25 Best Hiking Trails in Illinois (With Waterfalls & Amazing Views)

When envisioning a trip to the state of Illinois, natural beauty is probably not the first words to escape your lips. The windy metropolis of Chicago grabs the headline as the gem of Illinois, but beyond the distracting bright lights of the big city is a state abundant with farmland, forests, wetlands, and rolling hills.

Tucked away in these lesser-known areas are hundreds of unique and naturally diverse hiking trails that make rural Illinois a hidden treasure for outdoor enthusiasts.

Here is your guide to 25 spectacular hiking trails in “The Prairie State” – the great state of Illinois.

1. Giant City Nature Trail

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Directions: From Carbondale, head south on S Giant City Road and drive for 9.7 miles before turning right onto S Church Street. Continue for 0.3 miles and make a left to stay on S Church Street. After another 0.3 miles, turn left onto Stonefort Road. Drive for 0.5 miles and turn left onto Giant City Lodge Road, the trailhead will be on your right.

This short-but-sweet hike through Giant City State is arguably the most scenic trail in all of Illinois. The trail is primarily an exquisite wooden boardwalk enclosed by 12,000-year-old sandstone bluffs, creating the namesake, “Giant City Streets”.

Keep an eye out for names etched into the surrounding rock walls – at first glance, it appears to be graffiti, but a closer look reveals names carved all the way back in the mid-1800s.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 1.0 Miles
Elevation Gain: 160 Feet

2. Garden of the Gods Observation Trail

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Directions: From Harrisburg, head south on IL-145 S for 6.0 miles and take a left onto IL-34 S. Continue for 9.4 miles and make another left onto 1180 N/Karbers Ridge Road. Drive for 2.8 miles and make a left onto Garden of the Gods Road. After 1.0 miles, take a left to stay on Garden of the Gods Road and the trailhead will be on your left.

This hidden gem transports you away from the flat landscape of the Midwest. The Garden of the Gods Observation Trail is an overlooking trail that passes through deep forests and beautiful views of the surrounding lakes and rivers.

Be on the lookout halfway through the loop for Devil’s Smokestack, a unique rock formation resembling a cave stalagmite overlooking the valley.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 0.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 39 Feet

3. Fern Clyffe Waterfall Trail

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Directions: From Marion, head south on IL-37 S and drive for 14.8 miles. Look for the signs for Ferne Cliffe State Park and make a right at the entrance. Continue for 1.0 miles and the trailhead will be on your right.

Located within the Shawnee National Forest, the Ferne Clyffe Waterfall Trail is a short, but challenging trek to the shores of a tall, wispy waterfall.

The hike meanders through lush forests along rocky terrain before opening to the refreshing waterfall. This trail can be rugged, so be sure to wear appropriate footwear.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 1.3 Miles
Elevation Gain:206 Feet

4. Dells Canyon and Bluff Trail

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Directions: From North Utica, drive south on IL-178 S/S Clark Street for 3.3 miles before turning right onto N 25th Road. Drive for another 0.9 miles and the trailhead for the Dells Canyon and Bluff Trail will be on your right.

A beautiful and diverse hike within Matthiessen State Park, Dells Canyon, and Bluff Trail is an amazing trail that takes you through a variety of unique natural environments.

The trail begins with a cascading waterfall that leads the way down a beautiful canyon. Follow (and cross) the slow-trickling waters until reaching the bottom – a calm and serene lake fed by another cascading waterfall.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 2.0 Miles
Elevation Gain: 206 Feet

5. Salt Lick and Johnson Trail Loop

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Directions: From Waterloo, head south on IL-156 W for 8.8 miles and turn right onto Quarry Street. Drive for 0.5 miles and turn right onto Limestone Lane and the trailhead for the Salt Lick and Johnson Trail Loop will be on your left.

This moderate hike is an excellent trail through Illinois prairie lands. Along the way are opportunities to capture vibrant and blooming spring wildflowers.

