a path through green leaf trees

Seven State Parks Near Chicago For an Action-Packed Road Trip

Backpacking Camping Cycling Fishing Hiking Travel
on
May 14, 2021

Just outside the concrete jungle of Chicago lie impressive outdoor parks. Beyond the known urban parks, like Lincoln Park and Washington Park, the area surrounding Chicago offers true natural escapes for those looking to reset for a weekend. Choose from one of these seven state parks on your next hiking or camping trip. Camping with family? Check out Easy Camping Meal Ideas for Families: 5 Ingredients or Less.

1. Indiana Dunes State & National Parks

Distance from Chicago: 40 miles
Campsites: Yes, 140
Highlights: Sand dunes, pristine beaches 

With a shoreline stretching 15 miles and 15,000 acres to explore beyond that, Indiana Dunes National Park is a hidden gem in the Midwest. Its shoreline was upgraded from a national lakeshore to a national park. In addition to pristine beaches, the park sees a variety of terrain, including sand dunes, wetlands, prairies, forests, and rivers. Indiana Dunes State Park stretches three miles along Lake Michigan and encompasses more than 2,000 acres of landscape.

people on beach next to lake during daytime
Part of a long lakeshore in Indiana Dunes State Park next to Lake Michigan by Steven Van Elk.

2. Kankakee River State Park

Distance from Chicago: 60 miles 
Campsites: Yes, 200+
Highlights: Great fishing and hunting opportunities

First inhabited by Native Americans, Kankakee River State Park offers a rich heritage to outdoor enthusiasts, including hunters, bikers, campers, and anglers. Anglers are able to land smallmouth bass, channel catfish, walleye, and Northern Pike, while seasonal hunting programs include archery deer, waterfowl, and upland game hunting. This park envelopes the Kankakee River for 11 miles and consists of 4,000 acres. 

3. Starved Rock State Park

Distance from Chicago: around 100 miles
Campsites: 129
Highlights: 18 canyons, rich history

Contrary to the name, you’ll find endless waterfalls in this forested state park if you visit during spring or after heavy rains. The parks name comes from a Native American legend when a great battle in the 1760s resulted in a group taking refuge in the area and eventually starving to death. In the late 1800s, a private owner developed the land as a vacation destination complete with a hotel and swimming area, but it was eventually purchased by the state and listed as a National Historic Landmark. Visitors can now view these lodges and cabins, as well as hike through 13 miles of trails, including 18 canyons, in Starved Rock State Park.

brown rock formation on river with waterfall
Don’t miss the gorgeous views in Starved Rock State Park. Photo by Ryan Heuer.

4. Richard Bong State Recreation Area

Distance from Chicago:  70 miles 
Campsites: 217
Highlights: Wetlands, volleyball courts, horseshoe pits

Crossing state lines, this Wisconsin park was originally intended to be a jet fighter base and was named after Major Richard Bong, a United Army Air Forces Major who fought in World War II. Fortunately for outdoor lovers, local residents at the time fought to maintain this area’s beauty. Today, almost 30 miles of trails pass through prairies and wetlands, where you can boat, canoe, and kayak. Other popular activities include hiking, fishing, camping, birdwatching, and horseback riding. You’ll also find volleyball courts, horseshoe pits, and a nature center in Richard Bong State Recreation Area.

5. Matthiessen State Park

Distance from Chicago: 95 miles 
Campsites: One equestrian campground for horseback riders only
Highlights: Swimming holes and creeks

Descend into Matthiessen State Park for canyons, waterfalls, creeks, and dozens of paved trails. From the parking lot, you’ll find lengthy stairs to descend into the luscious park. Some of the creeks are quite deep with shallow swimming holes, and on a hot summer day, you can fully submerge yourself to cool down if desired. Pack up a lunch, picnic, and enjoy. 

rocky formation with water falling into pond
Matthiessen State Park is rich with picturesque spots like this one. Photo by Joseph Gage.

6. Buffalo Rock State Park

Distance from Chicago: 87 miles 
Campsites: Three walk-in only, primitive camping areas
Highlights: Two resident buffalo, the Effigy Tumuli 

Located on a rocky bluff, you’ll find two live buffalo in this relatively small park, as well as a unique site called the “Effigy Tumuli.” It’s an immense artwork that pays tribute to Native American tradition, laying across thousands of feet on the ground. The exhibit consists of five abstract animal forms: a water strider, turtle, catfish, frog, and the largest of them all, a snake at 2,070-feet-long. Visually, the artwork makes the most sense from an aerial view, but can still be appreciated via a trail that’s accompanied by interpretive signs to help you understand the portion of the figures you’re looking at. Buffalo Rock State Park offers easy hiking and dispersed hike-in only camping, ideal for those who appreciate some solitude.

7. Kettle Moraine State Forest

Distance from Chicago: 87 miles 
Campsites: 100+ campgrounds with amenities, as well as dispersed camping
Highlights: Glacial hills, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails

At 22,000 acres in Wisconsin, Kettle Moraine is packed with pine forests, prairies, glacial hills, kettle lakes, and more than 100 miles of trails for hikers, as well as mountain bikers and horseback riders. You’ll also find a shooting range and cross country skiing in the winter. Because the park is relatively large, those coming from Chicago will likely want to stick to the southern side to reduce driving time.

brown wooden bridge in forest during daytime
A forest path on Lapham Peak in Kettle Moraine State Forest by Michael Wright.

Other Outdoor Areas to Explore 

Planning a road trip? Stop at one of these 10 Remarkable National Parks on the East Coast.

Stay Fit with KUHL 

From horseback riding to hiking to fishing, there are endless opportunities for outdoor recreation within a two-hour drive of Chicago. Get out there and start moving. Whether you are an avid angler, backcountry camper, or long-distance hiker, KUHL offers top-quality outdoor clothing for the adventurer in all of us. Shop our gear below. 

Featured Image – Path among leafy trees in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore by Courtney Corlew.

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