Hiking with Kids: Family-Friendly Trails in Southern Illinois State Parks
Hiking with kids in southern Illinois state parks is great for making memories.
Whether you’re a parent looking for fun outdoor activities, a teacher looking for a hiking field trip, or even a youth group director looking to get your young people outside, southern Illinois state parks have much to offer.
In this article, I’ll give you trails for hiking with kids at state parks for just about every age group based on accessibility, usability, and things to see for different age groups.
Whether you’re hiking with an infant, toddler, elementary, middle, or high school-aged kid, you’ll find plenty of options for hiking with kids in southern Illinois state parks below.
Things to Consider When Hiking with Kids
It’s important to consider some important priorities when hiking with kids in southern Illinois state parks.
While kids typically have more energy than us adults, they are more sensitive to the ruggedness of our Shawnee National Forest and state parks. You must prioritize some important aspects of the hike to keep them happy, safe, and comfortable.
Keeping kids happy on a hike is a big one. Choose hiking trails that are going to get the attention of the kids. A simple walk in the woods will bore kids unless you add something in where you show them bugs and mushrooms on your walk. If there is something cool to see, then you’ll likely have a great hike. If not, you’ll probably hear a lot of whining.
Safety is the most important priority. Make sure you choose a safe hiking trail for the kid you’re taking. Consider their abilities, ages, and experiences outdoors. Not every kid is made for every hiking trail. You must ensure they wear the right footwear and bring the right gear. Kids need to hydrate and fuel more often than we adults do.
If you don’t prioritize this stuff when hiking with kids, you’ll likely ruin their outdoor experience and make them hate hiking as a result.
State Park Trails for Infants and Toddlers
These trails are meant for hiking with kids who are infants and toddlers. These are children that would likely be in strollers and child carrier backpacks. The trails are easier and safer, but with stuff to see for the child and the adult accompanying them.
Post Oak Trail at Giant City State Park
Post Oak Trail is a 0.9-mile loop trail located at Giant City State Park with no major elevation gain.
Recent maintenance on the trail has officially made it ADA-compliant. It’s also a great trail for forest bathing, stroller walking, and easy hiking. Some beautiful sights along this trail include bluffs, scenic overlooks, and nature viewing.
Wetlands Center at Cache River State Natural Area
The Wetlands Center has a few short trails behind the visitor center with no major elevation gain.
These paths are also ADA-compliant. You can enjoy some native plant and butterfly gardens scattered around the trails on your walk. There are some ponds where you can view various birds and butterflies during their seasons. There are also hummingbird feeders, which young children might find fascinating to watch.
For directions and information about the Cache River Wetlands Center, check out the Official IDNR website for the center.
Big Rocky Hollow Trail at Ferne Clyffe State Park
Big Rocky Hollow is a short out-and-back trail of about 0.8 miles with no major elevation gain.
This trail leads to a large waterfall at the end of it. On wetter days, numerous waterfalls are present, but it could be difficult to use with a stroller because some parts of the creek will overflow on the trail. You can use concrete pods to cross without getting your feet wet.
George Rogers Clark Discovery Trail at Fort Massac State Park
This is a good trail for hiking with kids. It is shorter (about 4 miles) out and back and has very little elevation.
You can either hike or bike this trail. The entire trail is concrete, making it ADA-compatible for those with mobility problems. You can see scenic creeks, beautiful forests, and the Ohio River floodplains. Do note that when the Ohio River is experiencing a flood stage, portions of or all of the trail may be inaccessible.
Check out the Official IDNR website for Fort Massac State Park for directions and trail information.
State Park Trails for Elementary School-Age Kids
Hiking with kids that are elementary school-aged is a whole different ballgame. You still want to ensure you’re not putting them through any advanced difficult trails, but you have to choose ones with a lot to see and a lot to learn to keep them happy. That’s what the following trails will do for your elementary school-aged kids.
Cave Trail at Cave-in-Rock State Park
The Cave-in-Rock trail is less than a mile out and back, but there is plenty to see along the way.
Some interpretive signs along the way tell you about the area’s history. As for what you and your young hiking buddy will see, there is much to see during this short hike. You’ll see amazing bluffs, the Ohio River, and a large cave shelter that bandits and murderers used during the early days of settlement. Remember that this trail will be inaccessible during river flooding as it sits right next to the Ohio River.
Check out the official DNR website for this trail to plan your next visit today.
Arrow Wood Interpretive Trail at Giant City State Park
This short loop trail is less than a mile long beside the Giant City State Park visitors center.
On this trail, you’ll see various trees used to help create a healthy native forest. Signs along the trail explain what trees you see, their benefits, and what they’re used for when timbered for commercial resource extraction. After you visit this trail, be sure to head into the Visitors Center for more information, fun things to see, and Giant City merchandise.
Check out the official IDNR website for this trail for information and directions.
Hawk’s Cave Trail at Ferne Clyffe State Park
This trail consists of about a mile and is a loop to one of the most amazing rock shelters in the area.