Once reaching the top of the loop, you will be rewarded with far-reaching views of downtown St. Louis and the Mississippi River.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 2.9 Miles
Elevation Gain: 452 Feet

6. Little Grand Canyon Trail

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Directions:
From Carbondale, head west on W Murphysboro Road for 2.0 miles and take a left onto Country Club Road. Drive for 1.1 miles and make a right onto Chautauqua Road. Stay on Chautauqua Road for 2.6 miles before merging onto Orchard Hill Road, continue for another 2.8 miles. Make a right onto Poplar Ridge Road and drive for 1.2 miles before merging onto Hickory Ridge Road. After 2.4 miles, turn right onto Little Grand Canyon Road and after 0.2 miles, the parking area will be on your right.

The Little Grand Canyon Trail is a canyon that you would not know existed unless you were looking for it. Hidden in the Shawnee National Forest, this trail is a mild descent into a deep canyon that cuts through the lengths of the park. With the depth of the canyon, moisture can collect in this lush canyon so be prepared for slick trail conditions.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 3.4 Miles
Elevation Gain: 508 Feet

7. Buffalo Viewing Trail

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Directions: From Joliet, drive south on IL-53 S to W Peotone Road in Florence Township for 9.7 miles and make a left onto US-6 W. Continue on US-6 W for 1.4 miles until merging onto IL-53 S. Continue for 9.7 miles and make a left onto Schweitzer Ed Road. After 0.2 miles, turn left and then an immediate right and your parking area for this hike is on your right.

In the 19th century, large populations of grazing buffalo and bison inhabited the prairies just outside of Joliet but were over-hunted and unfortunately left this area uninhabited.

However, in 2015, USDA Forest Reintroduced 27 bison back into the environment. The Buffalo Viewing Trail is a terrific way to witness and get up and close (but not too close) to these returned native creatures just outside the busy city limits.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 3.6 Miles
Elevation Gain: 52 Feet

8. Pierce Lake Trail

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Directions: From Rockford, drive northeast on IL-251 N for 2.4 miles and make a slight right onto Forest Hills Road. Continue for another 5.6 miles and use the right two lanes to turn right onto West Lane Road. Stay on West Lane Road for 1.9 miles and make a right into Loves Park. Drive for 0.7 miles and make a right onto Hart Rd and drive for 1.9 miles, the trailhead will be on your left.

This gentle hike follows along the forested shores of expansive Pierce Lake. A local favorite, this hike through Rock Cut State Park is a busy trail that is popular with several types of outdoor enthusiasts.

It is common to see a dozen fishing boats and high-speed water skiers disturbing the calm surface. The scenic shores of this trail create excellent opportunities for tranquil dips in the lake at nearly every junction.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 3.6 Miles
Elevation Gain: 72 Feet

9. Starved Rock and Sandstone Point Overlook Trail

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Directions: From La Salle, drive east on US-6 E for 0.8 miles and turn right onto E 709th Road. Continue for 1.3 miles and turn right onto N Division Street. After 0.3 miles, merge onto IL-178 S and drive for another 1.5 miles and turn left into Starved Rock State Park. After 0.8 miles, make a left and the trailhead will be on your left.

The hike to Starved Rock and Sandstone Point is a trail with several highlights that are well worth the price of admission. The ultimate highlight is a stunning canyon that resembles a cave.

In the center of this “cave,” a powerful waterfall crashes down onto a sharp rock formation, creating a unique shaded and enclosed area behind the falls.

T&T Tip: Visit in the winter, as the waterfall seemingly freezes instantaneously and keeps its frozen shape against the sharp rock formation.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 4.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 337 Feet

10. Deer Grove Yellow Loop Trail

Credit: Forest Preserves of Cook County

Directions: From Arlington Heights, head northwest on US-14 W for 4.8 miles and turn right onto N Quentin Road. Drive for 1.3 miles and turn left into the Cook County Forest Preserve and drive for another 0.7 miles and the parking area will be on the left.

The Deer Grove Yellow Loop is a mild and steady climb through the rolling hills of some of Illinois’ finest prairies, woodlands, and wetlands.

