Nestled along the tree-lined Illinois River, Starved Rock Country is home to some of Illinois’ top-rated destinations for experiencing fall colors. From scenic drives under colorful canopies to picturesque guided hikes that explain the science behind this jaw-dropping seasonal transformation, there are plenty of sightseeing opportunities awaiting you on your next road trip!
WHEN SHOULD I PLAN MY TRIP?
Fall color season can be difficult to predict, with many weather conditions factoring into colors arriving earlier or later than anticipated. On an average year, Starved Rock Country experiences peak fall colors sometime between the second and third week in October. Before you plan your trip, be sure to follow Starved Rock Country on Facebook and Instagram. We’ll be posting updated fall colors reports throughout the season, giving you an idea of when it would be best to plan your road trip.
WHERE SHOULD I VISIT?
Starved Rock State Park:
Start your adventure with a drive through Starved Rock State Park. This popular park sports one of Enjoy Illinois’ top-ranked scenic drives for experiencing the fall colors. Route 71 is a wonderfully winding road that takes you from a serene riverfront lane to the sparse prairie outside the park, before snaking over several canyons and past towering, tinted trees.
As Illinois’ most popular state park and one of the best nature destinations in the Midwest, Starved Rock’s notoriety is well earned. The park boats 18 beautiful canyons, 13 miles of trails catering to all levels of experience, panoramic views of the Illinois River and a historic lodge and dining hall.
Matthiessen State Park:
This picturesque park takes you from wildflower-lined prairie trails to the depths of Ice Age-era dells, complete with rushing waterfalls and mossy canyon walls. Matthiessen’s otherworldly trails include options for both novice and experienced hikers, allowing all park patrons to enjoy views of the grand Cascade Falls and Giant’s Bathtub. You’ll likely see more than just fellow hikers on these trails — Matthiessen also features some of the best horseback riding paths in the Starved Rock area.
Running through three counties (Will, Grundy and LaSalle), the Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail is one of the most historic and picturesque parks in Starved Rock Country. A popular biking and hiking trail, this tree-lined mid-19th century waterway also serves as a great spot for enjoying fall colors. A flat, graded gravel path makes for an easy and accommodating sightseeing trip.
The 15-mile stretch of canal that runs from Ottawa to La Salle is an excellent bicycling destinations. You’ll pass three historic towns and astounding fall scenery. Best of all, you no longer need to bring your own bike to explore the trail; simply reserve a rental bike outside La Salle’s Lock 16 Visitors Center and in Utica. Learn more on that below.
9 MORE GREAT PLACES TO ENJOY FALL COLORS:
Carlson Nature Preserve, Lowell: Hidden on the west side of the Vermilion River near Lowell, this preserve is a destination spot for rugged hiking and captivating views.
Catlin Park, Ottawa: Fourteen trails of all lengths and sizes weave through this heavily wooded and scenic park, which is equipped for cookouts and group picnicking.
Allen Park, Ottawa: With room to walk (and play), this park is along the Illinois River near downtown Ottawa; plaques denote the different tree types you’ll see reflected against the water.
Dayton Bluffs Preserve, Ottawa: Featured are gorgeous wooded and prairie trails, running parallel to the Fox River. The lesser-known park is conveniently located near Interstate 80.
Warnecke Woods, Princeton: More than 30 acres, with a stunning mix of trees in a traditional floodplain forest, include black oaks, black maples and photo-worthy seasonal wildflowers.
Spring Lake Nature Park, Streator: The recently restored nature park features twin creeks, a natural waterfall, a 200-year-old cottonwood tree and your choice of a dozen scenic wooded trails.
Hopalong Cassidy River Trail, Streator: A short trail along the Vermilion River is surrounded by a multitude of diverse trees.
Lake Kakusha, Mendota: Shelters and trails surround the manmade lake in northwestern Starved Rock Country; this is a true hidden gem just a short drive from Mendota’s historic downtown.
Snyder Grove Park, Mendota: The 104-acre preserve offers wooded trails, shelters and picnic areas.
WHAT FALL COLOR ACTIVITIES ARE THERE?
Both Starved Rock Lodge and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources offer a variety of guided hikes led by experienced naturalists. Starved Rock Lodge’s hikes depart from the Lodge lobby every Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. The expert naturalists will take you to some of the best fall color photo-ops throughout the park on these one-hour group hikes. For a full list of hikes and to reserve your space, visit www.starvedrocklodge.com/events.
Fall color trolley tours:
Trolley tours are one of Starved Rock Lodge’s signature events — and one of the best ways to experience the diversity and beauty of the park’s fall colors. These special seasonal tours include lunch at the Lodge’s restaurant and a short guided hike to Council Overhang and Ottawa Canyon. These all-ages tours are held aboard buses with modern climate-control systems, ensuring you’ll have a comfortable ride, even in the crisp fall weather. Tours run Saturday and Mondays through October, departing at 9:30 and 11 a.m.
Autumn on the river cruises:
Enjoy a leisurely lunch off a special menu at the Starved Rock Lodge restaurant before hopping aboard the Eagle I cruise boat for a narrated sightseeing tour. This popular river cruise gives guests a unique perspective on the area’s fall foliage. Running from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday through October, you’ll be treated to local legends, history and botanical facts as you ride up the Illinois River.
La Salle County offers wonderful boutique shopping opportunities to get you out and about during the fall, like Ottawa’s tree-lined shopping district and historic downtown Streator. La Salle’s shopping district is located just a short walk away from the I & M Canal, while Utica is just a stone’s throw from Starved Rock State Park.
It’s not easier than ever before to take a fall colors bike ride along the I & M Canal, thanks to a new app-based bike sharing system developed in partnership with the Canal Corridor Association, the Illinois Office of Tourism and several local communities along the canal. Now anyone 18 years or older can rent a bike at convenient self-service kiosks. Before you head out on your trip, visit www.iandmcanal.org/bike for a full list of those locations. Once you’re there, simply click a link to download the app, then follow a simple registration process. Once you’re in proximity to a bike station, you can use your rental wheels to explore the trail and canal towns during one of the most beautiful times of the year.
Some of our favorite Starved Rock Country restaurants offer comfortable, open-air outdoor dining well into the fall season. Consider trying the waterfront restaurant Red Dog Grill. This seafood and American fare establishment has been wowing visitors with its brews, views and delicious food since first opening its doors in 2015. Nestled inside the Heritage Harbor marina resort community, the restaurant is perhaps best known for its large bay windows, sprawling covered patio and expansive view of the marina, a perfect spot for enjoying a nice breeze and admiring the leaves.