Starved Rock State Park is Great!
I grew up in the northern Illinois city of Joliet, not far from the madding crowds of Chicago. Though Chicago was often a destination spot on weekends, for a nice change of pace, my family would visit more serene and natural areas for weekend getaways, and one such place was Starved Rock State Park. Only about an hour’s drive west of Joliet, and one and a half hours from Chicago, Starved Rock State Park is one of the most accessible natural parks in northern Illinois. Located next to the Illinois River, and the city of Utica, Illinois, Starved Rock State Park offers quite a lot to the park visitor, and these range from sheer natural scenic beauty, wildlife watching, hiking, camping, picnicking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, boating, fine dining, great lodging, and both natural history and some great cultural history as well. In this review, I will attempt here to give a general overview of what this park has to offer the casual visitor, and offer some of my own insights from innumerable visits, but first there is a table of information to write up, followed by a brief history and natural history of the park,
followed by the overview/review of Starved Rock State Park.
Table of Information on Starved Rock State Park.
Location: On Route 178 near the towns of Utica, Ottawa, and LaSalle-Peru, Illinois. Starved Rock State Park is on the south side of the Illinois River, and is about 65-70 miles west southwest of Chicago.
Size: 2,816 acres.
Park Address: Starved Rock State Park, P. O. Box 509, Utica, IL 61373
Phone Number: (815)-667-4726
Hiking Trails: Yes, something like 13 miles or so of hiking trails wind through the 2,800-acre park.
Camping: Yes, many campgrounds.
Picnic Area: Yes, many of them.
Camping: Yes, there is one main camping area, and a separate youth camping area.
Fishing: Yes, in designated areas.
Boating: Yes, in designated areas.
Hunting: Yes, for deer and waterfowl, and in designated areas, with designated seasons.
Horseback Riding: Yes, you guessed it, on designated equestrian trails.
Wildlife Viewing/Bird Watching: Yes, yes, yes!!!
Visitor Center: Yes, a nice one!
Park Lodge/Restaurant: Yes, a thousand times yes!! Starved Rock Lodge is one of the attractions of the park.
Winter Sports: Yes, cross country skiing.
History: Prodigious history.
Geological Wonders: Plenty of them.
History of Starved Rock State Park.
Native Americans, or American Indians, inhabited the area now known as Starved Rock State Park for many millennia. The high point of the Rock itself made for a great vantage point from which to see up and down the Illinois River, and to view herds of buffalo on the parries beyond. The tribes that lived in the area in times since Columbus were the Illiniwek, or Illini, whose sub tribe were the Kaskaskia Indians, and the Ottawa Indians, who lived upriver. The name of the park “Starved Rock” comes from the historical events that surrounded the death of the Illini Chief Pontiac, in the 1760s. He was murdered while attending a tribal council, and there were battles that resulted in an attempt to avenge his death. One such battle involved a band of Illini (Illini means “the men”), Indians who were attacked by a group of Potawatami Indians, who outnumbered them. The Illiniwek sought refuge atop the 125-foot high sandstone bluff, and were surrounded by their enemies. They laid siege to them, and they subsequently starved to death, giving the name to the rock itself.
The French had also played a part in the history of Starved Rock. The explorers Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette visited the area in 1673. They claimed the region for France, and built Fort St. Louis on top of the Rock in the 1680s. It didn’t last long, and had to be abandoned in 1692 after hostilities. “Pere” Marquette also founded a Christian mission on the Illinois River, about two miles from the park, Illinois first Christian mission was called the Mission of the Immaculate Conception.
Natural History of Starved Rock State Park.
If you had one word to describe Starved Rock State Park it would be GEOLOGY. Most of the areas of northern Illinois are flat, featureless parries, and Starved Rock stands out in contrast to this. Sandstone rock formations, carved by the actions of water, are characteristic of the park, and these rock formations date back about 400 million years to the time that this part of Illinois was part of a shallow inland sea. Canyons, bluffs, overhangs, and other geological features abound in this park, which sits next to the immense Illinois River. There are 18 canyons cut into the rock in a 6-mile section of the park, which is mostly forested. There is an upland dry prairie area as well in the park. The forests are mostly oak and hickory, but this park has a natural stand of Eastern White Pine trees, the only pine tree native to Illinois. The various canyons have waterfalls that flow in them, although only one or two of these flow year round. Most dry up in the summer months. I have yet to visit the park after a big rainfall, and really see what the locals call a “gusher”.
Things to do at Starved Rock State Park.
The Visitor Center/Starved Rock Lodge.