Although this trail does not lead to majestic overlooks, it more than makes up for it with abundant opportunities to capture a variety of native wildlife, such as chipmunks, coyotes, and thousands of species of unique birds to identify.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 5.7 Miles
Elevation Gain: 298 Feet

11. Busse Woods Loop Trail

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Directions: From Arlington Heights, head south on N Arlington Heights Road and drive for 4.1 miles and turn right onto IL-72 W. Continue driving for 1.1 miles and the trailhead will be on your right.

Busse Woods Loop Trail is a unique destination in the fact that is more of a walking elk safari than a typical day hike. This comfortable 7-mile hike has little-to-no elevation gain and is paved in its entirety.

Along this trail, it is important to keep your eyes peeled – these hills have herds of elk that can be spotted by the hundreds! If you do spot a herd, DO NOT approach them. They can be extremely dangerous if provoked.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 7.5 Miles
Elevation Gain: 101 Feet

12. Waterfall Glen Trail

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Directions: From Naperville, head east on 75th Street for 9.0 miles and turn right onto S Cass Avenue. Continue for 1.9 miles and turn right onto Northgate Road. After 0.1 miles, the trailhead will be on your right.

The Waterfall Glen Trail is the ideal escape from the bright lights of Chicagoland. Just an hour outside the city, this hike takes you deep within the natural prairies and savannas of Illinois, far enough to escape the overwhelming sounds of Chicago.

The long trail leads you to an incredible multi-tiered tumbling waterfall, resting in a calm and shallow creek – an excellent and refreshing natural retreat from the city.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 9.3 Miles
Elevation Gain: 400 Feet

13. Sag Valley Yellow Trail Loop

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Directions: From Joliet, drive north on IL-171 N for 10 miles and turn right onto IL-83 S. Continue on IL 83 S for 3.6 miles and turn right into Swallow Cliff Woods and after 0.1 miles you will find the parking area for the hike.

The Sag Valley Yellow Trail Loop is a moderate hike along comfortable crushed limestone that is a popular horseback and mountain biking trail as well as hiking.

The hike follows atop rocky bluffs looking down on old toboggan slides as you traverse the perimeter of a dense forest just outside the city. The gentle trail is an excellent and convenient escape from the busy elements of city life.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 7.6 Miles
Elevation Gain: 410 Feet

14. Indian Point Trail

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Directions: From Harrisburg, head south on IL-145 S for 6.0 miles and take a left onto IL-34 S. Continue for 9.4 miles and make another left onto 1180 N/Karbers Ridge Road. Drive for 2.8 miles and make a left onto Garden of the Gods Road. After 1.0 miles, take a left to stay on Garden of the Gods Road and the trailhead will be on your left.

The Indian Loop Trail is an exceptional choice if you desire a trail that is off the beaten path. Following along a rock-strewn ridge, this trail descends beneath the bluffs into a rocky canyon full of rock scrambling opportunities.

The trail is poorly marked and not well maintained, so be cautious wandering too far from the trail – but the payoff is in its seclusion and tranquil nature.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 1.7 Miles
Elevation Gain: 187 Feet

15. Saint Louis Canyon Trail

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Directions: From North Utica, head south on IL-178 S for 1.4 miles and turn left onto E 875th Road. Drive for 1.3 miles and make a left onto Lodge Lane. Drive on Lodge Lane for 0.2 miles and turn left, followed by an immediate right and the parking area will be on your right.

Another incredible hike within Starved Rocks State Park, the trail to Saint Louis Falls will leave you with memories for a lifetime. The trail is a collection of smooth canyons that lead to many beautifully forested offshoots.

This path steeply leads you down into a narrow canyon with a majestic crashing waterfall that creates a mid-western oasis beneath the high canyon walls.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 2.1 Miles
Elevation Gain: 232 Feet

16. Palos Orange Trail

Credit: Michael Gaughan / AllTrails

Directions: From Joliet, head north on IL-171 N for 14.5 miles and turn right to stay on IL-171 N. After 2.4 miles, make another right onto W 95th Street. Drive for 0.2 miles and turn onto Wolf Road. After 0.7 miles, the trailhead for the Palos Orange Trail will be on your right.

