Starved Rock State Park, only two hours from Chicago, is the perfect place to leave the city behind, and marvel at sandstone cliffs, the Illinois River, and waterfalls in 14 of the 18 canyons throughout the park.
We rounded up some tips from our campers on how to make the most of this Midwestern treasure. Follow their advice on when to visit, what to do, and little known tips and tricks for visiting Starved Rock State Park.
Camping at Starved Rock State Park
1. Enjoy a Hike
You can come to Starved Rock State Park just to camp, but you’d miss out on 13 miles worth of trails. Unlike many other natural areas near Chicago, this spot offers plenty of elevation change. You’ll walk thousands of stairs and get a serious workout. But don’t worry, the canyon, and Illinois River views make it all worth it.
Opt for a less-challenging walk like the Illinois Canyon Trail (.9 miles, 45’) if your group isn’t interested in taking ontougher trails. To join an organized hike, check in at the visitor center for Ranger led hikes throughout the summer. We recommend calling ahead to ensure there’s space on the hike you wish to join..
“This place is awesome for day hikes and nature walks! There are so many beautiful views, and many beautiful looking sandstone formations!” — The Dyrt camper Franklin R.
2. Prepare for the Heat
The Midwest is well-known for hot, humid summers. Prepare for the weather with a sunshirt and sunscreen, plenty of water, and by choosing a wooded or partially wooded campsite. If you travel by RV, double check your air conditioner, and make sure it’s in top shape and ready to plug in after a day of hiking.
Keep in mind, there are no swimming beaches within the park, but you can cool off with an ice cream cone (and delicious Mexican food) at La Michoacana, just 10 minutes from the park.
“Our site was in full sun and the heat indexes were between 112-117 while we were there. Ugh! We did our best to stay cool.” The Dyrt camper Brandon P.
3. Bring Your Family
Your little ones will love hiking and discovering the many hidden waterfalls and rock formations at Starving Rock. Don’t bring strollers unless you’re prepared to lift them up and down the many sets of stairs. Opt for a wearable child carrier instead, or wait until your little ones can walk on their own.
Alcohol is not allowed at the campground, and quiet hours start at 10, so your family will be able to enjoy a good night’s sleep after a long day of fun outside.
“It’s good for kids because they don’t allow adult beverages…so the more party crowds are elsewhere.” — The Dyrt camper Brian G.
4. Take Along Your Own TP
Due to the popularity of the park, resources can run out overnight, so consider bringing your own roll of toilet paper. There are bathrooms near the campground entrance and several port-a-potties in the middle of the campground.
“The bathrooms were clean, but seem to be built for less people and the toilet paper was gone by nighttime (so you might want to bring some!). “ — The Dyrt camper Sara S.
5. Visit Nearby Matthiessen State Park, Too
If you can’t get enough of the unique geography of this area, consider heading to nearby Matthiessen State Park. Here you’ll find additional waterfalls, canyons, and trails that are often less crowded than Starved Rock. Dogs and kids love playing in the waterfalls and natural pools after a big storm.
“Nearby Matthiessen State Park also offers some great trails and views, including probably the best waterfall that we saw during the trip.” –The Dyrt camper Steven H.
Whatever time of year you decide to head to Starved Rock, you’ll want to bring a camera to capture the beautiful natural textures of the glaciated rocks. Make a reservation for the campgrounds at least three days in advance, and consider signing up over 9 months ahead of time to ensure you get a spot. Walk-up campgrounds are occasionally available, but you never know if you’ll have the opportunity to snag one.
6. Go Early or Late
You’ll find the campground booked every weekend throughout the summer, and again during fall as leaf peepers come to enjoy the foliage along the water. If you’re looking to hike when it’s not too crowded, consider getting up early, going at dusk, or visiting during the week.
When the decking trails become slippery in the winter, and temperatures dip well below freezing, the park loses its popularity. With the right clothing and footwear, you can enjoy some solitude on the network of trails between December and February.
“The campsites are a decent size, but not very secluded. There are a few that are more private, so investigating before going is a good idea.” — The Dyrt camper Sara S.
7. If It’s All Booked Up, Camp Nearby
Don’t worry if you miss out on a covet campsite during peak season. There are lots of great campgrounds close to, if not directly within, Starved Rock State Park boundaries. Here are a few of our favorites:
Just eleven minutes up the Illinois River from Starved Rock State Park, Camp Covel Creek is also almost directly across from Buffalo Rock State Park and eight miles from Ilini State Park, making it a convenient home base for exploring all the outdoor activities in the area.
The campground’s position on Covel Creek just before it feeds into the Illinois River is prime for paddlers, too. You can drive or boat in to Camp Covel Creek, which averages about Class II rapids and about a 6.5 mile run. Nearby, the Vermillion River, Bailey Creek, and Tomahawk Creek also offer thrilling turns up to Class IV.
Once you’ve hauled out for the day, Camp Covel Creek is an ideal spot to unwind, with three spacious tent sites, a large communal fire pit, a Port-O-Potty, and a small screened-in pavilion. Because you are on private land, alcohol is allowed, and you’ll find more peace and quiet than you might in the denser state park campgrounds. Your site will also run you just $40 a night.
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Just five miles from the entrance to Starved Rock State Park, Pleasant Creek Campground has nice extras like a stocked on-site fishing pond, tent sites, RV sites with water, electric, and pump-out service available, basketball, volleyball, and tetherball, a game room, playground, and general store. Pleasant Creek even got on the yurt camping trend, perfect for chillier weather or visitors who prefer a slightly more indoorsy camping experience.
“We enjoyed this site as it backed up to a creek that was perfect for building stone structures and exploring. Sites are rather close together and most are fully shaded. Campground is pretty expansive and was close to rafting and state parks for hiking.” –The Dyrt camper Melissa B.
Less than a twenty minute walk from the entrance to Starved Rock State Park, it’s hard to beat the convenience of Papa Murph’s. This basic, no-frilled dispersed campground is located right behind a tavern that’s essentially across the street from St. Louis Canyon, one of the most popular hikes in Starved Rock punctuated by a scenic waterfall. The amenities are limited, but the camping is cheap, the regulations are few, and you’ll have easy access not only to Starved Rock, but also beer, pizza, and pool.