The Prairie State, even in the early days, has always been scenically challenged. No mountains rise majestically over the Illinois landscape. No glacial rivers pour down from towering cliffs. The “Hill Removal Project” was completed centuries ago. In many places groves of trees are so much a novelty that towns have been named in their honor. River Grove, Morton Grove, Elk Grove, Buffalo Grove, and Franklin Grove are just a few of them.
But pockets of natural beauty lay scattered all around the state, not the least of which is the 42-mile shoreline of Lake Michigan, the magnificent Mississippi River that constitutes Illinois’ entire western border, or the Shawnee National Forest in the state’s extreme southern counties.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has identified and acquired many of the state’s best natural areas and developed 145 state parks to provide a wide variety of outdoor recreational opportunities to visitors. These carefully managed properties offer hunting, fishing, camping, boating, hiking, educational and interpretive events, and many other attractions.
A complete listing of all the state parks can be found on the IDNR website at DNR.Illinois.gov/Parks. Maps, too, are part of the website, making it very easy to locate all the state parks. When you find an area that interests you, simply click on it and the full details on facilities and activities will pop up. Here are some sites I like in the more out-of-the-way areas for family vacation fishing get-aways!
In northeastern Illinois, just a short ride from the Chicagoland area, is the Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail. The IDNR website describes this 96-mile long corridor:
“This I&M Canal provided the first complete water route from the east coast to the Gulf of Mexico by connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River by way of the Illinois River. French explorers Joliet and Marquette recognized the value of this water route for navigation in the 1600s. It was used heavily by Native Americans and traders from this time until 1823, when Illinois created a Canal Commission to oversee design and construction of the I&M Canal. The canal was completed in 1848, at a cost of $6.5 million. It begins at the south branch of the Chicago River at Bridgeport and extends 96 miles to the Illinois River at LaSalle. Originally 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep, the canal’s 15 locks accommodate differences in elevation.”
Three state parks located along the length of the I&M Canal provide fishing access for bass, crappie, and catfish:
• Channahon State Park, phone: (815) 467-4271, located in Channahon in Will County;
• Gebhard Woods State Park, phone: (815) 942-0796, located in Morris;
• and Buffalo Rock State Park, phone (815) 433-2224, located 5 miles from the Fox River Aqueduct on the north bank of the Illinois River.
At each park, the original tow path used to pull barges now mark canal-side trails that provide excellent hiking and biking in summer, and snowmobiling in winter. Camping is restricted to backpackers in specified areas where fire rings and stoves are provided. Shelters accommodate picnickers, and toilets and water fountains are located along the canal as well. Your family can spend a week or more hiking the entire length of the I&M Canal, or just a few days enjoying nature at one of the campsites. Make campsite reservations at www.reserveamerica.com.
In west-central Illinois, near the town of Chandlerville in Cass County, is the sprawling Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area. One of Illinois’ largest public access areas, it is a mosaic of mature forest land, agricultural land, grassland and rare hill prairie that is home to a rich assortment of wildlife. The site totals 16,550 acres. JEPC is located in Cass County 25 miles northwest of Springfield off State Illinois Route 125, 10 miles northeast of Virginia, 10 miles west of Petersburg and New Salem State Historic Site, and 10 miles northwest of Ashland.
Watch The Video Gallery Above To Help you Improve Your Family Fishing Fun!
Sportfishing at JEPC takes place at Gridley Lake (25 acres), Prairie Lake (210 acres) and Drake Lake (35 acres). Several ponds within the site also have been renovated. Stream fishes include largemouth bass, bluegills and green sunfish. Muskies have been stocked in Prairie Lake. Northern pike have been added to Gridley Lake, which is also stocked for spring and fall trout-fishing seasons.
In season, hunters will also find plenty of woodlands and fields for hunting deer; wild turkeys; doves; upland species such as pheasants, quail, woodcocks and snipe;; furbearers such as raccoons, rabbits, opossum, red fox, gray fox, striped skunk and coyotes; and squirrels.
Other outdoors activities are supported by 24 miles of mountain bike trails, a 3-mile hiking/jogging trail, 26 miles of equestrian trails, an archery range, boating facilities and extensive camping opportunities including the Prairie Lake campground with 84 campsites and nine cabins. Shelters accommodate picnickers, and toilets and water fountains are located along the canal as well. A dedicated equestrian campground features 51 campsites with electrical hook-ups. For more information, call JEPC at (217) 452-7741. Make campsite reservations at ReserveAmerica.com.
