Starved Rock Country is a region best seen on foot, and it boasts some of the state’s premier hiking — famously, Starved Rock State Park and the Illinois and Michigan Canal towpath. But you can’t judge a hike by its length. Some of the region’s smaller, and less traveled, trail systems are packed with nature and attractions for hikers of all experience levels to enjoy!
Not all hikes are created equal. And that’s a good thing.
Whether you’re in the mood to discover a lot of scenery in a short amount of time (and distance), looking for a small dose of nature between other activities, or hunting for easy trails for the youngest members of a family, there are options for everyone.
Consider adding some of these mini-hikes during your visit.
SPRING LAKE NATURE PARK
1413 E. 16th Road, Streator
From the moment your feet crunch into the parking lot’s gravel, you can hear the water.
That’s the call of the falls.
Spring Lake Falls is among the park’s best-loved and most scenic locations — and it’s less than a two-minute walk from the car. A short hike along a grassy path and over a wooden bridge opens onto a rocky waterside where hikers can view the gently sloping sandstone-formation waterfalls.
The falls are accessible through a simple stroll, but for more adventurous visitors, the park features a system of 12 trails, most of which are half-mile loops or shorter.
Spring Lake Nature Park’s trail system is an ideal option for families seeking easy access to nature. Six of the trails are mostly level, which are easy for young children to travel.
For families with older children or adults, there are additional trails with steeper inclines, such as Overlook Trail or the narrow, sharp-descending Beaver Run path. The uphill climbs to ridges and overlooks can be accomplished in less than two minutes, with the rest of the trail on level ground.
A highlight of the park is its swinging bridge. Like the falls, the bridge is accessible within a short walk from the parking lot. The shallow waters of Eagle Creek can be seen through the slats of the bridge, which bounces underfoot as hikers cross to reach six of the trail loops.
Creek-crossers should be aware: The swinging bridge comes with a set of three rules. No. 1, no more than two people crossing at a time; No. 2, no running; and No. 3, absolutely no bouncing.
On the trails, hikers will quickly and frequently encounter the two W’s: woods and water. Eagle Creek snakes in and out of the 37-acre nature area, repeatedly crossing paths with visitors. The wooded areas are home to more than 85 bird species, as well as deer, foxes, coyotes, beavers, snakes, frogs and wild flora.
Hikers shouldn’t miss out on a photo opportunity with Spring Lake’s mightiest flora, which has its own trail. Big Tree Trail loops around a more than two-century-old cottonwood tree, which lives up to the name Big Tree.
Horses and bikes can be ridden on the trails, and leashed dogs are welcome at the park, which is open year-round from sunrise to sunset. Portable bathroom facilities are available in the parking area.
Where is the lake? Despite the park’s name, there is no lake at the nature area. A spring-fed lake once existed in the area, and in the 1800s a dam was constructed to maintain the water level for commercial ice production in pre-refrigerator years. When ice was no longer a commercial venture, the dam was dismantled, creating the park’s current system of meandering streams and falls.
DAYTON BLUFFS PRESERVE
2997 Route 71, Ottawa
From the moment you turn onto the gravel road three-quarters of a mile from the Interstate 80 exit, you’ll leave behind the sense of city and interstate.
Once you step out of the car and embark onto the trails, you may instead discover a sense of the sacred.
The approximately five-mile trail system of Dayton Bluffs Preserve provides a trifecta of prairie, woodlands, and historical significance.
Sunny trails branching off from the parking lot outline acres of open prairie, which eventually branch into the preserve’s 154 forested acres. It’s along the narrow dirt paths of the woods where hikers can commune with history rooted deeper and older than the surrounding trees.
Dayton Bluffs is home to Native American burial mounds along the preserve’s northwestern ridge trail. The path leads through tree cover and foliage, eventually opening up to a view of the Fox River to the left and 14 burial mounds to the right. It’s an area worth hiking slowly — an unknowing eye moving too quickly can mistake the more than 1,000-year-old mounds as rolling landscape and miss them on a first pass.
A trail loop at the park’s northeastern edge also introduces hikers to another patch of hallowed history: the Daniels Cemetery, a pioneer cemetery dating back to the 1830s. A picnic table and rest area are located near the site.
Other than mowed paths through the prairie, the scenery has a sense of being largely untouched. Hikes taken shortly after rainfall reveal far more deer, fox and coyote tracks than human footprints. Wildflowers and flora also grow close to the trails — the preserve has more than 160 species of plants.
Like Spring Lake, Dayton Bluffs offers a waterside view. The preserve’s steepest trail leads from the burial mound site down to the river. The river trail also can be accessed from the south, which has less extreme elevation. The park features five water cascades along the southern trails as well.
