The Run Down

For this guide we’re heading 1.5 hours out of Chicago for an easy day trip exploring  canyons, waterfalls, and indulging in cajun cuisine. Here are the highlights in this guide.

1. Crawfish Etoufee @ Cajun Connection

2. Hiking @ Starved Rock State Park

3. Explore @ Downtown Utica


Before we start hiking at Starved Rock, you’ll want to eat to have enough energy to last the day. Some people will opt for power bars or trail mix, which is all well and good, but I think the foodie in you will be much happier indulging in a home cooked cajun meal.

As you make the drive to Starved Rock, along a quiet stretch of country road and surrounded by tall fields of corn, you’ll find the Cajun Connection restaurant. It’s been been serving “swamp to table” cuisine for over 20 years. While this isn’t a part of the state where you’d expect to find po’boys and crawfish, what you’ll get is a wonderfully authentic cajun restaurant and a set of very gracious hosts.

At the helm is Cajun Ron, a Louisiana native who grew up in swamp country, and helping him manage the restaurant is his wife, Amy. Together they educate you on what cajun cuisine really is (contrary to popular belief, it’s not spicy) and second they serve up an extensive menu of cajun comfort food.

Their menu include includes things like alligator, crawfish etoufee, gumbo, fried shrimp, frog legs, catfish, and red beans and rice.

In terms of what to get, we didn’t try everything out on the menu, but the crawfish etoufee was as good as any you’d find in the South. For you Midwesterners unfamiliar with etoufee, it’s bed of rice covered in a savory and buttery roux with meaty chunks of crawfish. It’s a surprisingly light dish, and one of those you could just keeping eating and eating.

If that’s not enough for you, a side of hush puppies make for a great appetizer to share. 

One last word of advice, do yourself a favor and end the the meal with a slice of pecan pie. It’s out of this world good — I’m not normally a fan of pecan pie, but I made a huge exception in this case. I don’t know how it’s done, but it’s subtly sweet and they do a good job of making the pecan the star of dish.


The entrance to Starved Rock is about a 15 minute drive from Cajun Connection. As you enter, the best place to park is at the visitors center — the parking lot can get a bit crowded, but there are signs directing you to overflow parking if space is tight. Here are some basic tips.

– Park is open from 6am – 9pm
– This is a walking trail only — no bikes
– No trashcans on the trail. Bring out what you take in.
– Free maps at the visitor center
– Apparently the place is crawling with pokemon
– Bring a small backpack with plenty of water

The trail head starts at the visitor center, which leads you to over 13 miles of winding trails in the park. The trails themselves are a mix of wood planks, staircases, and dirt trails. At times it almost feels like your in one gigantic tree house as you make your way up and down these elaborate wood staircases.

The main stars at Starved Rock are the 18 deep canyons and scenic overlooks that you can find along the trail. The deepest canyon is Wildcat Canyon which has a 125 foot drop from the top. This is the first canyon you’ll run into — about a mile from the visitor center.  

If you’re looking for a more tranquil experience, the further you are from the visitor center the thinner the crowd gets.

For those of you enjoy water activities, the Illinois River runs through the park. We didn’t do this, but you can also rent canoes, jet skis, and pontoons and make your way up and down the river. See here.


If you still have enough energy after your hike, a quick trip to downtown Utica might help you recharge a bit before heading home. If you exit Starved Rock and head north on IL-178, you’ll eventually hit downtown Utica. It’s about a 5 – 10 minute drive and along the way you’ll see ice cream shops and other specialty stores on the side of the road.


Once you hit downtown, you’ll notice it’s all contained within one block. There isn’t a whole lot to see, but downtown Utica and the surrounding area is a small enough where you wander aimlessly and uncover in around 30-45 minutes.