Another popular family vacation spot is the Stephen A. Forbes State Recreation Area, located 15 miles northeast of Salem in Marion County. Originally only 20 acres with a two-acre pond being the only water available, the park today stretches across more than 3,000 acres, including a 585-acre lake stocked with excellent fishing for largemouth bass, bluegills, red ear sunfish, crappie, channel catfish, hybrid-striped bass and saugeyes (walleye-sauger hybrids). Trout fishing is popular during the spring and fall seasons at the area’s Boston Pond. Fishing is also available at Marlow Pond and Wilson Pond.
Oak Ridge Campground is a modern site that features 115 shaded campsites with electricity and water. A shower building is shared by campers who have reserved one of 52 campsites at ReserveAmerica.com.
In season, more than 2,000 acres of hunting land is available. Dove hunters will find the specially planted sunflower fields to be very helpful in attracting these birds. The heavily wooded areas also provide very good squirrel hunting. Brushy draws and fence rows provide excellent habitat for upland game, such as quail and rabbits. Turkey hunting and deer hunting (bow only).
Additional spring/summer activities at in the recreation area include four established nature trails for hiking enthusiasts, a 15-mile horse trail that circles the lake, a beautiful 200-foot sand swimming beach, boat ramps that provide easy access to the main lake (where there is no limit on horsepower) and picnicking. Top picnics sites include the Lookout Point, Stage Coach Trail, Black Oak, Sassafras, White Oak, Whippoorwill and Circle Drive areas. Picnic tables, pit toilets, and park grills are available at all sites. A restaurant and marina provides inside seating for up 40 people, with outdoor seating on two different levels of patios. Other features include a “country store” which provides necessary items for campers along with souvenirs. A tackle-and-bait shop keeps the angler well stocked. The marina portion of the project includes 80 boat slips for seasonal dockage, a fuel dock and boat rental. More information is available from the park office, phone: (618) 547-3381.
At the extreme southern tip of Illinois, near the city of Metropolis, is the state’s first state park — Fort Massac State Park. The rich history of the site begins before recorded history, when Native Americans undoubtedly took advantage of its strategic location overlooking the Ohio River. Later, the Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto and his soldiers are said to have constructed a primitive fortification in 1540 to defend themselves from hostile native attack. The fort has been destroyed and reconstructed many times, the latest being in 2002. Today, entry into the fort is closed pending maintenance work, but the history of the area remains for all to see, providing a wonderful learning experience for young and adults alike.
Boating and fishing are permitted in the park on and along the Ohio River. Anglers will find bullhead, carp, catfish, crappie, drum and largemouth bass. The boat dock and launch ramp provide easy river access.
Campers enjoy Fort Massac’s 50 Class A vehicular campsites, complete with electricity, a disposal station and a shower building. Tent camping and a separate group campground also are available. Camping reservations can be made through ReserveAmerica.com.
In season, hunting is permitted in some parts of the park for squirrels, woodcocks, doves, deer (archery only). Contact the park office for site-specific hunting regulations. For more information please review the Hunter Fact Sheet.
A 1-mile loop trail winds through grassy woods with the trailhead near the fort. This trail is designated as a “Forest Watch Tree Identification Trail” and brochures are available in the visitors’ center. The 2 1/2-mile Hickory Nut Ridge Trail shouldn’t be missed, as it takes hikers along the scenic Ohio River.
The George Rogers Clark Discovery Trail is an 8 3/4-mile bicycle/pedestrian trail connecting the cities of Metropolis and Brookport through Massac County and Fort Massac State Park. Approximately 4 miles of the trail runs within Fort Massac State Park, most of it on a dedicated bike path, and a small section shares a roadway.
After the kids have had their fill of historical data, be sure to take them into nearby Metropolis, a town dedicated to preserving the legend of, who else, Superman! A huge statue of the Man of Steel dominates the town square, and the theme is carried by local shops and restaurants. Oh, yes … for Mom and Pop, there is a first rate gambling casino, too!
For more information about Fort Massac and nearby Metropolis, call (618) 524-4712.
Along The Way: All of the state parks in Illinois are surrounded by small towns, each of which hosts a special and unique event every year. It may be a tractor pull, a sweet-corn festival, an antique auto show, a wine-tasting weekend, (my favorite), or even a rubber ducky race down the local river. Schedule your trip to coincide with the local festival dates. They are great fun and a welcomed alternative to camp life. In addition to the main event of the festival there are always terrific food choices, souvenirs, entertainment, and just plain good times.
Before you make any reservations for your family outing, reach out to the park staffs at the phone numbers/websites listed above and ask when the local festivals will be running. Try to build you schedule around those dates. The kids will love it, and so will you.