The largest rock shelter (in height) may exist along this trail. There is speculation that another larger shelter exists but may be on private property and very difficult to get to. This one is easy to get to and offers ample opportunities for nature viewing. If you go when wet, you might even see a few waterfalls.
Check out this All Trail link for trail directions and the official IDNR website for trail information.
Heron Pond Trail at Cache River State Natural Area
Heron Pond is a great 1.5-mile out-and-back with a loop trail for elementary school-aged kids because there is much to see while they learn.
The trail is short but has a lot to see. You’ll pass over a confluence of two creeks that make the Cache River. You’ll hike through a swamp and even get on a boardwalk over it. You can even see a really big oak tree. Use plenty of bug spray, and note that venomous snakes are present. There are educational signs all along the way.
Tunnel Hill Segment at Tunnel Hill State Trail
A very short out-and-back hike to an old 500+ foot train tunnel that you can walk through without getting hit by a train.
The Tunnel Hill State Trail is a 50+ mile former railroad system turned into a hiking and biking trail. It’s best enjoyed by bicycle, but you can hike it, too. If you start from Tunnel Hill, it’s a quick few-minute walk to the tunnel. Walking about a half mile, you’ll get to Sandburn Junction General Store on your left, where you can buy some ice cream (cash only).
Check out the official Tunnel Hill State Trail website for directions and additional information.
State Park Trails for Middle and High School-Age Kids
Middle school and teenagers are hard to please regarding hiking trails. Luckily for you, the state parks in southern Illinois have plenty of cool trails for hiking with kids who are older.
Black Jack Oak Trail at Ferne Clyffe State Park
Blackjack Oak Trail is a great 2+ mile out-and-back trail for older kids.
On this trail, they’ll see multiple scenic overlooks. In fact, it’s one of my favorite spots to see fall colors. They’ll also get to see cool natural cave shelters and huge bluffs and even climb on some rocks (don’t worry, it’s pretty safe). If you want to add some more mileage, there are a few cool smaller trails at the end, including Big Rocky Hollow, Rebman Trail, Boy Scout Trail, and Hawk’s Cave.
Check out the All Trails page for a map and trail directions, and visit the official website for more information.
Trillium Trail at Giant City State Park
Trillium Trail is a moderately difficult 1-mile loop trail located at Giant City State Park.
There is a lot to see along the trail for when you are hiking with kids who are older and get bored easily. There are huge bluffs and awesome wildflowers that you only get to see during certain periods. There are also very scenic overlooks, cave shelters, and scenic creeks. There is a cool area with old carvings and a face on it.
Ghost Dance Canyon at Dixon Springs State Park
The best time to visit this less-than-a-mile out-and-back trail is when it is really wet outside.
Ghost Dance Canyon is the best trail Dixon Springs State Park offers. It’s best seen when wet, but there is a creek crossing. Carefully cross the creek but expect potentially getting wet. Kids might like it during the warmer months. There is a unique waterfall that you won’t find anywhere else in southern Illinois like it. There are also large bluffs and cool cave shelters to enjoy.
Wildcat Bluff at Cache River State Natural Area
This hidden little hiking gem will give you a few miles of one of the coolest out-and-back hikes your older kids will ever experience.
You start at Wildcat Bluff before you and take the trail on your right. Continue hiking down into the lowlands. You’ll eventually cross the Cache River on concrete stepping stones (impassible during flooding!) and find an old cabin on your right. That cabin once housed 8 people and has never had electricity or running water. It’s a really fun hike!
Check out the official IDNR website for more information about this area.
And that sums up the best state park trails to go on when hiking with kids. I hope you have enjoyed this article. Feel free to share it with others to support my efforts in writing it. You can also give me a small tip to extend more support. I encourage you to subscribe to my free email newsletter for more information and tips about hiking in southern Illinois state parks.
Please Support Hiking with Shawn
Alrighty folks, I hope you have enjoyed this content. I provide it for free and it takes a while to create. If you would be so kind enough to support my efforts, you can do so by sharing this post with others, especially on social media. Be sure to subscribe to my YouTube Channel to see my latest videos, shorts and live streams. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok for unique content that you will only find on those pages. You might also join my Southern Illinois Hiking & Outdoor Resources Group on Facebook, too!
You can also support me by becoming a Patreon Supporter for as little as $3/month and you can cancel anytime (no contracts or catches). Patreons get access to extra features, exclusive articles, sticker packs, gifts and more. Consider buying official Hiking with Shawn Merchandise as another way to support me. I spend a lot of money on Hiking with Shawn and because of extremely high public land permit fees, I make very little money in return so everything helps.
Thanks again for checking out another one of my articles and until next time, I’ll see you on the trail!
Founder, Hiking with Shawn
Howdy folks! My name is Shawn Gossman and I founded Hiking with Shawn. I’m an avid hiker, cyclist and outdoorsman here in the Shawnee National Forest. I was born and raised in Southern Illinois and never want to leave. Click here to learn more about Shawn Gossman