5 National Parks in Illinois

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Illinois is home to five national park service sites, all of which are worth stopping at during your next trip to Illinois. Whether you are doing a road trip around the state or visiting Chicago, make it a point to head to some of these amazing national park sites. Illinois has three national historic trails, a national historic site and a national monument.

Illinois is one of the most popular destinations in the Midwest and looking at these national parks, it’s easy to see why. Also known as the ‘Land of Lincoln’, Illinois has lots to see and do. With five top national park sites, more than 60 state parks, and cities like Chicago and Springfield, it’s difficult to pass up an opportunity to travel to this amazing state.

5 National Parks in Illinois

National Historic Trail

illinois
Looking for national parks in Illinois? Check out these sites.

1- Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

There are 30 congressionally designated national trails in the National Trails System.

You can reach many of these trails within just an hour’s drive of most urban areas and they are spread across the country.

The Trail of Tears is a national historic trail that helps us understand the history and struggles of Native Americans.

The trail’s history dates to 1830, when Congress passed the Indian Removal Act.

The law passed by President Andrew Jackson allowed “for an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi”.

In short, Native Americans were being ordered to hand over their own land to white Americans and move thousands of miles away from their native lands and homes.

This act allowed the tribes to move to unsettled western prairie land in exchange for their more desirable territories.

This was especially in the southeast and was where many Native Americans were moved from.

The U.S. Army moved into tribal land and forcibly evicted 16,000 Cherokee Indian people from their homes across Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee.

If you know anything about the geography of America, then you’ll know that Georgia is very far from Illinois.

The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is still an Illinois national park service site because the route the Cherokee people took to their newly allocated land was more than 5,043 miles (8115 km) long.

Today the Trail of Tears passes through nine states, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri in a series of intertwined routes.

Not only was it bad enough that Native American people were forced from their native lands but the routes to their new territories were treacherous.

Around 4,000 Cherokee people died on their way to present-day Oklahoma.

Those who died were mostly the old, young and the infirm, as the conditions were severe.

People either starved or died because of the severe winter conditions.

Many historians believe that American history is incomplete without a full understanding of the horrific events of the Trail of Tears.

Though in 1830, people would have been travelling barefoot along this treacherous path, today, you can hop onto the trail and explore in hiking boots, on horseback, by bike and even in the car.

Part of the route that goes through Illinois includes a 43 miles (69 km) trek along the Golconda-Cape Girardeau Trace from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River just west of Ware in present-day Illinois.

In Illinois, you can visit many places today to learn more about the hardships of the Cherokee people and the challenging route they faced.

You can visit the Campground Cemetery just outside of Anna in southern Illinois, many of the people who died along the trail are buried here.

You can also head to the Golconda Riverfront.

It was here that around 9,000 Cherokees passed the Ohio River.

It takes some imagination to reflect on what it would have been like for these Native Americans, who had already walked so far, to cross this part of Illinois having already lost so many of their people.

2- Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

national parks in illinois louis and clark
One of the national parks sites in Illinois to explore is the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.

Another of the best national parks in Illinois is the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. This trail follows the historic Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Also known as the Corps of Discovery, this exhibition occurred between 1804 and 1806.

Captain Meriweather Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark led a unit of the United States Army.

President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the expedition shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

The expedition’s purpose was to map out the newly acquired territory and find an efficient route across the western part of the country.

By conducting the expedition, it was also hoped that an American presence would be established before the Europeans could claim the land.

The secondary purpose of this expedition was an ecological and economic one.

They were tasked with studying the ecology and biology of the area and see if they could establish trade links with local Native Americans.

The expedition trail spans around 5,000 miles and cuts through sixteen different states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon).

The trail is not a hiking trail like the Appalachian Trail, but there are opportunities to hike, boat and horse ride along sections of the route.

You can learn about the Lewis & Clark Expedition and also see some of the United States’ beautiful countryside.

You can visit five key places along Illinois’ section of the trail.

There’s the St. Nicholas Landmark in Chester.

It was at this location, on 27 November 1803, that the expedition party camped at Horse Island.

The Chester Welcome Centre is also an informative place to learn more about the Corps of Discover and enjoy the surrounding river views.

You can visit Fort de Chartres State Historic Site in the village of Prairie du Rocher, where you can learn about America’s French influences.

There’s also the Piney Creek Ravine, a 198-acre (80 ha) nature preserve in Ava in southern Illinois.

Lewis and Clark travelled through this area of lush forest and wilderness.

Finally, there’s the Lewis & Clark Bicycle Trial, which is made up of bike paths, roads and gravel roads.

It’s the perfect place to venture outside and get some exercise.

3- Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail

Another of Illinois national historic trails is the Mormon Pioneer Trail, which follows the history of the American Mormon migration.

The Mormon Pioneer Trail started in Nauvoo, Illinois in 1827 and passed through Iowa before ending in Great Salt Lake, Utah.

