Lovers of the great outdoors will cherish Illinois’ many beautiful natural attractions, including Shawnee National Forest, Starved Rock State Park and the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, to name but a few.
Duration: 3 Days
Availability: All Year-long
Suitable For: All
Begin your excursion with a visit to Sunny Street Café in Carbondale, a casual restaurant serving hearty American fare. Sunny Street’s breakfast menu includes traditional favorites along with Tex-Mex options like a breakfast quesadilla and low-calorie options. Once your hunger is satiated, pay a visit to Shawnee National Forest, one of the most diverse forests in the country, consisting of approximately 280,000 acres of federally managed lands across the Ozark and Shawnee Hills.
With a geography of barrens, prairies, streams, lakes, ponds, waterfalls and rocky outcrops, Shawnee invites adventurers to participate in whatever outdoor activity they crave. Shawnee is home to seven officially designated wilderness areas: Bald Knob, Bay Creek, Burden Falls, Clear Springs, Garden of the Gods, Lusk Creek and Panther Den. Those seeking a unique view of Shawnee should partake in the Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour. This adrenaline-filled adventure takes guests high above the forest canopy with eight ziplines soaring through bluffs and valleys. The tour also includes 11 platforms in the trees, three aerial suspension bridges and two short ground hikes.
One of Shawnee’s most popular geological wonders is Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, a 3,318-acre parcel of land that features dramatic rock formations perched above rolling hills that provide spectacular views. Those seeking a rock climbing outing can visit Drapers Bluff, a private climbing park that offers incredible climbs.
For lunch, numerous establishments reside near Garden of the Gods, including Dream Baskets in Harrisburg, a 3,000-square-foot specialty store and café that sells an abundance of food and desserts.
After a long day of hiking, visit Scratch Brewing Company in the Southern Illinois town of Ava. Scratch is a microbrewery and farm that resides five miles from Shawnee National Forest. This bucolic location has earned Scratch a reputation as one of the most beautiful sites to drink beer on the planet. Scratch embraces its roots by creating beer from farmed and foraged ingredients directly from the land surrounding it, and offers a standout selection of beer tastes that include nettle, elderberry, ginger, dandelion, maple sap, hickory, lavender and juniper.
If you want to continue your stay in Southern Illinois, enjoy breakfast at Mary Lou’s Grill in Carbondale (home to fabulous biscuits and gravy) before heading south to Cache River State Natural Area in Belknap. Home to a wealth of natural features including massive cypress trees, many of which are more than 1,000 years old, Cache River State Natural Area has been named one of America’s 10 Most Beautiful Hidden Gems by Budget Travel. Groups can participate in a variety of recreational activities from hiking and biking to fishing and canoeing.
Another option is to take a three-hour drive northwest, where your group can visit Pere Marquette State Park located on the Mississippi River in Grafton. Featuring 8,000 picturesque acres, Pere Marquette is the largest state park in Illinois. Visitors can hike miles of wooded trails, bicycle along river bluffs, take a boat out for fishing or horseback ride through a peaceful forest. As a frequent nesting spot for migrating bald eagles, this is also the perfect spot to catch a glimpse of the legendary national bird. Another spectacular locale is Aerie’s Resort in Grafton, which overlooks the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. At Aerie’s, guests can enjoy one of the best views in the Midwest while savoring topnotch food, wine tasting and overnight lodging. One way to get to Aerie’s is via the Grafton SkyTour a scenic aerial lift that provides guests with a unique ride above the bluffs. Aerie’s is also home to the Grafton Zipline, which offers a thrilling treetop canopy adventure in which guests can soak in the view from a different, and thrilling, vantage point.
The family-owned Grafton Winery and Brewhaus, in the quaint river town of Grafton, overlooks the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. The establishment serves casual fare including burgers, sandwiches, salads and pasta. Opened in 2008, the winery and brewhaus features a patio that is perfect for private parties as it features a kitchen, chef, server and bar. Groups can also take a cruise on the Hakuna Matada, a 49-passenger tour boat that will take you on an adventure on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. This all-weather boat features seating and café tables on both the upper and lower decks.
Illinois is home to what some describe as the best scenic drive in America. The Great River Road, which is more than 2,000 miles long, runs along the Mississippi River through 10 states and hundreds of historic river towns. Certain portions of the Great River Road have been designated as a national scenic byway, including the 33-mile stretch from Hartford to Grafton. This lovely area is known as the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway. A drive along this stretch features spectacular views of the Mississippi River and its limestone bluffs. Along the Great River Road, visitors are greeted by several inviting towns including Alton (home to the Alton Museum of History and Art), Elsah (the entire village is on the National Register of Historic Places) and Grafton (home to several wineries, flea markets, antique shops and restaurants).
Visiting the historic village of Elsah, with stone cottages and Greek Revival buildings house quaint shops, is akin to taking a journey to a simpler time. Alton, 11 miles south, welcomes shoppers looking for antiques and art. My Just Desserts in Alton serves lunch classics plus delicious homemade pie. Shoppers can visit several antique stores, including Alton Antique Center, Country Meadows Antiques and Prairie Peddler Antiques. Alton’s history stands tall with monumental monuments, but none are larger than Alton’s gentle giant, Robert Wadlow, who was born in Alton in 1918 and became the world’s tallest man, reaching 8 feet, 11.1 inches tall. Alton honors Wadlow with a statue, and the Alton Museum of History and Art devotes an entire room to him.
Old Bakery Beer Company, housed in the old Colonial Bread plant on downtown Alton’s Mississippi riverfront, was started in 2015 by James Rogalsky and Lauren Pattan, a husband-and-wife team committed to sustainability. All beer ingredients are USDA-certified organic, the bars and restaurant tables made out of reclaimed wood. The 50-foot-long centerpiece bar was assembled from a one-room schoolhouse in Collinsville, and the beer tappers are reconditioned rolling pins. Old Bakery’s sprawling dining area has an industrial-chic vibe, with huge cement columns, exposed pipes and ducts, and cream-colored tile walls. Year-round beers include Porter, an English black ale; Citrus Wheat, brewed with lemon peel, orange peel and touches of chamomile and coriander; and Golden Oat, a lightcolored ale brewed with flaked oats. Brewery tours with beer sampling can be arranged. Old Bakery’s menu consists of signature sandwiches, burgers, soups and salads and even seasonal tacos.
Groups seeking a road trip to the northern portion of the state can travel to Starved Rock State Park in Oglesby, 94 miles southwest of Chicago, which has been voted the No. 1 attraction in Illinois. Starved Rock is home to amazing seasonal waterfalls, 13 miles of trails to explore, 18 canyons, boating, fishing (and ice fishing) on the Illinois River and a multitude of extraordinary views and great places to relax. Whether you’re a history buff, outdoor enthusiast or simply enjoy relaxing by the fire in the Great Hall, Starved Rock Lodge offers an abundance of activities for everyone including guided hikes rain or shine.