The Palos Orange Trail is a hike hidden along a beautiful ravine just outside of downtown Chicago. This scenic trail is a popular path that is perfect for mountain biking and hiking.

The level trail through Wolf Rock Woods is surrounded is a wonderfully and comfortably shaded hike through the lush wilderness. Be sure to keep your ears peeled, there will likely be mountain bike traffic along your path.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 5.7 Miles
Elevation Gain: 423 Feet

17. Jackson Falls Trail

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Directions: From Bloomfield, head northeast on US-45 N for 8.8 miles and make a right onto Ozark Road. After 1.9 miles, make a right to stay on Ozark Road. Continue for 2.8 miles and make a right onto Glen Street Falls Road and drive for another 1.9 miles and the trailhead parking area will be on your right.

The hike to Jackson Falls is more than meets the eye. The trail is a moderate hike through the beautiful Illinois wilderness surrounded by unique rock formations that make for a climbing and bouldering wonderland.

After a few miles of hiking through this dense landscape, you will be rewarded with Jackson Falls, a stunning multi-tiered waterfall that crashes to the rocky shores at your feet.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 4.2 Miles
Elevation Gain: 433 Feet

18. Rim Rock Recreational Trail

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Directions: From Harrisburg, head west onto IL-13 E for 13.4 miles and turn right onto IL-1 S. Drive for another 8.7 miles and take a right onto Pounds Hollow Road. Continue for 3.0 miles and the parking area will be on your right.

The Rim Rock Recreational Trail is a short hike that is not only beautiful but historic! This narrow canyon hike is a moderate stroll through some of the most unique trail conditions in southern Illinois.

The trail was built by Late Woodland Native Americans nearly 1,500 years ago! It was not until 1980 that this trail was named and protected as a national recreation trail.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 1.7 Miles
Elevation Gain:360 Feet

19. Salt Creek Greenway Trail

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Directions: From downtown Chicago, head west onto I-290 W for 9.7 miles and take exit 20 for IL-171 toward 1st Avenue. Stay on IL-171 for 2.2 miles and turn right onto Golfview Drive. Drive for another 0.2 miles and make a right onto 31st Street. After another 0.2 miles, make a right onto McCormick Avenue. Drive for 0.2 miles and you will reach the parking area for this hike.

The Salt Creek Greenway Trail is a multipurpose trail that runs from the Brookfield Zoo to Busse Woods Preserve. Along this paved pathway, you will have comfortable walking conditions for miles that lead you through the hilly landscape of southern Illinois.

The path offers excellent views of a glacial valley, gravelly boulder clay rock formations, and the unique pools of Salt Creek.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 13.6 Miles
Elevation Gain: 229 Feet

20. Trillium Trail

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Directions: From Carbondale, head south onto S Illinois Avenue for 1.3 miles and turn left onto E Pleasant Hill Road. After 0.4 miles, make a right onto Springer Ridge Road and drive for another 5.6 miles. Make a sharp left onto Stonefort Road and after 0.1 miles, the parking area for the hike will be on your right.

The Trillium Trail is a rugged, but moderate trail that is surrounded by natural beauty. Along this short route, you will follow a comfortable dirt path beneath incredible rocky bluffs lush with green foliage emanating from the surface.

This trail is best completed later in the season to avoid muddy conditions, but also to capture the beauty of the changing colors of the fall leaves.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 1.3 Miles
Elevation Gain: 164 Feet

21. Herrick Lake Trail

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Directions: From Naperville, drive north on S Washington Street for 4.0 miles before turning left onto W Warrenville Road. Continue for 0.6 miles and turn right onto the first cross street onto Herrick Road. After 1.0 miles, follow the signs for the Herrick Lake Forest Preserve West parking Lot, the trailhead for this hike.

The Herrick Lake Trail is a wonderful hike that takes you through miles of Illinois’ lush prairies and wetlands, without veering too far from the city. Tucked between two separate interstate systems, the trail within the Herrick Lake Forest Preserve is a multi-purpose path lined with crushed gravel.

