Lover's Leap and LaSalle Canyon Loop

Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Trip Date: Sunday, September 8th, 2019
Last Updated: Tuesday, December 31st, 2019
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★★(5/5)
Overall Difficulty Moderate
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 5.5 miles roundtrip
Time 4 hours
Terrain Hilly
Best Seasons All
Family Friendly No
Dog Friendly Yes
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

In my search for new Midwest hikes, I've been bombarded with pictures of Starved Rock State Park, and I'm glad that I finally hiked here! Located a bit over an hour and a half from Chicago, this is Illinois's most popular state park. Don't let the crowds deter you though, the sandstone canyons and abundant waterfalls and streams are a real treat, breaking the monotony of farms and prairie you pass on the drive. This particular route allows you to see almost all of the highlights in the park (save for a handful of canyons a drive away from the visitor center), so plan your trip now!

From the parking lot, walk towards the visitor center, then follow the signs for Starved Rock. Turn left at the intersection ahead, and then the trail turns sharply right. The trail slowly curls uphill until you reach a wooden walkway looping around the top of Starved Rock. You'll enjoy views of the Illinois River and dam as pictured below; in the winter, bald eagles like to fish in the unfrozen waters beneath the dam. Signs on the platform will share the legend that gave Starved Rock its name: a brutal story where the warring Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes trapped the rival Illini at the top of this butte until the Illini starved.

Bald eagles frequent this dam on the Illinois River in the winter

Bald eagles frequent this dam on the Illinois River in the winter

Continue down the way you came, then turn left at the intersection, following signs for Lover's Leap. Turn left at the next two intersections, and with some more uphill you'll reach Lover's Leap Overlook and the view pictured below. Across the canyon you can see Starved Rock and its viewing platforms atop a mound of green foliage. Continue around the loop trail then go straight to Eagle Cliff Overlook, a large deck designed for viewing bald eagles near the dam.
Leopold and Plum Island as seen from Lover's Leap

Leopold and Plum Island as seen from Lover's Leap

After visiting Eagle Cliff Overlook, return to the trail and stay to the left to follow the River Trail. You'll pass Beehive Overlook, but overgrown trees block the view that used to be here. With a bit of a descent, you'll meet a spur trail to Wildcat Canyon. Turn right to see the trickling Wildcat Canyon Falls (which is more impressive after a decent rain) and mossy, water-carved cliffs as pictured below.
The epic cliffs of Wildcat Canyon

The epic cliffs of Wildcat Canyon

Turn around and return to the River Trail. This section of trail is flat but frequently muddy due to the proximity to the Illinois River. Views of the river are punctuated by trees, and on the right side you'll see some hardy trees growing into the rocky cliffs, as pictured below.
Gnarly roots from trees growing into the cliff

Gnarly roots from trees growing into the cliff

Just before turning on the trail to LaSalle Canyon, you'll cross a bridge over the picturesque stream, shown below.
Pretty views from a bridge on the trail

Pretty views from a bridge on the trail

Immediately after crossing the bridge, turn right onto the trail leading to LaSalle Canyon. This section was my favorite part of the entire hike: a winding trail through a lush, narrow canyon with vertical sandstone cliffs surrounding you. Wooden bridges like pictured below help cross steep gullies. Though you probably won't be alone in this canyon, the environment feels more secluded than the rest of the park.
Sandstone cliffs and bridges abound in LaSalle Canyon

Sandstone cliffs and bridges abound in LaSalle Canyon

At the end of the trail, you'll reach one of the best waterfall photo opportunities in the park, as pictured below. This is approximately the halfway point of the hike and a natural stopping point, so take a moment to enjoy the sounds of flowing water.
The waterfall at the end of LaSalle Canyon

The waterfall at the end of LaSalle Canyon

At the time of writing, the entire loop through the canyon was closed due to storm damage, so you'll have to retrace your steps to continue on your journey. Turn left once you reach the river trail, then take the first massive staircase on your left after walking for a bit -- see the intimidating picture below.
The never-ending staircase to the top of the canyon walls

The never-ending staircase to the top of the canyon walls

From the top of the stairs, Sandstone Point Overlook will be on your left, providing another view of the Illinois River. Continuing on the trail, you'll pass by Basswood Canyon before reaching an upper viewing platform of Wildcat Canyon, which you saw earlier from the bottom. As you can tell from the photo below, the cliffs feel much taller when you're standing on top!
A viewing platform at the top of Wildcat Canyon

A viewing platform at the top of Wildcat Canyon

Past the overlook pictured above, follow signs for Pontiac Canyon (not the more direct trail to French Canyon). The path winds past beautiful S-shaped canyons carved in the sandstone by streams. At the intersection ahead, turn left to go towards French Canyon.

The next part of the hike is not well-depicted on the official park map linked at the bottom of the page and is hard to see on the map at the top of the page. In any case, you are only a half mile from the visitor center at this point and right by the lodge, so don't worry about getting too lost. Turn sharply right (almost a U-turn), and you'll see the bottom of French Canyon. If you miss this turn, you'll end up at a parking lot. Continue straight until you see a set of stairs and railings on your right. Go down the stairs and follow the narrow passage on solid rock into French Canyon. The trail dead-ends at the scene pictured below.
The narrow walls of French Canyon

The narrow walls of French Canyon

To finish your hike, retrace your steps out of the canyon, then continue down the stairs. Turn left onto the trail ahead, and everything should look familiar. Follow the trail back to the visitor center, and you're done!

Though this is an extremely popular place to hike, it's a worthwhile visit for any nature lover living in or visiting Chicago. The scenery alone makes it one of the best places to hike in the Midwest! Let me know what you think in the comments section below and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!



Important Information

Dogs are allowed on leash. This hike is much too long and has too many stairs to be kid-friendly; for a shorter hike, consider hiking to Starved Rock or to French Canyon. You can hike in all four seasons here, giving you the opportunity to experience unique scenery year-round, with frozen waterfalls and bald eagles in the winter, changing colors in the fall, and wildflowers in the spring. Less than 2 hours from Chicago, this is the most popular state park in Illinois, so expect to see crowds of people on most weekends. Visit early in the morning, during the week, or when the weather is mediocre if you want to avoid people.

Directions

From Chicago, take Interstate 55 south to Interstate 80 west. Take the exit for Illinois Highway 178, then turn left. Continue straight through North Utica, then turn left to enter the park after crossing the river. Turn left into the main parking area near the visitor center -- if you start going uphill, you've gone too far.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Parking is free! This parking lot is massive to handle the droves of people who come here from Chicago on weekends with nice weather. Water and flush toilets are available in the visitor center.

External Links

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