When you think of the Midwest, chances are you’re thinking of cornfields, wind turbines, college football, and Casey’s gas station pizza. Waterfalls are probably at the bottom of that list, somewhere between liberal political leanings and surfing. Well, it turns out waterfalls are much more of a midwestern draw than many unfamiliar with the area might believe. While no one’s calling Illinois the Iceland of the US, the state is home to several stunning waterfalls that more than justify a trip to the Prairie State. From the uniquely wide Thunder Bay Falls to the dual waterfalls of Tonti Canyon Creek, these are the best waterfalls in Illinois to visit on your next road trip through the heartland.
The most popular waterfall in Illinois, Burden Falls, is anything but a burden to visit. Located in the Shawnee National Forest, this pristine wilderness is defined by rigged rock formations and dense forests, with no trace of manmade rails or bridges. The upper falls can be conveniently seen from the parking lot, but they branch out in several directions, making them incredibly photogenic. Follow the river downstream to find the main drop, where the waterfall splits in two.
Thunder Bay Falls
It is conveniently located just 10 minutes from downtown Galena off Thunder Bay Road, where Smallpox Creek meets Lake Galena. Thunder Bay Falls is a particularly wide waterfall. Since the lake is fed by a spring, the falls are active all year round. The falls are accessible via a small path from the parking lot, though you don’t even need to get out of your car to enjoy the views or snap a picture, as the falls are visible from the parking lot. Getting up close is preferable, however, especially if you want to feel the mist coming off the falls. Two viewing platforms are available to make it even easier to get a good vantage point for photographs.
French Canyon Falls
French Canyon Falls is conveniently close to the Starved Rock State Park visitor center and is one of the most popular waterfalls in Illinois. You can reach the falls by taking a .4 mile hike, which brings you to a lookout point over the canyon. While you can enter the canyon itself by following the creek, for the best waterfall views, you’ll have to get your feet wet. It’s even a stunning site to visit in winter, as the waterfall turns into an icefall. For safety reasons, you’ll need ice cleats to visit during the winter months, as the canyon entrance gets quite slippery.
In the northern part of Matthiessen State Park, Lake Falls are right at the dam of Matthiessen Lake, where the stream cuts through the sandstone canyon. To reach the falls, follow the bluff trail north from the Dells parking lot, and the falls will come into view once you come to the bridge near Lake Matthiessen. To catch a glimpse of Cascade Falls and Giant’s Bathtub, which are also located inside the park, return via the Canyon Trail and get a three-for-one waterfall experience.
Giant’s Bathtub Falls
Also located in Matthiessen State Park, Giant’s Bathtub Falls are one of the smaller falls in Illinois, but no less picturesque. Don’t come here expecting a towering Iceland-esque waterfall. Standing at a modest 10 feet high, Giant’s Bathtub is a cascade-style waterfall with water trickling over the small river bluffs in serene fashion. There are five miles of trails in the park that take you through the woods and past the waterfall, but the Dells Canyon Trail and the Bluff Trail are the most popular. For the best view of the falls, descend into the canyon after crossing the bridge near the Lake Falls dam.
Apple Canyon Lake Waterfall
Apple Lake is a manmade lake with a private recreational community and amenities like a 9-hole golf course, pool, beach area, and archery range. You won’t care about any of those distractions, though, once you set your eyes on the waterfall. The lake spills into Hell’s breach, creating a tall and pretty impressive waterfall. There are several trails throughout the nearby Apple Canyon State Park to explore the limestone bluffs, deep ravines, streams, and springs, but to visit the waterfall, all you have to do is park your car. It’s conveniently visible from the lot.
Tonti Canyon Creek Waterfalls
Located in Starved Rock State Park, the Tonti Canyon Creek Waterfalls are a two-for-one deal. Hike a beautiful path to the end of the canyon to find two falls, nearly side by side. A six-mile hiking loop is the best way to enjoy the bluff and river areas. Along the way, you’ll go through several scenic overlooks, even passing LaSalle Canyon Falls, Tonti Falls, and several rivers. There are also plenty of overlooks for views of the Illinois River and an upper view of many of the surrounding canyons.