We had a last minute opportunity to get a long weekend trip in before school started. We were determined to get to Indiana Dunes State and National Parks. We check the sites daily for cancellations and tried to snag a site at nearby public and private campgrounds to no avail. We settled on the only site remaining at Starved Rock State Park, which is no where near Indiana Dunes.
Starved Rock State Park campground was maybe 25% full when we arrived Thursday afternoon. We booked the only site available through the weekend, site 59, so we knew it wouldn’t stay quiet. Our site was nearly full sun, but the campground offered full sun, partially shaded, and fully wooded sites. We had a premium site, which offers 30amp electric, a gravel pad with a picnic table, and a fire pit. We had a large, level site. We enjoyed biking the loops of the campground and the stars were beautiful at night.
We are pretty low maintenance with our expectations, but this campground was disappointing. The campground was more than three non-bike-able miles to the features of the State Park. At 10pm, the gates are chained and no possible way to enter the campground. If you want to leave during quiet hours, as we did one morning, you’ll be driving over a tire shredder, so don’t forget anything! Each loop had one small bathhouse, which proved to be extremely inadequate for a full campground, as there was frequently a line out the door. We appreciate that this is a great option for locals around Chicago and Rockford to camp and get out of the city, but we’d prefer not to return. Our highlight of the campground was hands-down seeing Jessica back the camper in successfully for the first time!
Starved Rock Lodge Is beautiful! A CCC project, the lodge offers a grand common area featuring exposed timber and a massive fireplace. Just outside is a great terrace on top of the bluffs. In addition to lodging and hosting events, the lodge has the Main Dining Room, Back Door Lounge, and a cafe. We had dinner in the Main Dining Room and enjoyed our meal. After a long day of hiking, we enjoyed drinks on the terrace from the Back Door Lounge. The lodge connects to the visitor center via a long set of stairs going down the bluff or by a short drive.
Hiking at Starved Rock is an experience. We’ve visited busy national parks and popular state parks. This location packs in guests at 3 million annually, most of which visit on summer weekends. We joined the masses and climbed up and down the canyons to enjoy a couple of the most popular hikes, including Starved Rock, Wildcat Canyon, River Trail, and the stairs back up to the lodge. The sandstone canyons and bluffs, showcasing waterfalls and vistas, were beautiful; this was a nice, albeit crowded, area to hike.
Just a couple miles from the campground is Matthiessen State Park. Another popular stop in the area, we were lucky to grab a parking spot in the Dells area of the park. We explored both the upper and lower dells, which was actually sandstone bluffs and canyons with a stream and waterfalls flowing through. After a day of hiking Matthiessen and Starved Rock, we’d completed twelve miles of trails and 68 flights of stairs, probably more climbing than we did at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Utica is a small tourist town just a couple miles from both State Parks. We took a break to walk the couple blocks of downtown, check out the I&M Canal, visit a museum, browse an antique shop, and grab lunch at Skoog’s Pub and Grill.
Friday morning we decided to take a day trip to Indiana Dunes State Park and Indiana Dunes National Park. The drive was just under two hours and we got to the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center just after 8am. We built an excellent strategy for visiting the parks with the help of the Visitor Center staff. Our first stop was the State Park to tackle The 3 Dune Challenge. 3DC is a 1.5 mile loop up and down the three tallest dunes in the park: Mt Jackson, Mt Holden, and Mt Tom. The complete challenge is 552 feet of vertical climb, primarily in sand in and out of tree cover. We hit the beach next to cool off. The swimming area is where you’ll also find Devil’s Slide, a dune you can climb and race down and into the water. We walked though the campground and picked out the perfect future site, and briefly discussed trying to grab a walk-in site and move the camper. In the afternoon we left the State Park and visited the National Park, including Portage Lakefront and Mt Baldy. We didn’t make it to all of the beaches, but from what we saw, the National Park was nice, but Indiana Dunes State Park was absolutely amazing! After a long day of sun, sand, and water, we started the commute back to the campground. Unfortunately it took a lot longer to return, but we did fortunately make it before the gates were locked!
We were glad to see the Starved Rock region, the number one attraction in Illinois, and we also also glad to have another National Park under our belt. We cannot wait to make a return visit to Indiana Dunes State Park, which was nearly as wonderful as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore.
Shane and Jessica
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