday living and monumental public works that have maintained their grandeur for centuries. Cahokia Mounds gives off a bit of an Egyptian vibe, with intricately designed mounds dominating the landscape.

Appreciate the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln Springfield House

Photo: Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

Despite being the state capital, Springfield is often forgotten by visitors. Don’t be one of them. The city is where history comes alive in Illinois. First off, it’s home to more Abraham Lincoln memorial sites than anywhere in the nation, including the late President’s former home and the library named in his honor. You can also explore the Lincoln Tomb and his law offices to round out a full day of Lincoln-themed revelry. Beyond the Lincoln sites, Springfield also offers many classic diners — perfect even for those just passing through on their way between St. Louis and The Windy City.

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