Starved Rock is the closest thing that Illinois has to a National Park (other than the Lincoln Home). Receiving 2 million visitors annually, the number seems greatly over-estimated when walking on empty trails in the winter. Bald Eagles are plentiful during this season.

Starved Rock has many narrow canyons which can be hiked
Bald Eagles were very common
It was only a matter of time before I visited the most famous park of my new state. I doubt that Starved Rock State Park is a "new find" for anyone reading this but visiting it in the winter was a different experience all together. For the non-Chicagoans/non-Midwesterners, Starved Rock is an area of large sandstone cliffs and deep canyons which contrasts the commonly held view of the Midwest being entirely flat and uninspiring. We are fortunate to be a little over an hour and a half away.

Nearly every Illinois Tourism brochure has three common pictures in it- Lincoln related points of interest, Chicago scenes and Starved Rock. The dozen or so waterfalls are beautiful in themselves, not just "pretty... for the Midwest". In the winter, they freeze and become a legitimate ice climbing destination. The reasons for making it down here were numerous.

WI4 Ice at Starved Rock
Our hike began where most hikes begin which was the trail up the actual Starved Rock of Starved Rock State Park. This is almost always a crowded hike but the rock is large enough to support the crowds. What I didn't realize before visiting is that although it is the tallest and most famous feature in the park, it is not the only great lookout. After getting a great view of a dozen bald eagles, we actually enjoyed Lover's Leap, Eagle Cliff and Beehive Overlook just as well. All of these were within a 3 mile round trip hike from the main parking area.

The above pictured Wildcat Canyon and French Canyon were the highlight of our little jaunt. There are dozens of canyons with varying degrees of magnificence throughout the park but those two are the most photographed. A few of them could be seen from the road such as Kankaskia and Ottawa Canyon. I didn't realize the park is some 20 miles long. St Louis Canyon and Aurora Canyon were not seen by us on this hike but they consistently make for photography favorites during any season.
Lovers Leap as viewed from Starved Rock

Expansive view of the Illinois River from Eagle Cliff
We happened to go right in the middle of prime Bald Eagle watching season- a yearly event where the eagles roost on Plum Island in the winter and enjoy the abundant fishing below the dam. Again, this is well known to most outdoorsy Illinoisans but to us this was an extra surprise. The Bald Eagles were as abundant as pigeons are on Lake Michigan- a nice change of avian species. We were quite close to a few eagles who seemed unperturbed by the flocks of photographers clamoring for a money shot. Having traveled much across other Bald Eagle territories in the Rockies and Maine, I'd say this was the closest I've been to them before.

Winter was a fine time to visit Starved Rock. The trails were well marked and cut and I just needed microspikes for the few hills we encountered. There's enough hills and stairs to make it a pretty legitimate hike as well. Its possible to hike a good 14-16 miles without seeing the same thing twice; a good summertime goal. But whether on snowshoes, winter boots or crampons, I think this park is beyond just the "its beautiful... for the Midwest" type of place.
Walking along the Illinois River

Some single pitch ice climbing- easy to top rope
I'd like to return in the Spring when the waterfalls are really flowing. I'm sure it's actually pretty any time of year though!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!