Rocky Glen Waterfall and Des Plaines River Overlook

Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, Illinois

Trip Date: Sunday, March 17th, 2019
Last Updated: Thursday, May 23rd, 2019
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Overall Difficulty Moderate
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 5 miles roundtrip
Time 2 hours
Terrain A few hills
Best Seasons All
Family Friendly No
Dog Friendly Yes
Accessible No


Hike Summary

Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve is commonly cited as one of the most beautiful parks for hiking near Chicago, but generally these websites only mention doing the entire 9-mile loop -- even in the prairie flatness of Illinois, 9 miles is still a beast of a hike. As an alternative, I will describe a shorter option taking you to some of the most scenic parts of the park, including Rocky Glen Waterfall, the Sawmill Creek Overlook, and the Des Plaines River Overlook. While the entire trip is 5 miles roundtrip, you can trim that to about a mile if you turn around after visiting the Sawmill Creek Overlook.

If you started in the developed parking lot, follow the trail and turn right at the first junction -- signs will point you towards Rocky Glen Waterfall. Turn left ahead and continue until you reach the falls. Or, if you started from the parking along the road, walk through the pedestrian entrance to the west and follow the road until you find the sign pointing to the falls. Turn left onto the trail and then turn right at the intersection ahead. No matter where you start, the spur trail you eventually take follows on the south side of Sawmill Creek as it slowly curves on its journey to the falls, as pictured below.

The curving Sawmill Creek through the trees

The curving Sawmill Creek through the trees

Approaching the falls, you'll begin to hear the sounds of cascading water. The trail ends at an open area with the falls straight ahead, as pictured below. The Civilian Conservation Corps built this waterfall during the Great Depression, creating jobs and enhancing this relatively new park.
The man-made Rocky Glen Waterfall

The man-made Rocky Glen Waterfall

From the falls, turn back the way you came, then make two rights to continue towards the Sawmill Creek Overlook. After a slight bit of incline, you can enjoy the view pictured below from a few benches. You can learn more about the park from a sign between the benches, which will inform you of the surprising fact that the park was not named for the waterfall you just saw, but rather for the ironically named Forest Preserve District President Seymour "Bud" Waterfall.
An oxbow in Sawmill Creek and the falls faintly visible between the trees

An oxbow in Sawmill Creek and the falls faintly visible between the trees

If you want to keep the hike short, you can turn around here. Otherwise, continue on the same trail, heading south through the forest. The path snakes where it intersects a service road, and further down you'll cross Sawmill Creek, pictured below, using a flat wooden bridge.
The clear water of Sawmill Creek from a bridge crossing

The clear water of Sawmill Creek from a bridge crossing

The rest of the way to the Des Plaines River Overlook is a straight shot on a wide path through the woods. This portion is mostly unremarkable, save for the overgrown ruins of a pump station built in 1921, as pictured below. Break the monotony after the ruins by examining the wide variety of plants and trees and looking for birds, squirrels, and other wildlife.
Ruins of a pump station

Ruins of a pump station

You'll know you're nearing the end when the trail begins a slow climb uphill to the overlook. At the top of the hill, a kiosk marks the overlook where you can catch a glimpse of the Des Plaines River through the trees, as pictured below. The hillside is so overgrown that unfortunately your views will be limited in the lush green summer. When you're finished here, simply retrace your steps back to the parking lot.
The Des Plaines River and the suburban wasteland beyond

The Des Plaines River and the suburban wasteland beyond

With a conveniently close location in Chicagoland and great scenery, it's clear why this is a perennial favorite and why it's hard to find a parking spot on weekends. Check out this hike if you're looking for a quick weekend hike! Connect with me using the social media links below and share your adventures!

Important Information

Dogs are allowed on leash. This entire hike is too long to be family friendly; however, if you shorten the hike to include only the waterfall and Sawmill Creek Overlook, this is a great family destination. You can hike this trail in all seasons, allowing you to experience the landscape in four different ways. The dense forest makes this both a shady spot for a hot summer day and an excellent place to view fall colors. This is an extremely popular place to hike, so arrive early in the day if you want to guarantee yourself a parking spot.


From Chicago, take Interstate 55 west. Exit at Cass Ave heading southbound. Continue straight for about 2 miles. After the road curves sharply to the left, take the next right for the short road to the parking area (this turn is easy to miss since you're driving uphill).

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Parking is free! If the lot is full, leave the lot, turn left, and park on the south side of the road (if the lot is full you'll likely see other cars already parked there). There are pit toilets at the lot.

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Pierce Lake as seen from the trail
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External Links