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4 Outdoor adventures to take in Illinois this Summer

Add these outdoor trips to your Midwest adventure bucket list.

By: Erica Zazo + Save to a List

There’s no shortage of urban nature to explore in and around Chicago. And, across Illinois, adventure-seekers can take advantage of a seemingly endless list of state parks and wetlands, rivers and lakes, and conservation land and forest preserves ripe for exploring.

From treks on single-track hiking trails to vast wilderness areas reminiscent of Appalachia and the rural Northwoods, outdoor adventure can be found in nearly every corner of the state.

Hoping to turn your trip into a multi-day adventure? Consider making a reservation with Kampgrounds of America, which has locations across Illinois. KOA makes it easy for any traveler to find accommodations on the road, no matter if you’re an avid tent camper, RVer, or cabin connoisseur.

Escape into urban nature and beyond with this roundup of adventures throughout Illinois.

Bison graze in the prairie.
Photo by Brittney Waterhouse

1. Hike with buffalo at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Nachusa Grasslands

    With a name like “The Prairie State,” it's no wonder Illinois is home to protected bison herds at several preserves across the state. Among the most popular spots to see bison are the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Nachusa Grasslands areas in northern Illinois.

    Hike alongside grazing bison on the 3.6-mile Buffalo Viewing Trail in Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. This 20,000-acre area, once dominated by rusting factories and abandoned bunkers, was restored to its natural state in the late 90s and remains one of the best places for viewing grassland birds and native plant species in the Chicagoland area.

    A buffalo stands in tall grass.
    Photo by Katie Turnbull

    Exploring the Nachusa Grasslands is another great way to get an up-close look at Illinios’ buffalo herds. The 3,800-acre land conservancy focuses on habitat restoration and is one of the state's most biologically diverse and largest grasslands. Over 100 bison free-roam throughout the park and can be seen from several designated viewing locations.

    Make it an overnight and set up camp at Kankakee South KOA Holiday campground near Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie or the Chicago Northwest KOA Holiday campground near the Nachusa Grasslands.

    Indian Kitchen in the Lusk Creek Wilderness area.
    Photo by Lucas Bremer

    2. State Park and brewery hop along the Mississippi River

      Illinois’ western edge borders the mighty Mississippi River and boasts state parks, historical sites, and close-by breweries for post-adventure drinks.

      At Mississippi Palisades State Park, hike the Sentinel Trail for an epic lookout over the Mississippi River valley. The route climbs 1,089-feet up to Twin Sisters, a unique rock formation of two towering spires. Learn about Native American history in this region at the Black Hawk State Historic Site, home of the Sauk nation.

      There are over six miles of interpretive hiking trails, part of the larger Rock River Trail system, and wind through a dense forest area. The nearby John Hauberg Museum details the cultural heritage and history of the Black Hawk, Sauk, and Meskwaki tribes native to this region.

      After your adventures, cool off with a patio beer at the popular Rock Island Brewing Co. Other local favorites include Bent River Brewing Company, Radicle Effect Brewerks, or Wake Brewing near downtown Rock Island in the Quad Cities area.

      Rock Island / Quad Cities KOA Holiday makes an excellent place for families looking for a basecamp during a multi-day adventure. This KOA location boasts 150+ acres of private land, 50 acres of lake for fishing and boating, a heated outdoor pool, an adults-only hot tub, and a water-spray park for kids.

      Bork's Falls in Shawnee National Forest.
      Photo by Lucas Bremer

      3. Go waterfall hunting in the Shawnee National Forest

      Creekside cliffs, vista overlooks, and towering limestone rock formations characterize the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois. Hikes to Burden Falls, Jackson Falls, Bork's Falls, and Indian Kitchen in the Lusk Creek Wilderness area are some of the top picks for waterfall hikes here. 

      Before you head back north, consider a pit stop just northwest of the forest to explore Kinkaid Lake Spillway, a large cascading waterfall and arguably one of Illinois’ greatest swimming holes.

      There are also hikes without waterfalls that are worth exploring, too, like the 3.6-mile Little Grand Canyon Trail, the short and sweet Garden of the Gods Observation Trail, and the popular 1.7-mile Rim Rock National Recreation Trail.

      Shawnee National Forest campgrounds tend to get crowded. Instead, consider opting for a tent or RV site, or cabin reservation, at Grayville / I-64 KOA Holiday campground.

      Bike the Tunnel Hill State Trail.
      Photo by Lucas Bremer

      4. Bike through abandoned tunnels and railroad bridges on an Illinois Rail Trail

      Bikepackers, bike tourers, and day riders will be jazzed to know Illinois boasts some of the country’s most iconic rail trails, former railroads converted to bike trails.

      On the 24.5-mile Kickapoo Rail Trail, which extends from Urbana to Kickapoo State Park, bikers can ride across the ¼-mile-long bridge towering 88-feet above North Fork Vermilion River. The nearby Casey KOA Journey makes a great home base campground to explore other nearby nature spots like Fox Ridge State Park or Rock Cave Nature Preserve.

      The Illinois Prairie Path, a 57-mile route just outside of downtown Chicago, boasts a bold legacy for the national movement of rail trails across the nation. The trail was one of the first to be inducted into the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s hall of fame and attracts over 80,000 outdoor enthusiasts year-round.

      Rail trail bridge ride on Tunnel Hill State Trail.
      Photo by Lucas Bremer

      The 55-mile Tunnel Hill State Trail in southern Illinois takes riders along the rock-lined bike path, over abandoned railroad bridges, and through a former 550-foot train tunnel. If long-distance biking isn’t your thing, you can opt for a shorter day bike route that still takes you through the iconic tunnel experience. To make it a multi-day adventure, start your journey with an overnight at Benton KOA Journey before hitting the road the next morning.

      We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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