Dayton Bluffs is a more rugged hike than Spring Lake, with some narrow trails, steep treks, ridges and ravines. However, the trails pose only a moderate challenge to older children and adults — the preserve can be hiked in a morning or afternoon with time to spare.
Leashed dogs are welcome at the preserve. A portable bathroom is available in the parking area. Dayton Bluffs is open year-round from sunrise to sunset.
Pro tip: Be sure to pick up a trail map at the parking lot. Some side trails are easy to miss among the scenery, so the map comes in handy for navigation.
ECHO BLUFF PARK
12641 County Road 3065 East, Spring Valley
Looking for a place to explore for an hour or two between activities? Echo Bluff Park is the place to hike.
Tucked away on a winding country road off Route 29, the park spreads over a thickly wooded 60 acres. Winding among the trees are almost four miles of wide, packed-dirt paths. For families with children or for groups wanting to stroll side by side, this park is prime option with easy to moderate hiking.
Echo Bluff takes hikers immediately from the parking lot into the woods. Once adventurers step onto a path, options unfold. The park’s layout gives hikers a chance to take short loops following one trail into the woods and returning to the parking lot via another connecting trail, or to delve deeper among the trees.
Novice hikers or those who want to set a slower pace will find the trail system hospitable. Echo Bluff has several clearings that offer benches to rest, and the majority of trails are flat or feature only mild elevation.
To add a twist to a hike, visitors can go to the park’s Snack Shack and pick up clues for the Letterbox Trail challenge, in which hikers can hunt for hidden boxes throughout the park.
During dry conditions, mountain bikes also are welcome on the trails. The park also provides a disc golf course, as well as a zip-line course when certified instructors are on duty.
Echo Bluff is open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, or weekdays by appointment. For more information, call 815 447-2115.
LAND AND WATER PRESERVES:
A person in the mood for a short, rugged hike through dense woodland can tackle a few miles of trail in two of the region’s state preserves.
Sandy Ford Land and Water Preserve northwest of Streator offers a more challenging trail that takes hikers to the banks of the Vermilion River. Known for its wildflowers, the trail cuts through the heavy tree cover on the river’s eastern edge. The entrance along North 18th Road, locally known as Leonore Road, can be easy to miss. Those traveling westbound from Route 23 will want to watch their odometers. The gravel parking area is 3.1 miles down the road; if you cross the Sandy Ford Bridge, you’ve gone too far. For eastbound travelers, the Sandy Ford Bridge is a sign you’re nearing the entrance. Motorists will pass East 1391st Road on their right; immediately after will be the entrance to the land and water preserve on the left.
Miller-Anderson Woods State Nature Preserve, a few miles southwest of Echo Bluff Park, offers a narrow, ribbon-marked trail that leads to the top of a bluff. The payoff is a panorama of some of Starved Rock Country’s richest wetlands, which attract a variety of waterfowl. A small gravel parking area is available on 670 North Avenue (also known as Kentville Road) 0.6 miles from Route 29. Across the road from the parking area is a trail entrance.
Both preserves have steep portions on their trails that may not be suited to younger hikers.
Watch the signs; Visitors should pay attention to signs posted at the state land and water preserves. Certain times of year, the sites are closed to hikers and open only to hunters. Due to spring turkey season, the locations are closed to hikers until May 15.
Fox River Walk, Ottawa: This paved path stretches from Ottawa’s botanical downtown, through Fox River Park, to the Illinois & Michigan Canal towpath. The River Walk, which can be accessed from the western end of Jefferson Street downtown or from Fox River Park, curves along the banks of the Fox River, north of its confluence with the Illinois River. The park features disc golf, a playground and a splash pad. The 0.9-mile walk is wheelchair accessible and stroller-friendly.
Hopalong Cassidy Trail, Streator: The 1.47-mile trail begins at a trailhead park on the corner of Broadway and Madison streets, then follows the Vermilion River into light woods within city limits, ending at West First Street. (There is no parking at the First Street trailhead, so it’s best to begin at the Broadway Street park.) The packed-dirt path leads through several sunny areas with wildflowers and pollinators, as well as shaded wooded stretches that include a scenic footbridge over a creek. The trailhead park includes restrooms, a playground and exercise equipment.
Baker Park, Peru: The man-made Baker Lake features a 1-mile loop around its banks. The paved path is easy for walking and jogging and also is wheelchair accessible and stroller friendly. The park also offers fishing, picnic areas, a playground, shelters, restrooms and a soccer field. A parking lot is available along Chartres Street.