Many people who are visiting Illinois head straight for Chicago, but for nature lovers Illinois has plenty to offer as well. There are forests, waterfalls, lakes, and much more. On this page you’ll find descriptions of some of the best places to photograph in the state. The interactive map below shows the location of each spot mentioned on this page.
This page will continue to be a work in progress, so please feel free to leave a comment with your own suggestions of great places to photograph.
Starved Rock State Park
Starved Rock State Park is in northern Illinois along the Illinois River, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago. It is the most popular state park in Illinois, and with good reason. The park features several deep canyons, river views, beautiful waterfalls, and several overlooks. It presents some of the best photographic opportunities in the state and should be near the top of your list of places to visit in Illinois.
Matthiessen State Park
Matthiessen State Park is just a few miles south of Starved Rock State Park. The park includes a stream that flows from Matthiessen Lake to the Vermilion River. Along the way there are beautiful rock formations and waterfalls that make this state park one that you will want to visit. The 45-foot Cascade Falls is the largest of the falls in the park. Five miles of hiking trails make it easy to explore.
Shawnee National Forest
The Shawnee National Forest is in southern Illinois in the Ozark and Shawnee Hills. There are seven different wilderness areas within the national forest, and plenty of great views for those who are willing to explore. There are also several trails for viewing wildflowers throughout the year.
Garden of the Gods
Garden of the Gods is one of the wilderness areas within the Shawnee National Forest. Here you will find stunning, huge rock formations that are perfect for photographing. You’ll also get an awesome view of the surrounding forest. Garden of the Gods Road leads to the area and hiking trails are available to help with accessing and exploring this scenic area.
The Burden Falls Wilderness is another of the wilderness areas within the Shawnee National Forest. This roadless wilderness area includes trails that lead to a scenic series of waterfalls known as Burden Falls.
Mississippi Palisades State Park
In northwestern Illinois Mississippi Palisades State Park provides great views of the Mississippi River, as well as cliffs and caves. Interesting rock formations also provide other photographic opportunities.
Cache River State Natural Area
Cache River State Natural Area is southern Illinois features amazing cypress wetlands. Some of the trees are up to 1,000 years old. The park includes hiking trails, or you can take a canoe or boat to get the best views for photos.
Lake Michigan borders northeastern Illinois, including cities like Chicago and Evanston. There are countless possibilities for photographing along the lake. The photo below was taken in Evanston.
Illinois Beach State Park
Illinois Beach State Park is located in far northeastern Illinois along the shores of Lake Michigan. It includes 6 miles of shoreline but also includes dunes, wetlands, marshes, forests, and prairies.
Horseshoe Lake is in southwestern Illinois, just a short distance from St. Louis, and is the home of Horseshoe Lake State Park. This shallow lake (only about 3 feet deep in most places) is a great place to find and photograph birds. Each year the lake is drained to provide a habitat for shorebirds.
Rock Cut State Park
Rock Cut State Park is in northern Illinois, northeast of Rockford. The park features Pierce Lake and Olson Lake and 40 miles of hiking trails that allow you to find plenty of subjects for your photos.
Shabbona Lake State Park
Shabbona Lake State Park is in northern Illinois, about 70 miles west of Chicago. This park includes prairies, woods, and a large man-made lake. If you are in the Chicago area and looking for a place to find some nature, Shabbona Lake State Park is a good option.
Chain O’ Lakes State Park
Chain O’ Lakes State Park is in far northern Illinois, very close to the Wisconsin border and about 60 miles northwest of Chicago. This is another good option for finding some nature in the Chicago area. The park borders three lakes and contains another lake within its boundaries. There are hiking trails available, but getting out onto the water will give you the best access to the park.
While you are in Illinois, the Chicago skyline also makes an excellent photograph. With buildings like the Sears Tower and a setting on Lake Michigan, Chicago is a great city to photograph. There are a lot of possible vantage points, but this article points out 10 of the best places from where you can shoot the skyline.
