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5 EPIC Illinois National Parks (An Expert Guide + Photos)

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Illinois National Parks
Best Illinois National Parks

Illinois National Parks

Illinois National Parks! In this article, we feature some incredible park sites in the great state of Illinois. These 5+ national park sites are worth a stop during your next trip to the Land of Lincoln.

These Illinois National Parks include amazing historic sites, incredible monuments, beautiful parks, legendary trails, and much more.

We’ll give you 5+ reasons why you’ll want to make Illinois your next vacation destination.

How Many National Parks Does Illinois Have?

While Illinois has 5 various national park sites, I should note that it doesn’t actually have any congressionally designated “National Parks.” Nevertheless there are some amazing Illinois National Park Service sites for you to visit.

Illinois National Parks Table Of Contents

  1. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
  2. Lincoln Home National Historic Site
  3. Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail
  4. Pullman National Monument
  5. Trail Of Tears National Scenic Trail

Best National Parks of Illinois

1. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail | Illinois National Parks

Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail | Illinois National Parks
Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail at Decision Point | Courtesy of the National Park Service

The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail follows the historic outbound and inbound routes of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As a retired history teacher, I get goosebumps just thinking about the Corps of Discovery and their incredible trek.

Commemorating the Lewis & Clark Expedition (1804-06), the Lewis & Clark Trail connects 16 states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon).

The trail is administered by the National Park Service. It’s not a hiking trail, but does provide opportunities for hiking, boating and horseback riding at many locations along the route.

It’s a great opportunity to see the USA while learning about the brave men (and one woman) who weren’t able to make the journey in an air-conditioned SUV.

The Lewis & Clark Trail In Illinois

Map of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail | Illinois National Parks
Lewis & Clark Trail Map | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Places of interest to visit in Illinois include:

  1. The St. Nicholas Landmark which is down river from the confluence of the Mississippi and Kaskaskia Rivers. It was there on November 27, 1803, that Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their party camped on Horse Island.
  2. Fort de Chartres is a great place to explore where you’ll learn about the French influence in America.
  3. Piney Creek Ravine is a 198 acre nature preserve that has been protected so that many generations will be able to enjoy its exquisite beauty. When Lewis and Clark were travelling through Illinois, it was a land of wilderness and lush forests.
  4. The Lewis & Clark Bicycle Trail is made up of paved roads, bike paths, and unpaved rail-trails, with occasional short sections of gravel roads.
  5. The Chester Welcome Center is a great place to gather information on the Corps of Discovery and enjoy an amazing view of the river. (Source: NPS)

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2. Lincoln Home National Historic Site

Home of Abraham & Mary Lincoln | Illinois National Parks
The home of Abraham & Mary Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 2021, C-SPAN asked a group of distinguished presidential historians to rank our nation’s presidents from worst to best. At the top of their list, with a total score of 897 points, was Abraham Lincoln. George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt came in second and third respectively.

Why is Abraham Lincoln considered the greatest president of all time? Simply put, he saved the Union. In the process of saving the nation, Lincoln managed to define the creation of a more perfect Union in terms of liberty and economic equality that rallied the citizenry behind him.

“His great achievement, historians tell us, was his ability to energize and mobilize the nation by appealing to its best ideals while acting ‘with malice towards none’ in the pursuit of a more perfect, more just, and more enduring Union.

No President in American history ever faced a greater crisis and no President ever accomplished as much.”

-Michael Burlingame, Professor Emeritus of History
Connecticut College

Lincoln Transformed The Presidency

Abraham Lincoln transformed the office of the presidency | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln transformed the Presidency. He remade the president’s role as commander in chief and as chief executive into a powerful new position. In the process, he imbued the office with broader powers by making it supreme over both Congress and the courts.

His detractors argued then and now that he took actions which were unconstitutional such as suspending the writ of habeas corpus.

For Lincoln, however, it made no sense “to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution.” No President in American history ever faced a greater crisis and, in saving the Union, no President ever accomplished as much.

Visit The Home Of America’s Greatest Leader

Front Parlor, Sitting Room, Mary Lincoln Bedroom, and Boys' Room | Illinois National Parks
You can take a guided tour of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site | Courtesy of the National Park Service (NPS)

Visitors can take a guided tour of the Lincoln Home. You can step back in time and see how Abraham Lincoln as a family man and a lawyer. He lived in this house with his wife and family for 17 years before moving to Washington. And the best news of all is that admission is free.

Before heading to the Lincoln Home, however, I recommend going to the Visitor Center. There you can watch two films. One highlights Abraham Lincoln’s life in Springfield and the other is a virtual tour of the Lincoln Home.

Visitors can also explore a four block historic neighborhood and see various exhibits and displays while learning about the history of the Lincoln’s neighborhood.

If you’re interested in learning more about Abraham Lincoln (and who isn’t) then check out these other popular Lincoln sites in Springfield: the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Lincoln’s Tomb, the Old State Capitol and the Great Western Depot/Lincoln Depot.

