Neatly tucked into pristine country where generations of Native Americans once roamed is one of Illinois’ foremost natural wonders, Starved Rock. Just 100 miles from Chicago, the sandstone cliffs formed by rushing waters during the ice age are the most prominent natural landmark on the upper Illinois River.
What remains is a breathtakingly beautiful and largely unspoiled landscape of towering trees, waterfalls, deep canyons and craggy cliffs with extraordinary views over the river.The name has an unhappy derivation. Legend has it that this is the site of a 1760s battle, as a party of Illini Peoria Indians came under attack by the Potawatomi and Ottawa tribes. Seeking refuge on the great rock with no access to food or water, they were said to have starved to death, though the accuracy of the tale has never been documented. In 1911, the State of Illinois purchased the site and before too long Starved Rock Country’s trail systems came into being, along with the Lodge that remains at the heart of all Starved Rock Country has to offer.
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966, today Starved Rock State Park and surrounding areas welcome more than two million visitors a year. Many pack hiking boots and seek adventure in the peaks and canyons, while others find tranquility along winding trails.
PICK YOUR PARK
Starved Rock State Park
Surrounded by miles of flat farmland, the dramatic rock formations that characterize the park never fail to astound first-time visitors. They were formed thousands of years ago by the melting of glaciers. Torrents of water rushed downstream, stripping away everything in their path except the resistant St. Peter sandstone. That sandstone formed the steep rock walls and the cool dark valleys of the 18 canyons within the park. When conditions are right, cascades of water spill down into these gorges, creating beautiful waterfalls.
Thirteen miles of trails, some carved out by the Civilian Conservation Corps. during the 1930s, entice visitors to prime viewing spots. Some feature stairs and platforms, built to help protect the delicate sandstone from washing away. Others meander toward or along the Illinois River, with glorious scenic overlooks, including Beehive, Eagle’s Cliff and Lover’s Leap. There are waterfalls in 14 of the 18 canyons — some of the most scenic are in canyons colorfully named St. Louis, French, Wildcat, Tonty, Ottawa and Kaskaskia. (French Canyon is probably best known.)
A focal point of the park is the renowned Starved Rock Lodge. Also constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. and opened in 1939, the building earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Designed to impress, the Great Hall is centered around a massive, two-sided stone fireplace. Copious use of knotty pine and handcrafted furniture in the guest rooms at once preserve a historic feel and make for cozy relaxation. On the grounds are 16 rustic cabins, all constructed of unhewn logs and some of them situated across Fox Canyon, a steep ravine. It’s not quite camping in the woods, but it certainly has that feel.
Whether you plan to stay at the Lodge or not, this is the perfect first-stop destination for visitors. As well as on-site dining and shops, this is where you will find trail maps, information on guided hikes or cruises on the Illinois River, camping, wilderness classes and much more. The Lodge is also a great starting point for many trails, including a new Interpretive Trail that teaches the rich history, geology and wildlife of the area.
Buffalo Rock State Park
Historians say the land now known as Buffalo Rock State Park was once a hiding ground or "blind canyon" for Indians hunting buffalo for the year ahead. Located high on the bluffs of the Illinois River, the park is small but is home to the Effigy Tumuli, massive earthen sculptures that can only be discerned from the air. Designed in the tradition of Native American mound building, it features five subjects native to the area — a snake, a turtle, a catfish, a frog and an insect.
With terrain ideal for beginning hikers, the park nonetheless offers a number of scenic views. In keeping with it’s name, the park is also home to several buffalo.
Matthiessen State Park
"Math Park," too, is suited to the not-so-experienced hiker or outdoor enthusiast. Featuring prairies, streams and rock formations, the bluff-top and canyon trails stretch over five miles. Camping, horse riding, fishing and geocaching all await.
The Dells Area is a perfect setting for picnics. The main trail to the Cascade Falls area originates here. There are picnic tables, water fountains and a playground, as well as a large parking lot and toilet facilities. Sure to interest the kids, there’s also a restored fort representative of the fortifications the French built in the Midwest during the 1600s and early 1700s.
