As summer sets in and the weather warms up, residents and visitors to the Windy City are packing their schedules with all the amazing sights and activities the metropolis has to offer. But along with all that come the crowds and the heat. Thankfully, getting away from the big city is easy enough; some outstanding state parks are just one or two hours' drive out of Chicago. Just like with other big cities, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine a "get away from it all" experience, especially when you're surrounded by all that concrete and plastic. But in reality, there are several green spaces in the form of state parks that should be considered truly wild places within a relatively short drive. Rivers, lakes, waterfalls, forests, and more await anyone willing to make an adventure out of it, and day trips are an entirely possible endeavor considering how close some of these state parks are. Let's explore a few terrific spots nearby that offer tons of amenities and activities, from canoeing to camping to hiking and fishing, even seasonal hunting opportunities.
Kankakee River State Park
Travel: 60 miles, 1:20
One of the best ways to explore this park is atop a horse. Make a reservation at the riding stables for guided rides along trails within its 4,000 acres. Along with all the usual park activities, seasonal hunting programs include archery deer, waterfowl, and upland game hunting. Anglers can expect to land smallmouth bass, channel catfish, walleye and Northern pike on the Kankakee River and Rock Creek.
Chain O'Lakes State Park
Travel: 60 miles, 1:20
Feel like spending some time lazing around on a lake canoeing or fishing? Fancy a waterskiing adventure? Camp at this park that offers the largest concentration of natural lakes in the state. This means tons of fishing; bluegill, largemouth bass, walleye, crappie, muskie, northern pike, bullhead, catfish, and yellow and white bass are all swimming in the 6,500 acres of lake water here. Opportunities for seasonal dove, waterfowl, archery deer, and permit pheasant hunting are available. After a day on the water, pitch your tent at class A or B campsites.
White Pines Forest State Park
Travel: 95.5 miles, 2:10
Hike through vine-covered limestone bluffs and sighing pines at this park that makes a perfect family getaway. One of this park's distinctive features are the three fords (instead of bridges) where cars can cross Pine Creek and access fishing areas. There's camping, of course, or you can opt to stay in one of the historic 1930s cabins that were recently renovated. Bow and firearm hunting is allowed in deer season on 300 acres as part of the park's reduction program.
Starved Rock State Park
Travel: 92 miles, 1:42
Though Starved Rock is less than two hours away, you'll feel a world's distance from the big city thanks to the towering sandstone formations and many canyon waterfalls here. Roomy and secluded campgrounds in the woods offer a welcome hideaway after a day of hiking, fishing or horseback riding, or you can upgrade your lodging with a stay at the historic Starved Rock Lodge.
Illinois Beach State Park
Travel: 47 miles, 1:25
Known for being, well, a beach, this one along Lake Michigan from Waukegan to the Wisconsin state line also features wetlands and dune areas. There's camping, hiking, biking, picnic areas and, of course, swimming at this state park as well as fishing in Sand Pond. It's one of the few Illinois campgrounds that allows alcohol, but only at the Illinois Beach Hotel, which is reopening this spring.
Big Foot Beach State Park
Travel: 80 miles, 1:45
Despite its intriguing name, you won't likely see Bigfoot here (the Wisconsin park just over the Illinois border is named for a Native American tribe leader), but there's plenty to do besides Sasquatch sighting. Enjoy canoeing and kayaking on Lake Geneva, which also has a 100-foot swimming area and beach for tossing horseshoes or fishing. Surrounding the lake is a 26-mile historic trail used by Native Americans more than 4,000 years ago.
Kettle Moraine State Forest
Travel: 100 miles, 2:10
You wouldn't think backcountry camping would exist so close to the big city, but this park has three hike-in sites along the Ice Age Trail. Each has a fire ring and Adirondack lean-to (with room for 10), but you can pitch a tent as well. Camping here is limited to one night. Expect to see coyotes and red foxes, cranes and hawks. It's worth it to note that hunting for deer, turkey, and waterfowl is allowed (check for season dates).
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