As with any list I make, know that this is A list, not THE list. There are perhaps dozens of other locations and hikes nearby and across the borders that are well worth exploring as well. Indeed, the Driftless Area of Illinois-Minnesota-Iowa-Wisconsin is abundant in outdoor adventure!
1) The Galena River
The Galena River bisects the quaint town of its namesake and creates a scene that looks almost Irish. Tall levees remind the onlookers that this can be quite a wild river after heavy rains. Nevertheless, kayaking and stand up paddleboarding opportunities abound in the warmer months. This was the place where I first tried stand up paddleboarding and found it to be a rejuvenating way to spend time on the river. I've found kayaking on the river to be equally enjoyable. Of course, just walking or biking along the river trail is just as lovely.
2) Horseshoe Mound Preserve
Standing at 1,070' in altitude and 400' above the Mississippi River and Galena, the view from Horseshoe Mound is simply one of the best views in the Midwest. The park has been recently been developed to have a magnificent amphitheater and several hiking trails. We've noticed how the place takes on a different character when we visit during a different time of day or a different season. Fall colors illuminate the valleys with incredible brilliance that reminds me of my previous New England Home. Spring and Summer bring explosive wildflower blooms and lush forest hiking that make for lovely morning and sunset hikes. We've never gone to Galena without visiting Horseshoe Mound!
One of the better kept secrets in the state is this deeply carved canyon well off the beaten path. I call it the "Grand Canyon of Illinois" though there is a location in Southern Illinois that also has that name. Either way, the confluence of three rivers creates sharp cliffs and rushing waters that you might not expect in the Midwest. Naturally, the fishing conditions here can be great as well. We love to hit this place on our way to or from Galena and have a picnic or hike. On more than one occasion we have enjoyed the entire park to ourselves.
4) Mississippi Palisades State Park
Just outside of Jo Daviess County and about 40 minutes from Galena is one of the Midwest's most photographed parks. Mississippi Palisades is exactly what it sounds like- towering cliffs above the storied river. Nearly a dozen easily accessible overlooks invite photography and quiet reflection. When we're feeling more adventurous, we spend a day hiking up and down the more demanding trails. There are also several established trad rock climbing routes that are perhaps the closest of their caliber to Chicagoland.
5) Casper Bluff Land and Water Preserve
For all the times we've been to Galena, I can't believe it took us so long to discover this park. Its located is right on the banks above the Mississippi River and full of remarkable archaeological sites of the Effigy Mounds Culture. Mounds of this park have existed for greater than 1,000 years, adding to the mystical aura of the area. Views of the Mississippi are also unparalleled; we must have spent an hour and a half just sitting on one of the overlooks and just taking in the sights and sounds.
6) Winston Tunnel Hiking Trail
So technically not entirely natural, this is still my favorite hike in Illinois. Its fascinating how quickly nature takes over when something man-made is abandoned. The above picture used to be a railroad track but you would never guess it when walking along its remnants. The railroad tunnel itself is no longer in use and everything around it appears exactly as the way it did before human habitation. The area is not well marked nor does it appear on most maps- its elusiveness is your gain. We encountered no other hikers on our first trip out here and we relished nature's solitude. If you're anything like us, you'll end up spending hours taking hundreds of pictures of this special place.
7) Starry Nights
Oh how I wish I could photograph the starry nights of rural Illinois! Vibrant city lights of Chicago don't leave us much opportunity for stargazing. Though we enjoy the nightlife of downtown Galena, we make sure we spend at least part of our evenings quietly under the stars.
Other honorable mentions of the region would include Charles Mound, the high-point of Illinois, Hanover Bluff Nature Preserve of Hanover, Illinois and Mines of Spain Recreation Area, across the river in Dubuque, Iowa. I'm sure with future trips we will continue to discover places to add to our growing list of natural wonders!