Photo license links: CC BY-ND 2.0, CC BY-SA 4.0, CC BY 2.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 2.0
Beautiful pictures! Very inspiring! Great info.
SouthWest Chicago Suburbs:
Lemont, IL – Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. You will want to do this at any time other than following prolonged drought. This is a very nice waterfall – you will be surprised if you’ve never heard of it. One thing though, as you arrive, tell google maps you want to go to “waterfall parking” (right where Cass Ave does a 90 degree bend and becomes Bluff Rd) else you will hike miles to get to the waterfall.
Northwest Chicago Suburbs:
Fel-Pro RRR Conservation area in Cary, IL area. There is a nice little waterfall with bridge here. Like the South Elgin waterfall below, this should not be a primary destination, but it is quite nice to hit when going to a bunch of sites.
North Chicago Suburbs:
Waukeegan Harbor lighthouse and lakefront and harbor. Great photography of waves on a windy day. Nice walk up to the lighthouse on a calm day. Morning sun is very nice here.
Far West Chicago Suburbs:
Blackhawk Waterfall in South Elgin. LIke the Fel-Pro area waterfall, I’d call this a minor destination – not worth a long trip just by itself, but a nice little waterfall most people who live here don’t even know exists. Just South of here in St. Charles are some nice parks where you can walk across the river on wooden bicycle path bridges. Nice lookout area for wildlife photography and just viewing the river.
Fox River Trail and parks along Route 25 from Aurora, IL to Elgin, IL. In this stretch are many dams, Herons, Egrets, lots of butterflies, damsel flies, and dragon flies in warm seasons, old factories and structures along the river. There is a great little nature pond at Lippold Park Batavia along with an indoor nature center at Red Oak Park. More north is a 1800’s Dutch windmill at Fabyan Park that operates a few Sundays per year in the Spring/Summer when weather is just right. There is also a Fabyan Museum that operates in the Spring through early Fall on the Route 31 side of the river (photography officially not allowed inside Museum). Lots of bridges as you travel North from there.
Also in Batavia is Fermi Lab. Unlike Argon National Lab, Fermi is open to the public and has indoor science and art exhibits in the main building. Outdoors there are buffalo, prairie areas, and interesting structures your tax dollars paid for and you are generously allowed to photograph.
In Aurora there is Philips Park. This is a nice little free, donations appreciated, city zoo that is a great place for photography. There is much more here in the warmer season as the reptile house is closed for the cold months and of course the garden area doesn’t look like much from November through April. There are peacocks, wolves, eagles, vultures, owls, and others all year round. You may need some manual focus skills for some of these. The surrounding area is quite scenic as well – bring a fishing pole. The downtown Aurora area offers a lot for old city architecture photography in the downtown area where New York Street and Galena cross the Fox River and near the Hollywood Casino. The parking garage near the casino is a nice lookout point if you go to the top, but it is not free at all times to park there. (hint: if you were to go to the casino you can get a free pass to park in the form of a players club card) There is also great Mexican food to be had in this area – bridge and street photography opportunities as well.
Rural Northern Illinois:
Sugar Grove, IL Air Classics Museum at 44W546 US Route 30. I’ve yet to stop here but may do so today. Seems like a good place to go when the season makes the other locations less desirable. This has many military aircraft outdoors. It is not free, but I don’t think it cost much either. The nearby Aurora airport is also a nice active airport for smaller aircraft. There is not much getting in the way of photography, but you will need a good 300mm+ zoom lens to get good shots from the fence at the parking lot edge.
North Central IL:
Rochelle, IL. This is for train buffs. This transportation hub has tons of train traffic on multiple rails. If you’ve ever known someone who lives downtown here (I have) sometimes you cannot talk on the phone for ten minutes without a train rolling through.
Greene Barn, 23W171Hobson Road, Naperville, IL 60540. Quintessential American red barn. Beautiful place to catch the changing seasons and to take family photos. Commercial photographers do need a permit from the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.