Chicago’s wonderful cosmopolitanism means that locals and visitors far too often remain within our vibrant metropolis. Tourists come and rightly reap the rewards but rarely step foot outside the city limits while those of us who live here tend to holiday elsewhere in search of something new. We’re also today all too susceptible to drift through our digitally-dominated domain for far too long without taking a break to reconnect with nature.
With our freedom fluctuating with the pandemic’s permutations and thus consequently largely hindering international travel there has never been a better time to escape the city and fully capitalize on the plethora of natural beauty close to home.
Though it may not boast wonders with the universal magnitude of the Grand Canyon nor the grandiose reputation of Niagra Falls, Illinois is teeming with diverse ecological landscapes and natural spectacles that are at the peak of their beauty this time of the year.
From monolithic marvels covered in snow to cascading waterfalls frozen in time, here are 7 natural wonders of Illinois that you can visit while they’re a different beast in winter:
Garden Of The Gods: Saline County, Illinois
Our first recommendation probably won’t come as much of a surprise to many Illinoisans. Spanning approximately 280,000 acres in Southern Illinois, Shawnee National Forest is our state’s only national forest. Of the variety of fantastic natural spectacles found within the body of Shawnee National Forest the The Garden of the Gods stands out from the rest.
With unique ancient rock formations, sprawling panoramic views, and breathtaking hikes, The Garden of the Gods offers some of the most stunning scenery in all of Illinois. The 300-million-year-old sandstone rock formations are unlike anything else in the Midwest and it is, unsurprisingly, one of the most photographed places in the state. The famous Observation Trail takes you through the abundance of natural beauty.
Cave-In-Rock: Hardin County, Illinois
Not far from Garden of the Gods, Cave-In-Rock is found in a village of the same name in Hardin County. Looking at the name, you can take a pretty good guess as to what you’re in for with this natural wonder.
The enormous 55ft wide cave was carved by water thousands of years ago and created an extraordinary hideout that was once a refuge stronghold for frontier outlaws. The cave offers stunning views overlooking the Ohio River and is undoubtedly one of the coolest natural landmarks in Illinois.
Wildcat Canyon In Starved Rock State Park: La Salle County, Illinois
When asked of Illinois’ natural attractions, another name on most lips would certainly be Starved Rock State Park. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, Starved Rock is an incredible spectacle offering over 13 miles of hiking trails, numerous cascading waterfalls, and 18 different canyons.
Of all the natural beauty here the pick of the bunch has to be The Wildcat Canyon which offers the largest and most impressive waterfall and canyon combination, especially in the current climate.
Cache River State Natural Area: Johnson County, Illinois
Cache River State Natural Area is an area of verdant forests and wetlands created by glacial floodwater from the Ohio River and it feels more like Louisiana than Illinois. Inhabited by an abundance of wildlife and 1,000-year-old cypress trees that measure roughly 40 feet in circumference, this ecological treasure is a spellbinding spectacle for the eyes. What the eyes will fail to acknowledge, however, is that within the swamps and layers of green algae, live over 100 endangered plants and animal species. Renting a canoe and exploring the wetlands makes for an unforgettable Illinois bucket list experience.
The Pomona Natural Bridge: Jackson County, Illinois
The Pomona Natural Bridge is another natural wonder that resides within the Shawnee National Forest but is of far less notoriety. Probably the most charming and under-appreciated natural wonder we have on this list its modesty is epitomized by the fact that the stream flowing beneath it remains unnamed to this day.
30 feet high and eight feet wide the natural sandstone bridge extends 90 feet over a verdant ravine and exhibits natural construction at its finest. The monolithic bridge is concealed behind swarms of beech, oak, and hickory trees and is more often than not fortuitously encountered in serendipitous ramblings but makes for an exciting and easy hike for kids and families.
Cascade Falls In Matthiessen State Park: La Salle County, Illinois
Matthiesen State Park is also located in La Salle County only a few miles from Starved Rock State Park. It doesn’t receive nearly as much love as its better-looking neighbor but were it in an area of its own it would undoubtedly earn rave reviews for its abundance of gorgeous waterfalls and canyons.
A stream flows from Matthiessen Lake to the Vermilion River and along the way Lake Falls drops into a canyon continuing downstream to the 45-foot-tall Cascade Falls. Here Matthiessen vies with Starved Rock in natural beauty, canyon walls overgrown with ferns and moss offer a Jurassic park where an abundance of plant and animal life thrives. Home to a large white-tail deer population and, thanks to the Plum Island Eagle Sanctuary, many bald eagles, there are plenty of animals to spot in the park, and thanks to its lesser-known reputation, there are far fewer people than Starved Rock.
Bork Falls In Ferne Clyffe State Park: Johnson County, Illinois
Ferne Clyffe State Park, part of the Illinois Ozarks, is home to another brilliant waterfall by the name of Bork Falls. We had to include this one because, unlike the others, the wider expanse and tranquil oasis beneath the falls allow those who dare the opportunity to swim beneath the cascading water. You might want to think twice about that daring feat in the current temperatures but when the weather starts to improve it’s the potential to dive into the waters beneath Bork Falls that sets it aside from the rest.
Ferne Clyffe State Park has plenty of limestone bluffs, cliff caves, and waterfalls to explore but it’s Bork Falls that is the most majestic of all the natural attractions found here.
[Featured image from Instagram / @jwjackson]