The Scene

Spring Day Trips: Explore the natural wonders of northwest Illinois state parks

Footbridges allow hikers to cross over Pine Creek inside White Pines State Park.

It’s time to shake off the winter layers and embrace the great outdoors. When you’re planning your next adventure, look to the treasure trove of state parks in northwest Illinois.

Each park offers unique landscapes, outdoor activities and historical intrigue. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a more casual nature enthusiast, there’s a park waiting to be discovered. Pack your hiking boots, grab your camera, and get ready to explore the hidden gems of northwest Illinois.

Mississippi Palisades State Park

The park awaits a few miles north of Savanna in Carroll County, along the mighty Mississippi River. You’ll find intriguing rock formations, caves and gorgeous cliffs and bluffs. In fact, the U.S. Interior Department deemed the unique formations a national landmark in 1973. The park has a rugged 15-mile trail system for hiking, including less strenuous trails in the northern system and more advanced trails, closer to the bluffs, in the south system. Camping is sought-after, with 110 electrical hookup sites and showers and flush toilets available from May 1 through Oct. 31. Rock climbing is allowed in specific areas of the park, but climbers must bring their own equipment. Six picnic shelters are available, as are fishing and boating on the river.

White Pines Forest State Park

The cabins at White Pines State Park were constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Each of the cabins offers modern amenities.

White Pines Forest State Park, located in Mt. Morris in the Rock River valley, is the perfect place for a family getaway. The 385-acre park has more than 100 campsites, in addition to White Pines Lodge. The lodge, originally constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, has modern amenities, including 16 cabins of varying sizes. The White Pines Lodge restaurant offers banquet facilities and a dinner theater. Enjoy a hike along seven marked trails that wind along vine-covered limestone bluffs, towering pine trees or fields of blossoming flowers, and top it off with a picnic meal in one of several shaded areas with water, fireplaces, tables and playgrounds. Four of the picnic areas have shelters.

Apple River Canyon State Park

In the hilly northwest Jo Daviess County near the Wisconsin border, guests will find limestone bluffs, deep ravines, streams, cliffs high above the Apple River and scenic canyons at the 1,907-acre state park. Hikers can choose from five trails that wind through the woods for several miles. There are 49 campsites, but no showers. Fishing is available on the Apple River. Set along the banks of the river are four picnic areas with grills, accessible drinking water and toilets.

Castle Rock State Park

Castle Rock State Park is nestled along the Rock River, three miles south of Oregon. The park features rugged rock formations, ravines and a sandstone bluff next to the waterway. Fishing is popular here, as the park has more than a mile of fishing along the riverbank, and a boat ramp is available. The park does not have campsites, but sports six miles of marked hiking trails and three picnic areas.

Morrison Rockwood State Park

The beautiful Lake Carlton is the centerpiece of this picturesque state park, located just north of Morrison in Whiteside County. The 1,164-acre park has a concrete boat ramp for fishing on the lake, as well as a 3.5 mile hiking trail. Equestrians do have use of a 14-mile trail through the park. Spend the night at one of 92 campsites, all with electricity, available in the wooded areas of the park. A shower building with toilets is open May 1 through Oct. 31. Enjoy a meal at the Lakeview picnic area overlooking the lake, offering a pavilion with a fireplace and available electricity.

Lowden State Park

Lowden State Park in Oregon is home to the majestic 50-foot statue of Chief Black Hawk, placed high on a bluff overlooking the Rock River. The statue is a tribute to Native Americans, and was designed by sculptor Lorado Taft. The statue is still undergoing restoration work, but there is plenty to do at this beautiful park. The scenic Rock River flows through the park and is available for fishing and boating. Four miles of hiking trails wind through the park, with picnic areas complete with tables, drinking water and outdoor toilets. Lowden is a great spot for campers, as there are 80 sites with electricity, a shower building and sanitary dumping station for trailers, as well as a campground cabin with beds and electricity. If you feel like roughing it, primitive, hike-in-only campsites also are available.

Franklin Creek State Natural Area

Just east of Dixon in Lee County is Franklin Creek State Natural Area, an 882-acre park featuring large natural springs, hardwood forests and a mill spring, which provided water power for the largest grist mill in the county. The area is home to the Franklin Creek Grist Mill, an original cornmeal and wheat flour producing mill, which was constructed in 1847. The reconstructed mill is open to the public on weekends from April through November. It serves as a visitors center, and offers milling demonstrations. Franklin Creek is popular with equestrians, with 12 miles of trails and facilities that include a picnic shelter, bathrooms, drinking water and an outdoor show area. Hike along the area’s 4.5 miles of marked trails before stopping for a snack at one of five shelters, complete with electricity, tables, grills, drinking water and restrooms.

For directions or more information about all the state parks, visit

Aimee Barrows

Aimee Barrows

Aimee Barrows is the editor of The Scene, Shaw Local News Network's entertainment section. The Scene is your go-to destination for all things fun in Northern Illinois. Prior to The Scene, Aimee was the editor of the Kane County Chronicle for five years, and a freelance reporter for Shaw Media for four years.