This trail saw more than 70,000 Mormons travel along the road westwards between 1846 and 1869.

The Mormon story started with Joseph Smith, who found the famous set of golden plates that became important to the Mormon church because they were inscribed with messages about God’s church.

It was through the use of these plates that the Book of Mormon was produced in 1830.

Smith began gaining followers and eventually decided to move the Mormon church, settling in Illinois.

After settling in Illinois, however, Smith began to receive opposition for his thoughts and beliefs.

He was imprisoned in 1844 and a mob broke into the prison and killed him.

His successor Brigham Young realised the dangers of remaining where they were, so he began a mass exodus to Utah.

Starting on 1 March1 March 1846, around 500 Mormon wagons and 14,000 Mormons travelled 1,300 miles (2092 km) across Iowa’s prairie to the Missouri River.

This route would become known as the Mormon Trail.

While in Illinois, you can visit the Nauvoo National Historic Landmark.

Head to Parley Street in Nauvoo, and you can see the boat launch for the Mississippi River.

At this landing in 1846, the emigrants crossed the river on the ferry after they were forced to leave Nauvoo.

National Historic Site

4- Lincoln Home National Historic Site

national parks in illinois abraham lincolns house
Another of the Illinois national parks sites to tick of your to-visit list is the Lincoln Home National Historic Site.

The Lincoln Home National Historic Site in the heart of Springfield pays homage to the 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and shows where Lincoln was raised.

This house is the only house that Abraham Lincoln ever owned.

The house was passed down the generations and Lincoln’s four sons with Mary Todd were born within the home.

On 19 December 1960, his former home became a National Historic Landmark and later a national historic site in 1972.

This national historic site is worth visiting because you can discover nearly 200 years of history inside the building.

Several historic buildings are within the site, all encircling the Lincoln Home.

You will probably need around two hours to read and discover everything the Lincoln Home site offers, including around 30 minutes to discover the house itself.

A tour of the house is an absolute must while visiting this site.

You can take a guided tour that will show you the 17-year life of the Lincoln family within this home.

The house is a colonial-style home that has been excellently preserved and renovated in places.

By passing through the 12 rooms of this house, you will learn about Lincoln’s personal and work life.

You will see how he rose from being a successful lawyer and politician to becoming the 16th President of the United States.

Once inside, you can see the parlour, dining room, sitting room, kitchen and bedrooms.

Admission to this Illinois attraction is free, but you must reserve a ticket at the visitor centre beforehand to join the tour.

The Lincoln Home National Historic Site is open daily between 9 am and 5 pm. You can park at a paid car park just a few blocks from the museum.

The Lincoln Home National Historic Site is at 413 South 8th Street, Springfield.

National Monument

5- Pullman National Monument

The Pullman National Monument commemorates the first planned industrial community in the United States.

Built in the 1880s, this site is also known as the Pullman Historic District and is steeped in history.

If you are visiting the Windy City, then add this Chicago attraction to your bucket list.

The famous Pullman Strike of 1894 changed labour relations in the U.S. forever.

On 11 May 1894, thousands of train workers unexpectedly left their stations and went on strike.

The result of these strikes was that dozens of workers would die in violent conflicts.

Later the President and Supreme Court became involved in the strike’s outcome.

In 1893 there was a nationwide recession.

Engineer George Pullman built a railroad car company and established a town for his workers in Illinois.

The workers enjoyed their facilities and homes but completely relied on the Pullman Company.

The trouble started when Pullman cut workers’ wages by 25% but didn’t reduce their living costs.

As a result, workers could no longer afford to support themselves or their families. Trouble then ensued between labour and management.

Problems further unfolded when Richard Olney, the U.S. Attorney at the time, barred union leaders from supporting the strike.

The Union ignored this injunction.

The president at the time, Grover Cleveland, then ordered the U.S. Army to get involved to get the trains moving.

This resulted in violent outbreaks where 30 people were killed and 57 injured. As a result, Cleveland ended up dedicating Labor Day as a federal holiday.

So, what exactly is there to do at the Pullman National Monument?

You should first check out the National Park Service Pullman Visitor Center, located in the Administration-Clock Tower Building.

Inside, you can discover manufacturing, urban planning, civil rights and labour rights exhibits.

The Historic Pullman Foundation Shared Pullman Exhibit Hall on 112th Street at Cottage Grove has displays, an introductory film and artifacts.

The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. depicts the life of African Americans working in the Pullman Company and the struggles they faced.

The Pullman National Monument in Chicago is at 610 East 111th Street, Chicago.

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harriet comley
Harriet Comley is a travel enthusiast, freelance travel writer and a lover of safaris. Since 2017 she has been travelling the globe living in the UK, Canada, Vietnam, China and now Zambia, where she is completing her PhD in Sustainable Tourism. For 3 1/2 years she taught English in Vietnam and China. Now she has turned her attention to writing, having contributed to a number of travel blogs and websites always focusing on what she loves most…exploring!