Some Interesting Facts About Abraham Lincoln

illinois national parks
Abraham Lincoln was an accomplished wrestler – cartoon via the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library | Illinois National Parks

I taught high school history for almost 30 years and even my students found our nation’s 16th president fascinating. I’m not sure whether it was his height or that iconic stovepipe hat which captured their interest. As for me, it was his remarkable leadership during our nation’s most difficult crisis.

While most of my students knew that Lincoln had led our nation during its most difficult time, I could always surprise them with a few facts which they didn’t know about our 16th President. Maybe I can surprise you too.

Abraham Lincoln was an accomplished wrestler who is in the Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Lincoln signed the legislation creating the Secret Service. He signed this legislation only hours before he was assassinated.

Abraham Lincoln is the only American President to hold a patent.  Lincoln’s design, which became U.S. Patent No. 6469, details the invention of an inflatable bellows system meant to improve the navigation of boats in shallow waters. 

Lincoln’s Assassin’s Brother Saved The Life Of His Oldest Son

The Booth Brothers [from left to right John Wilkes, Edwin and Junius Booth, Jr.] were actors. Edwin was considered America’s greatest stage actor at the time his brother John Wilkes assassinated President Lincoln. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

John Wilkes Booth’s brother actually saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s son. This is a truly amazing story recounted by Christopher Klein:

A few months before John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln, the president’s oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, stood on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey. A throng of passengers began to press the young man backwards, and he fell into the open space between the platform and a moving train.

Suddenly, a hand reached out and pulled the president’s son to safety by the coat collar. Robert Todd Lincoln immediately recognized his rescuer: famous actor Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes.

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3. Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail | Illinois National Parks

Mormon Pioneer Trail | Illinois National Parks
Illustration in History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century of Mormon handcart pioneers. A depiction of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints en-route to Salt Lake City. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Mormon Migration is a fascinating story which begins in 1827. 21-year-old Joseph Smith announced that he had unearthed a set of golden plates, inscribed with the tenants of God’s true church.

Smith said he had been directed to the plates by an angel named Moroni, who also had given him divine tools for translating the ancient inscriptions into English. Smith used the plates to produce the Book of Mormon in 1830.

In New York, Smith organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His followers, who regarded Smith as a prophet, became known as Mormons.

Mormons On The Move

Mormons On The Move | Illinois National Parks
Photo from One Hundred Years Of Mormonism depicting the Mormon migration | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Smith continued to move the Mormon Church. He finally settled along a bend of the Mississippi River in Illinois. There he established a community they called Nauvoo, a Hebrew word meaning “beautiful place.”

It was there that Smith began introducing the Old Testament practice of “plural marriage,” or polygamy, among select church leaders.

Conflicts arose between Smith and those opposed to his practices. Smith was arrested and jailed at Carthage, Illinois.

On June 27, 1844, a mob broke into the jail and murdered Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. Other vigilantes attacked Mormon farms around Nauvoo in an attempt to expel them.

A New Leader Emerges

Brigham Young
Brigham Young succeeded Joseph Smith as the leader of the Mormon Church | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Brigham Young emerged as Smith’s successor. Realizing that it was too dangerous to remain where they were, Young organized a Mormon Exodus to Utah.

On March 1, 1846, some 500 Mormon wagons lurched northwesterly across the winter-bare Iowa prairie toward the Missouri River. Their passage is known as the Mormon Trail.

Explore The Route Taken By The Mormon Faithful

Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail | Illinois National Parks
Explore sites along the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Points of historical interest along the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail in Illinois include: (1) Nauvoo Landing in Nauvoo, (2) Nauvoo State Park & Museum in Nauvoo, (3) Carthage Jail & Visitor Center in Carthage, (4) Nauvoo National Historic Landmark in Nauvoo and (5) the Joseph Smith Historic Site also in Nauvoo.

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4. Pullman National Monument | Illinois National Parks

Pullman National Monument | Illinois National Parks
Pullman National Monument in Chicago preserves the story of the most famous company town in the U.S. The Pullman strike of 1894 by Black workers led to the designation of Labor Day as a holiday. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Pullman Strike of 1894 would forever change labor relations in the United States. It began on May 11, 1894, when several thousand train workers started an unannounced strike at the Pullman Company in Illinois.  

Over the next few months, dozens of workers would die in strike-related violence, and the President and Supreme Court would finally become involved in the strike’s outcome.

Why did this strike happen? In 1893, the country was gripped by a severe recession. George Pullman had built a company famous for making railroad cars. He also created a town for his workers in Illinois. There they enjoyed many amenities but were also financially dependent on the Pullman Company for their homes and utilities.

Pullman made a decision to cut workers wages by 25%. He did not, however, reduce their living costs which meant that workers could no longer afford to provide for their families. This was the event which triggered a monumental clash between labor and management.

The Federal Government Intervenes In The Pullman Strike

The American Railway Union escalated the Pullman strike beginning with the blockade of the Grand Crossing in Chicago during the night of June 26, 1894. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney sought an injunction in federal court barring union leaders from supporting the strike. He demanded the strikers cease their activities or face being fired.  The Union, led by organizer Eugene V. Debs, ignored the injunction.

President Grover Cleveland ordered the United States Army to get the trains moving again. The arrival of the military and the subsequent deaths of workers in violence led to further outbreaks of violence. During the course of this strike, 30 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded.

