Wander Woman: State parks are contenders for the nation’s best scenery

How many Illinois state parks have you visited?

If you live in La Salle, Bureau or Putnam counties, I would wager the answer is at least two or three. You can likely check a few of the local ones off the list. Starved Rock, Matthiessen, Buffalo Rock, Illini, Gebhard Woods …

But what about the rest of the parks in Illinois’ 55,499 square miles of land?

Until February, I didn’t know how many parks and nature areas existed in Illinois. I never thought to tally them until I saw a WGN report about two Chicago friends who have set a goal to visit every state park and state-operated natural area.

All 132 of them.

Stephanie Swieca and Emma Magrady are documenting their effort on the Fresh Air Friendship blog. The pair launched the website in September 2021 after a girls trip to Utica, during which they explored Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks. Between hikes, they relaxed at August Hill Winery and Lodi Tap House.

Stepping stones provide a dry path across the creek at Matthiessen State Park.

In their introductory blog post, they explain how Swieca spent her free time after their girls weekend compiling a spreadsheet of all state parks and nature areas in Illinois. When she mused about visiting all of them, Magrady jumped on board with the idea.

In the time since, they’ve documented visits to more than 30 parks, including many of Starved Rock Country’s most notable. A July 2023 headline on their website declares, “Starved Rock State Park: The one you’ve been waiting for!”

Hikers who stand beneath Council Overhang at Starved Rock State Park can look out to a wooded view beyond.

For several years, my husband and I have been working toward a goal similar to Swieca’s and Magrady’s. We’re slowly but steadily visiting all 63 U.S. national parks.

Even though state parks aren’t officially part of our exploration goals, many of them rival their national counterparts. In recent years, we’ve sought stops at nearby state parks during journeys to national parks. Four of my top 10 favorite vacation hikes have been at state parks: Baxter State Park in Maine, Catskill State Park in New York, Judge C.R. Magney State Park in Minnesota and Goblin Valley State Park in Utah (with the nearby Little Wild Horse Canyon).

Those favorites stand in the company of hikes at national parks like Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah and Acadia.

As impressive as the rest of the country is, I still enjoy returning to familiar hiking grounds. Maybe I’m biased as an Illinoisan born and raised, but among all of those grand destinations across the country, I believe the state parks of Illinois – particularly those found in Starved Rock Country – can compete.

Spring rains lead to a steady flow for La Salle Canyon's waterfall at Starved Rock State Park on March 28, 2024.

Coming home from hikes through Utah slot canyons or along Maine coastlines or up western mountains is never a disappointment when I know there are places like Matthiessen’s Lake Falls and Starved Rock’s Council Overhang and the marshy stretch of Illinois & Michigan Canal north of Dee Bennett Road.

Our region’s state parks are grand enough that they inspired the Fresh Air Friendship duo to expand their nature exploration across the entire state. I hope their blog, in turn, inspires others to seek outdoor adventure in parks and natural areas. Readers can visit their website at www.freshairfriendship.com.

If you haven’t hiked our region’s state parks yet, this summer is the perfect time to start. The experience might be enough to get you hooked on treading new trails across the region, the state and beyond.

Lake Falls is one of the most popular destinations at Matthiessen State Park.

Julie Barichello is the editor of Starved Rock Country Magazine and is a graphic designer for Shaw Media’s niche publications. She can be contacted at jbarichello@shawmedia.com.

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