Worth the Drive: A Guide to the Best Outdoor Escapes in Illinois & Beyond

Have you been waiting all winter to break out your hiking boots and seek some fresh air? Luckily for you, we’ve compiled a list of the most rewarding excursions in and around Central Illinois. Whether you’re a local, or just passing through, these destinations are well worth the travel time. From dramatic canyons to secluded forest glades, we’ve found an adventure to satisfy every outdoor craving.

Below, we provide our list of our favorite outdoor excursions within a 1, 2 or 3+ hour drive from Champaign. Each listing has a basic description and useful links fo you to learn more. If you would like to refer to our printed version which includes a useful map, you can download the PDF here.


Allerton Park
Great day hike location. Numerous trails, woods, rivers, mansion, gardens, and statues.
Monticello, IL |  allerton.illinois.edu

Kickapoo State Recreation Area
Hiking, camping, canoeing and mountain biking throughout diverse geological terrain. Popular local favorite.
Oakwood, IL |  illinois.gov/dnr/parks

Middle Fork River Forest Preserve
If you like birdwatching, this is the place for you.
Penfield, IL |  ccfpd.org

Heron County Park
950 foot long floating wetland boardwalk, 2-story observation tower and short, accessible trails located off of Lake Vermillion. Migratory birds, waterfowl, mallards, kingfishers, green herons and American egret all flock to the area.
Danville, IL |  vccd.org/heron-county-park/

North Fork Trail
This 9 mile trail loops around Clinton Lake.
De Witt, IL |  alltrails.com

Warbler Ridge Conservation Area
Over 10 miles of trails and 1000 acres of natural area along the Embarras River, managed by Grand Prairie Friends. Download the handy WR Interpretive Trail App for a nifty guided hike along Warbler Trail for information on p;ants, animals and trail history.
Charleston, IL |  grandprairiefriends.org

Walnut Point State Park
Nice day hikes, camping and boating on the beautiful Walnut Point Lake. Check out the cool 3mi loop hike to the cool abandoned Prairie Observatory, which was built by the UofI Astronomy Department and in operation from January 1969 to April 1981.
Charleston, IL |  illinois.gov/dnr/parks

Fox Ridge State Park
Day hikes and boating. Great family camping.
Charleston, IL |  illinois.gov/dnr/parks

Forest Glen Preserve
Nice 1800-acre Vermilion County Conservation District preserve, located 12 miles southwest of Danville on the Illinois/Indiana border. Forest Glen is known for its rich botany and beech-maple/oak-hickory forests, and has four registered Illinois preserves within the park (Duffin Woods, Forest Glen Seep, Howard’s Hollow Seep and the Doris L. Westfall Prairie), as well as a savanna restoration area. Nice day hikes and camping. 
Westville, IL |  vccd.org/forest-glen-preserve


Turkey Run State Park
Canoeing, kayaking, and tubing. Good for day hikes and some overnight camping.
Marshall, IN |  in.gov/dnr/state-parks

Wolf Creek State Park
Great day hike location.
Windsor, IL |  illinois.gov/dnr/parks

Shades State Park
Ravines, ladder trails, rivers and waterfalls. Great year-round day hikes. One of our local favorites!
Waveland, IN |  in.gov/dnr/state-parks

Matthiessen State Park
Lots of hiking and cool water features.
Oglesby, IL |  illinois.gov/dnr/parks

Starved Rock State Park
Day hiking along the Illinois River. Cool rock formations. Bald Eagle viewing at certain times of year. Great family camping. Beautiful fall colors.
Oglesby, IL |  starvedrockstatepark.com

Sand Ridge State Forest
Backpack a short loop with sand dunes, cacti, and pines.
Forest City, IL |  illinois.gov/dnr/parks

Hennepin Canal
Bike and boat along the Hennepin Canal, full of bridges and locks.
Wyanet, IL |  illinois.gov/dnr/parks

Indiana Dunes State Park
Play in the sand and lake. Hike up beautiful, scenic dunes. Camping nearby. Don’t forget your sunscreen! The reflection off the sand is year round.
Chesterton, IN |   in.gov/dnr/state-parks


West Rock Wake Park
Wake-boarding lake and park, with classes & rentals.
Rockford, IL |  westrockwakepark.com

Buckner Cave
3 mile caving route managed by the Richard Blenz Nature Conservancy. Advance permission required.
Bloomington, IN | bucknercave.org

Brown County State Park
Nicknamed “The Little Smokies” with beautiful fall colors, easy hiking, scenic views. Camping at nearby Lake Monroe is awesome.
Nashville, IN |  in.gov/dnr/state-parks

Shawnee National Forest: Tunnel Hill State Trail
45 mile rail trail bike route in Shawnee National Forest vicinity. Ride through towns, restaurants, wineries and beautiful nature.
Vienna, IL |  illinois.gov/dnr/parks

Shawnee National Forest: Kinkaid Lake
Long hiking trails, great fishing in the reservoir, sandstone and forest topography, camping.
Murphysboro, IL |  fs.usda.gov

Shawnee National Forest: Jackson Falls
Best technical climbing/bouldering in Illinois. 500+ routes on 30-70ft rock walls in a scenic forest canyon. Also check out nearby Holy Boulders area.
Simpson, IL |  fs.usda.gov

Shawnee National Forest: Garden of the Gods
Must see stop for anyone visiting Southern Illinois. Great backpacking, rock formations & fall colors.
Herod, IL |  fs.usda.gov

Shawnee National Forest: River to River Trail
Backpack this 160mi trail from the Ohio to the Mississippi Rivers, through 5 stunning national wilderness areas.
Southern Illinois |  fs.usda.gov and rivertorivertrailhike.com 

Maquoketa Caves State Park
Unique state park in Iowa. Step back in geological time exploring a variety of caves and landscapes.
Maquoketa, IA |  iowadnr.gov

Blue River
Multi-day float trips down the Blue River. Wildlife, rapids, abundant scenery & killer stars at night.
Fredericksburg, IN |  paddling .com

Devil’s Lake State Park & Devil’s Head
Camp, boat and hike the famous lake areas. Good midwestern skiing and boarding at Devil’s Head.
Merrimac, WI |  devilslakewisconsin.com

Ice Age Trail: Southern Unit
Hike southern Wisconsin portions of this National Scenic Trail, glacially created over 12,000 years ago.
Wisconsin |  iceagetrail.org

Mammoth Cave National Park
Stunning National Park under 5 hours from C-U. World’s longest known cave system & tons of outdoor rec.
Kentucky |   nps.gov/maca

Huron-Manistee National Forests
Scenic Manistee area of Michigan, with access to rivers, dune forests and Lake Michigan.
Michigan |  fs.usda.gov/hmnf

The Red River Gorge
Famous canyon system along Kentucky’s Red River, within the Daniel Boone National Forest. Endless things to do here!
Kentucky |  fs.usda.gov

Before your next foray into the wilderness, gear up using one of our useful reference gear lists and fill in your needs with a host of quality items from RuggedOutdoors. After loading up your supplies, you’ll be ready to queue up your favorite podcast, set your cruise control, and get on the road!