Illinois is blessed with great history, areas of outstanding natural beauty, and some wonderful small towns. It’s easy to experience all of this even if you’re on a tight budget, with free state parks, scenic drives and places of historical significance all offering fascinating things to see and do for little to no cost. With reasonably priced camping, cabins, and motels to stay in too, why not make Illinois your next vacation destination?
Travel the Great River Road: camping from $5 per person, per night
Enjoy all the sights and sounds the majestic Mississippi has to offer on this 550-mile (885-kilometer) route along the western border of Illinois. From the town of Galena in the north to Cairo on the border with Missouri and Kentucky in the south, the Great River Road takes in amazing scenery and wildlife, as well as historic sites, museums, monuments, and state parks. Two days at least are required to appreciate the journey fully. Quincy, roughly half way along, has several places to camp, starting at $5 per person, per night.
Camping at Chain O’ Lakes State Park: camping from $12–25 per night
Explore the state’s largest concentration of natural lakes at Chain O’ Lakes State Park. With nearly 6,500 acres of water and 488 miles (785 kilometers) of shoreline across the 10 lakes of the chain, the park unsurprisingly offers a lot of water-oriented recreation and features a wide range of wildlife to see on and around the water. Visitors can rent boats, from canoes to motorboats, for fun and fishing, and camping options include more than 230 campsites and three cabins, which can be reserved here.
See Grant’s Galena: motels from $49 per night
Lincoln isn’t the only Civil War hero and president with history in Illinois. The small town of Galena, located in the northeast corner of the state, was home to Ulysses S. Grant for a period of time and has a number of historical sites to see. The U.S. Grant Home was presented to Grant when he returned to the city after the war in 1865, and it still features original furnishings. There are also a lot of well-preserved 19th-century buildings to visit, including the home of Elihu B. Washburne, an associate of Grant and Lincoln. After a long day of exploring, visitors can relax and rest at the budget-friendly and comfortable Grant Hills Motel.
Explore waterfalls at Starved Rock State Park: camping $25 per night
If waterfalls are your thing, you could spend a whole trip exploring the 14 waterfalls of Starved Rock State Park, which feels worlds away from the flat lands of Illinois. There are 18 canyons in total, with the waterfalls at their most spectacular during spring or after heavy rainfall. Birdwatching is also a big draw, with eagles and other migrating birds to see at different times of the year. The campground has 133 sites, all with electricity.
Tour Lincoln country: hotels in Springfield from $52 per night
As the Land of Lincoln, what better way to spend a trip to Illinois than learning more about the state’s most famous son. In his hometown of Springfield, free sites include the Old State Capitol building where Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech in 1858 and where his body lay in state in 1865, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, and the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site in Oak Ridge Cemetery. For a peaceful night’s sleep, the Red Roof Inn and Sleep Inn have great deals for those on a budget.
Get your kicks on Route 66: hotels in Bloomington from $40 per night
As the first state to pave Route 66 and the first to replace it with an interstate, Illinois really is where the Mother Road both began and ended, but the most famous road in America remains the country’s ultimate symbol of freedom and travel. The 301 miles (484 kilometers) of the road in the state begins in Chicago and ends in East St. Louis, and along the way, be sure to stop by the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac and the Litchfield Museum & Route 66 Welcome Center. Bloomington is a good halfway point to stop for the night, with wallet-friendly hotel options such as Days Inn & Suites and Econo Lodge Inn & Suites.
Visit Illinois Amish Country: camping from $8 per night
To the east of Springfield, neighboring Arthur and Arcola are both home to thriving Amish communities. Experience a different way of life by touring the countryside around these quaint communities, with unique shops selling art, antiques, locally made Amish baked goods, and handcrafted Amish furniture. ACM Tours have local guides for a closer look at Arthur, and Arcola’s best known for its Broom Corn Festival. Nearby, Walnut Point State Park offers budget-friendly camping.
Embrace the past in the Southwest: camping from $25 per night
Just outside of East St. Louis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, considered just as historically important as the pyramids and Stonehenge. At the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, you can learn about and tour the preserved remains of North America’s largest and most sophisticated prehistoric city. Just north of that is the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower, where you can look out across the west and learn the story of the famed explorers. There’s camping in nearby Horseshoe Lake State Park.
Shawnee National Forest: cottages from $70 per night
Illinois’s only national forest covers a lot of the southern part of the state. From the Ohio River on the border with Kentucky to the Mississippi River and the border with Missouri, serious hikers can attempt the whole thing on the 160-mile (257-kilometer) River to River Trail. Among the many state parks within the forest are Ferne Clyffe State Park and Giant City State Park, which have some of the best hiking, cycling and climbing in the state, and the outstanding natural beauty of areas such as the Garden of the Gods is hard to beat. As for accommodations, Barren Creek Cottages have a two- and three-bedroom cottage along with a “Rustic Cottage,” a 125-year-old farmhouse.
Wildlife watching in southernmost Illinois: camping from $12 per night
Just south of the forest is a clutch of wildlife refuges and preserves, providing habitats for wildlife including many threatened and endangered species. There’s the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge, the Little Black Slough, Heron Pond, the Cave Creek Glade and the Mermet Swamp. Hiking, cycling, and boating are all available in the area, with a diverse range of wildlife to see, including many species of birds, fish, and mammals. Camping is available at the nearby Oak Point Campground.