This is the nerve center of the park, and should be the first place that the visitor goes to get acquainted with the park. The Starved Rock Lodge/Visitor Center is a magnificent log cabin type building built during the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) projects during the 1930s, and is quite an impressive building. It is made of stone and logs and sits high atop a high bluff just next to Starved Rock itself, and overlooks the Illinois River with some great scenic views. The Lodge itself has the visitor center, gift shops, a restaurant, and a hotel wing. The visitor center has a museum, complete with interpretive exhibits that both educate and entertain the visitor about the history of the park and its natural history as well. The hotel has 72 luxury rooms, and 22 cabin rooms as well, along with an old-fashioned registration lobby. In this lobby is a wonderful and huge stone fireplace. The restaurant is opened daily, has great food, and can seat up to 250 people. The food is moderately priced to expensive, and is excellent. You'll never "Starve" at the restaurant in the Starved Rock Lodge!!!!! The Lodge itself has rooms at affordable rates, and more expensive luxury rooms. Reservations are suggested.
The park guides and park officials are great; they are there to answer any of your questions, to suggest interesting hikes, scenic vistas, the “best” canyons and waterfalls, etc. Get a map at the visitor center, you’ll need it!
With 13 miles of trails that traverse up and down canyons, valleys, upland forests, dry prairie, up bluffs, up Starved Rock itself, and along the Illinois River, the visitor will certainly get a nice workout in this park. The trails are from moderate to strenuous. Most people just hike up to the top of Starved Rock and have a look around, and leave the park after visiting the Visitor Center/Lodge. They are missing out on the experience of the park, and it is a pity. However, the park is very crowded in the summertime, and perhaps it is a blessing that swarms of hikers don’t overwhelm the hiking trails of the park!
This park offers quite a lot in terms of wildlife viewing. I have personally viewed wild turkey, white tailed deer, squirrels, rabbits, red fox, some snakes, myriad songbirds from cardinals to warblers, red-tailed hawks, crows, turkey vultures, ducks, geese, herons, eagles, osprey, and more. Raccoon, opossum, skunks, coyote, weasel, mink, salamanders, frogs, and fish also abound in this nice park.
Camping, Picnicking, and Playgrounds.
There are many different campsites and types available in the park. These include Class A and Class C sites, which range in price from $10 - $11 per night, and have tent access, and RV access with full service electricity and water and sanitary available. There are also primitive sites and equestrian camping sites as well. These are without facilities, and go for about $5-7 a night. Information is available on the dos and don’ts of camping at the visitor center.
The picnic areas abound in the park, complete with picnic tables, and grilling facilities. These areas are usually adjacent to the playground facilities, and nicely mown lawns for Frisbee throwing and general running around for the youngsters.
Hunting and Fishing.
Hunting is available in the 2,800 acre park during designated times. The park is run by the Illinois Department of Conservation and information is available in their main park office. Of course, valid hunting licenses are required, check with park officials for details. Fishing along the Illinois River for walleye, bass, sunfish, bluegill, carp, crappie, bullhead, and catfish is supposed to be good by bank fishing or getting out into a boat.
There are boat ramps on the shores of the river, and you can rent a canoe or a motorboat in the park. There is a large dam on the Illinois River, and boats are not permitted within 600 feet of the dam, because of the dangerous undercurrents.
The actual equestrian trails and campgrounds are not within Starved Rock State Park, but in the nearby Mathiesson State Park, just up the road. I think horses are not allowed in Starved Rock because they would cause significant erosion.
Winter Sports/Winter Hiking.
If there is a snow cover, cross-country skiing is allowed in the park. Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES is snowmobiling allowed. They also have ice skating available, if it’s cold enough, and if you are lucky, when hiking the trails in the canyons in January or February, the waterfalls become “ice waterfalls”, and their beauty is something that few visitors ever see, since they only visit in warmer months.
The Rules and Caution.
The park trails go up and down some really steep bluffs, and caution must be made to stay on the trails, as some of these bluffs plummet to over 100 feet down to the river, a canyon, or what have you, and are very dangerous. Sometimes the rocks are slippery after rainfall, and care should be made to stay on the trails. Swimming and wading is prohibited in the park, as is rock climbing, rappelling, and bicycles on trails, alcohol, camping in undesignated areas, and going off trails. Pets must be on a leash as well. No collecting of any kind is permitted either. The motto is “take with you only memories and leave only footprints”.
All in all, Starved Rock State Park is a place of history, natural history, geologic wonder and magic, and has numerous activities that appeal to all. It is a park that has just about everything to satisfy the diverse interests and needs of the various visitors, and is a great place for the traveler who seeks comfort to the hardcore hiker and backpacker who wants to “rough it”.
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Best time to go: June-August
Recommended for: Anybody
Review Topic: Overview