In an olive branch to organized labor, President Cleveland and Congress dedicated Labor Day as a federal holiday.

The Labor Organizer Who Wanted To Be President

American labor leader and five time candidate for President of the United States Eugene V. Debs.  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Eugene Debs was arrested during the Pullman Strike. He was defended by famed criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow.

Debs, who was a socialist, political activist, and trade unionist, was one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World. He used his notoriety from the Pullman Strike to run for President of the United States as the candidate of the Socialist Party of America–five times.

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”

-Eugene V. Debs

Things To Do At The Pullman National Monument

A red brick four story building with a clock tower stands tall against a partly cloudy sky.
The West Entrance to the National Park Service Pullman Visitor Center | Courtesy of the National Park Service

I recommend starting your visit at the National Park Service Pullman Visitor Center in the Administration-Clock Tower Building. There you will be able to explore exhibits which cover topics on labor rights, manufacturing, urban planning, civil rights and so much more.

You should also check out the Historic Pullman Foundation Shared Pullman Exhibit Hall located at Cottage Grove and 112th Street. There are informational displays, artifacts and an introductory film available.

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Check Out The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum

The outside of the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum
The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum | Courtesy of the NPS

And while you’re learning about the history of labor management relations I also recommend a visit to the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. This museum depicts the struggle of African Americans in the Pullman Company.

An Early Civil Rights Leader Who Founded The First African American Labor Union

A. Philip Randolph | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A. Philip Randolph was a labor leader and civil rights activist. He founded the nation’s first major Black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) in 1925.

Randolph’s organizing efforts helped end both racial discrimination in defense industries and segregation in the U.S. armed forces. He planned a March On Washington in 1941 and only agreed to cancel it after President Franklin Roosevelt pledged to end discrimination in the U.S. Military.

Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which opened war industries in World War Two to Black workers and created the Fair Employment Practice Commission. In 1948, Randolph’s activism similarly helped persuade President Harry Truman to desegregate the U.S. armed forces with passage of the Universal Military Service and Training Act.

Randolph’s activism continued into the 1950s and 1960s. He was a principal organizer of the 1963 March On Washington. The March on Washington helped pave the way for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  

“Salvation for a race, nation or class must come from within. Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.”

-A. Philip Randolph

5. Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail | Illinois National Parks

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The Trail of Tears map shows one of the most shameful episodes of American history, today preserved as the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail | Courtesy of the National Park Service

As a former history teacher, I believe no study of American history is complete without an understanding of the Trail of Tears. This history lesson begins in 1830. It was in that year that Congress passed the Indian Removal Act.

This infamous piece of legislation forced various Native American tribes to relinquish their lands in exchange for federal territory.

The Trail Of Tears

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In 1838, the Cherokee people were forcibly taken from their homes,  incarcerated in stockades, forced to walk more than a thousand miles, and removed to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. More than 4,000 died and many are buried in unmarked graves along “The Trail Where They Cried.” (Source: Museum of the Cherokee Indian)

As the National Park Service reports, “U.S. Army troops, along with various state militia, moved into the tribe’s homelands and forcibly evicted more than 16,000 Cherokee Indian people from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia.”

“The impact of the resulting Cherokee “Trail of Tears” was devastating. More than a thousand Cherokee – particularly the old, the young, and the infirm – died during their trip west, hundreds more deserted from the detachments, and an unknown number – perhaps several thousand – perished from the consequences of the forced migration. (Source: National Park Service)

“I could not but think that some fearful retribution would come upon us. The scene seemed to me like a distempered dream, or something worthy of the dark ages rather than a present reality.”

-Lieutenant John W. Phelps, who assisted with the removal

The Trail Of Tears Today

Trail of Tears | Alabama National Parks
Hikers retrace the Trail of Tears | Courtesy of the National Park Service

This incredible trail stretches 5,043 miles across nine states. You can follow the trail on foot, by vehicle, over water, by bicycle or by horse. Along the way, you will see sacred sites which tell the story of death and suffering as well as survival.

Part of this route included a nearly sixty-mile (96 km) trek across southern Illinois along the Golconda-Cape Girardeau Trace, from the Ohio River at Golconda to the Mississippi River west of present day Ware, Illinois. (Source: Enjoy Illinois)

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To Learn More | Illinois National Parks

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Twilight-Zone-Books-Wikimedia-2-770x1024.jpg
So many books, so little time. Why not take a deeper dive with some excellent book recommendations. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
  1. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose.
  2. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years & the War Years by Carl Sandburg.
  3. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith by Fawn M. Brodie.
  4. Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy by David Roberts.
  5. The Pullman Boycott A Complete History of the R.R. Strike by W.F. Burns.
  6. A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula F. Pfeffer.
  7. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation by John Ehle.

RELATED: 30+ Best National Parks Books (Great Gifts For Parks Lovers)

Map Of Illinois National Park Sites

List Of Illinois National Parks

  1. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
  2. Lincoln Home National Historic Site
  3. Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail
  4. Pullman National Monument
  5. Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail

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Tony Pattiz

Tony Pattiz is a retired history teacher currently researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks.

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