Hit All The Hidden Gem Natural Wonders In This Midwest State On A Breathtaking Road Trip

When you're looking forward to spending quality time with family and friends far from the hustle of life, there's nothing quite like a road trip to renew your perspective on just about everything. Getting behind the wheel and discovering new places can be revitalizing. If you happen to be heading towards the midwest, you'll find there's a long list of hidden gem natural wonders to discover in Illinois that are sure to inspire the senses.

In 2022, the state of Illinois reported 111 million visitors arrived to enjoy the views, entertainment venues, and delicious moments waiting to be found here. This year, road trippers looking to be counted as part of that impressive visitor number will find a particularly scenic experience waiting for them on a route that runs through the center of the state between Lake Michigan and Cave-in-Rock State Park. Spanning 700 miles, this road trip takes about 13.5 hours to complete but of course, customizing your adventure, stops, and detours is half the fun.

Kick off the journey near stunning Lake Michigan at Illinois Beach State Park. Here, you can spend time on a beautiful beach ridge shoreline admiring the waves before setting out to explore the dunes. Oak forests and marshes also dot the terrain which sprawls across 4,160 acres, hosts a maze of trails to hike, and is a prime place to enjoy wildlife watching.

Enjoy bluffs, canyons, waterfalls, and natural bridges

When you've had your fill of shoreline fun, your second stop heading south is Mississippi Palisades State Park in Savanna. You can easily spend a few hours exploring scenic bluffs near the river, or hiking paths across the park's 2,500 acres that were once trekked by native tribes over 1,000 years ago. A two-hour drive via I-80 East from Mississippi Palisades State Park puts you at the entrance to your next exciting stop, which is Starved Rock State Park in Oglesby. Have your camera ready for this destination, which hosts eye-catching sandstone canyons as well as trails dotted with waterfalls. There's also an overlook framing the Starved Rock Dam.

While waterfalls might not be the first natural feature you think of on a scenic road trip through Illinois, your next stop at Matthiessen State Park could change your outlook. Just a five-minute drive from Starved Rock State Park, this is a popular place to camp, ride horses, hike, and fish. However, it's typically the collection of waterfalls on-site that have a way of capturing visitor imaginations.

Next up is the Pomona Natural Bridge, which is found within the greater Shawnee National Forest. After a nearly five-hour stretch of driving from Matthiessen State Park, you'll be excited to stretch your legs on the short loop trail that makes its way through beech and oak-hickory forests. The impressive bridge is designed by nature itself, made up of sandstone and spanning 90 feet.

Admire wetlands, impressive forests, and caves

The next stop on your long-haul road trip is Giant City State Park in Makanda. The highlight here is the towering sandstone bluffs that have been formed into whimsical shapes over thousands of years. Pair that with options to rappel down rock faces and explore trails framed by wildflowers and you might find yourself lingering longer than you planned.

You'll only have to venture 25 minutes to enjoy your next destination on this route which is Ferne Clyffe State Park. Situated in Goreville, this is a pristine place to spend time on the water fishing and admiring the surrounding ferns and lush plant life. Travel just 45 minutes farther by vehicle and you'll find yourself in the Cache River State Natural Area. This is a place where you can spend time admiring rich wetlands that play host to gorgeous cypress trees that are over 1,000 years old. Boating, canoeing, and fishing are all top activities in this natural area.

Just over an hour from the natural area is your second to last stop on this route known as the Garden of the Gods. Rich in geological history, waterfalls, and panoramic views, this is a top place to photograph in Illinois with good reason. A little over 24 miles from this location, you'll reach your final road trip destination at Cave-In-Rock State Park. Here, you can enjoy time exploring a 55-foot wide limestone cave that's well within reach of bluffs overlooking the sparkling Ohio River.