Illini State Park
Named for the Native Americans who once lived here, Illini State Park is located south of the Illinois River, close to Marseilles. Popular for larger picnics, the park is bordered by the river’s Great Falls — over just two miles, the river drops three feet, resulting in a series of rapids.
ON THE WATER
Whether you have your own watercraft or are looking to rent a boat, canoe, kayak or water skis, Starved Rock Country offers plenty of options and some great fishing spots.
In Ottawa, both Heritage Harbor and Starved Rock Marina can help you launch and dock a boat, as can Hidden Cove and Springbrook marinas in Seneca.
For the adventurous at heart, consider taking a Gator Creek Tour from Cedar Creek Ranch in nearby Cedar Point. This 45-minute motorized amphibious tour gets you close to nature on the water. The ranch offers horseback riding and a petting zoo, too.
If slow and easy is more your style, there are mule-drawn canal boat tours that take you onto the historic Illinois & Michigan Canal. The 76-ft replica of a 19th century canal boat departs from and returns to La Salle. Before or after the trip, stop in at Loch 16 Café and Visitors Center for snacks, gifts and a little history. Don’t forget that kids love the water, too.
An area favorite is Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort. The entire resort is styled to appeal to children, but the main attraction is an indoor waterpark with a lazy river, wave pool and slides galore.
IN THE AIR
For an uplifting experience and a decidedly different viewpoint of the topography of the area, you can take a zipline canopy tour or go skydiving. Featuring eight different cables ranging for 150 to 1,000 feet long — including dual-racing 800 footers — and heights of roughly 85 feet off the ground, Zip Chicago in Marseille offers thrill-seeking zipliners speeds of up to 45 miles per hour accompanied by great views of the river valley below.
For a birds-eye perspective, check out Skydive Chicago in Ottawa. Participants — harnessed to an experienced tandem skydiving instructor — can freefall for up to 60 seconds while hitting speeds of 120 MPH, then take in the sights while enjoying the five to seven minute canopy flight descent back to Earth.
SIGHTS TO SEE
Lincoln-Douglas Debate Site
Ottawa’s Washington Square was the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, way back in August, 1858. It was a dry, dusty day, yet more than 10,000 people stood and listened. Today, larger-than-life bronze statues depict Stephen A. Douglas dwarfed by the much taller Abraham Lincoln.
The lovely Italianate Reddick Mansion, adjacent to Washington Square, was built in 1855. It is considered one of the most ornate private homes built in Illinois before the Civil War. Tours take in its 22 beautifully appointed rooms, many meticulously restored to the 19th century grandeur. The landscaped grounds, including a butterfly garden, are a pleasure to stroll and are open to the public daily.
Ottawa Historical and Scouting Heritage Museum
The Ottawa portion of the museum features collections of memorabilia relating to Ottawa’s historic past, including its years as a booming Illinois-Michigan Canal town in the 1800s. The Scouting Heritage section is a testament to the fact that Ottawa is the home and final resting place of one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America, William Dickson Boyce. It features exhibits relating to youth scouting programs over the last 100 years.
La Salle County Historical Museum
Awesome Ottawa Tours
By bike or on foot, this Ottawa company creates tours for every taste. Whether it’s cocktail walks, history tours, or hidden tours or forgotten graveyards, the guided adventures give you the inside tracks on Starved Rock country. To see some of the local sites on your own, pick up the Heritage Tour brochure at the Ottawa Visitor’s Center, an illustrated guide to significant places and events in the town’s history.
Streator Walldog Murals
While in Ottawa, you will see several wall murals around town, including a large, hard-to-miss painting of Lincoln, commemorating the first Lincoln-Douglas debate. To see a much wider range of historic murals, take a 20-minute drive south to the town of Streator. In 2018, the Walldogs, a group of highly skilled mural and sign painters, painted giant 16 retro-inspired murals on buildings around the town. Most depict memorable moments in Streator’s past.