If you are an angler, this is an excellent place to bait your hook. Along the way, you will encounter two calm and expansive lakes that are a perfect place to cast a line.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 8.1 Miles
Elevation Gain: 164 Feet

22. Lakeshore Path: North Ave to Navy Pier

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Directions: From Lincoln Park, head east onto Fullerton Ave for 0.9 miles before turning right to merge onto US Hwy 41 S. Continue for 1.5 miles and use the right 2 lanes to merge onto N Lake Shore Drive. Drive for 0.3 miles and turn left onto E Lake Shore Drive. After 0.2 miles, make a right onto E Walton Street, and after another 0.9 miles. Make a quick right onto N Michigan Ave and drive 0.3 miles before taking the ramp onto E Lake Shore Drive. Merge onto US Highway 41 N and drive for 0.4 miles and take the Lasalle Drive exit toward North Avenue – the parking area will be on your right.

This section of Lakeshore Path – North Ave to Navy Pier, is a section of an 18-mile trail along the shores of Lake Michigan in the heart of downtown Chicago.

This short out-and-back section of this trail begins on the shores of Ohio Street beaches and continues until you get a clear view of the iconic Navy Pier.

Along the trail, you will be flanked by the tall skyscrapers making up the Chicago skyline – with the John Hancock Building as your compass.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 1.8 Miles
Elevation Gain: 22 Feet

23. Panther Den Loop

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Directions: From Carbondale, take West Walnut Street for 0.9 miles and make a slight right onto E Walnut Street. Continue for another 0.9 miles and make a right onto S Giant City. Drive for 6.1 miles before making a left onto Grassy Road. After 3.0 miles, turn right onto Rocky Comfort Road and drive for 1.9 miles. Turn onto N Rocky Comfort Road and drive for 3.1 miles before making a left onto Panthers Den Road. Drive for 1.5 miles, turn left onto Panthers Den Lane, and after another 0.5 miles you will reach the parking area.

In the Shawnee National Forest on the southern border of Illinois, the Panther Den Wilderness hiking loop is a unique trail that takes you through rolling hills that feature peculiar bluffs that are curiously eroded. The bluffs have eroded in a way that resembles an animal’s den, particularly that of panthers.

The trail is rugged and decently maintained, but there are several muddy and rocky spots. Be sure to bring the proper footwear or it will be a muddy afternoon.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 2.9 Miles
Elevation Gain: 285 Feet

24. Saw Wee Kee Trail

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Directions: From Aurora, head south on State Route 31 S for 5.8 miles and merge onto US-34 W. Stay on US-34 W for 1.2 miles and take a left onto S Orchard Road. After 0.7 miles, make a right onto Budlong Road and make an immediate right onto Minkler Road. Follow Minkler Road for 1.0 miles and turn right into the parking area for this hike.

The Saw Wee Kee Trail is a rustic and muddy trail along Fox River that you can expect you get dirty. The path subtly rolls through dense hills in See Wee Kee Park but is also an extremely popular mountain biking single track.

With the popularity of the path, the trail conditions deteriorate and becomes a long slog through a beautiful and natural wilderness. Do not let it deter you, splashing through the terrain is an experience that is best enjoyed from the eyes of your inner child.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 10.1 Miles
Elevation Gain: 209 Feet

25. Pere Marquette Outer Loop

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Directions: From Wood River, drive west on IL-143 W for 5.2 miles and take one of the two left lanes to turn left onto W Broadway. After 0.3 miles, take IL-100 N for 20.9 miles and make a right onto Visitors Center Lane and then an immediate left to stay on Visitors Center Lane and the trailhead will be on your right.

The Pere Marquette Outer Loop is a beautiful overlooking hike that circles the entirety of Pere Marquette State Park. This moderate trail takes up an incredibly scenic ridge that continues climbing higher until you reach the ridge.

The remainder of the adventure follows the ridge, giving overlooking views of Bundy Lake, the Mississippi River, and on a cloudless day, you can have unobstructed views of the St. Louis Skyline – including the famous Gateway Arch.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 6.3 Miles
Elevation Gain: 1,033 Feet