If you’re in the area over the 4th of July, Streator is noted for its annual fireworks display, which highlights a multi-day festival of food, music and special events.
Created for residents and enjoyed by thousands of visitors, Starved Rock Country celebrates with music, food and pure joy. Following are a few of the more notable events in coming months.
Midwest Morel Fest, Ottawa, May 4: This annual event offers a celebration of mushrooms — a morel market, a home brewers tasting tent, food, music and a guided hunt!
Starved Rock Country Brew Fest, Ottawa, May 25: Live music, local food — and 60-plus unique craft brews from all over the area.
Ottawa 2 Rivers Wine & Jazz Fest, June 7 – 9: Enjoy wine from nearly 20 vintners from across Illinois, live jazz, plus fresh from the coast lobster, and an outdoor arts and crafts market.
Skoogs Pub & Grill in Utica
This is the place for great steaks with all the fixin’s. Since 2000, this local favorite has served up large portions of homemade specialties, like its famous chicken wings.
Duffy’s Tavern in Utica
Would you like some history with that burger? Located in one of the town’s most iconic buildings, walls of this Irish pub are lined with memorabilia, photos and vintage decor. The Irish pub has recently changed hands and is under the dedicated care of the Chicago-based owners of Lodi Tap House in Maple Park, which recently won WGN TV’s Chicago’s Best Burger.
The Lone Buffalo in Ottawa
Under the same roof as the Tangled Roots Brewing Company, the Lone Buffalo offers an exceptional array of locally sourced dishes and hand-crafted beers in an airy two story building.
The Pink Chihuahua in Ottawa
This pan-Asian inspired menu serves up little bites (tapas) and big bites of tasty exotic and comfort food items, including burgers crafted from grass-fed Angus, bison, elk and Kobe beef. There are portabello burgers, too.
B.A.S.H. in Ottawa
An unusual combination that makes sense when you taste it, this burger and sushi house brings together the best of American and Japanese fare. Sashimi, nigiri, sushi rolls, "design-a-burger," along with comfort foods such as gourmet mac-n-cheese make B.A.S.H. a popular spot.
CatsEye Wine Bar in Ottawa
New on the scene last fall, this cozy neighborhood wine bar has a eclectic vibe and more than 60 wines to choose from. A charcuterie board, cheeses and desserts make you want to stay awhile.
Other Starved Rock country eateries worth consideration include Delaney’s and The Rootbeer Stand, both in Oglesby; Uptown Grill and Haze Smokehouse in La Salle; and the Red Dog Grill, adjacent to Heritage Harbor.
WHERE TO STAY
Surrounded by towering pines and century-old oak trees, the Starved Rock Lodge features 41 cozy rooms in the Lodge Wing and 28 rooms in the Hotel Wing, plus a variety of cozy cabins including a few that take pets.
In nearby Utica, Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort features 90+ rooms and suites plus a variety of cabins and villa rental options.
Heritage Harbor, a resort community on the Illinois River in Ottawa, offers a variety of vacation home rentals and a full marina.
The area has several B & B’s including The River House Bed and Breakfast. This historic Queen Anne built in 1890 sits on a bluff overlooking where the Illinois and Fox Rivers cross paths and has beautiful views of both rivers and the town of Ottawa.
TAKE HOME A PIECE OF STARVED ROCK COUNTRY
Starved Rock Country boasts a plethora of small-town shops and boutiques, with great finds and local crafts and wares, from artisinal jewelry, candles and soaps to trendy and vintage fashions.
One irresistible place for take-home gifts is Starved Rock Hot Glass in Ottawa, where you can watch the glass-blowing process and choose an original vase or item of jewelry as a souvenir of Starved Rock country.
Angela Accomando is a native of Winfield and longtime resident of Ottawa who has been a contributing writer for TheTimes local newspaper and Starved Rock Magazine.