12 Best Places to Visit in Southern Illinois for Families

A woman and her dog hike along a trail in Shawnee National Forest, one of the best places to visit in Southern Illinois for families.
Photo Courtesy: Illinois Office of Tourism

Plan your next Midwest vacation to one of these best places to visit in Southern Illinois for families! From Springfield to Grafton, Decatur, and Lake Shelbyville, there’s something to please everyone in the southern part of this vast Midwestern state. Of course, when visiting Southern Illinois with kids, there’s some planning to do. On this list, we’ve put together the best places to visit in Southern Illinois for families, including charming towns, state parks, and more adventures. Keep reading for our list of the Best Places To Visit In Southern Illinois For Families! 

Best Cities to Visit in Southern Illinois for Families

Searching for a city experience all ages can enjoy? Look no further than the following cities on this list of the best places to visit in Southern Illinois for families

Springfield

Several onlookers enjoy a show featuring actors playing Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln outisde on a sunny day in Springfield, Illinois.
Photo Courtesy: Visit Springfield

See history come alive in Springfield, the Illinois state capital and a quaint city known as the resting place of Abraham Lincoln. Learn more about his legacy at the Lincoln Home, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, or along the trails at Lincoln Memorial Gardens, where you can immerse yourself in stunning nature. Families can also drive twenty miles to New Salem, a reconstructed village representing where Lincoln lived. Kids will love the live performances!

Aside from historical attractions, Springfield is home to Knight’s Action Park, as well as the Kidzeum of Health and Science, perfect for spending a day as a family. No wonder this is one of the best places to visit in Southern Illinois for families! 

Book your stay at the Springhill Suites by Marriott Springfield Southwest here through Expedia!

Grafton

A man canoes along a river near Grafton with his two kids, one of the best places to visit in Southern Illinois for families.
Photo Courtesy: Tom Foster, Courtesy of Illinois Office Office of Tourism

A laidback summer vacation awaits your family in Grafton! This charming city is nestled along the confluence of the Mississippi River and Illinois Rivers. Located under an hour from St. Louis, Missouri, and five hours from Chicago, Grafton is famous for its sweeping scenic views and the vibrant downtown area.

Go hiking in the bluffs and wooded areas at Pere Marquette State Park. Or, rent Tritoon pontoon boats to explore Grafton Harbor. Adventurous kids can get a great view of the rivers by air while zip-lining! To relax, do some window shopping as you stroll downtown. You’ll find several antique stores, small shops, and other locally-owned businesses. Stop by The Loading Dock for a delicious family-friendly meal along the Mississippi River. Or, head to O’Jan’s Fish Stand or Beasley’s Fish Stand to try the catch of the day!

Reserve your stay at the Hampton Inn & Suites St. Charles Old Town Area with Expedia today!

Decatur

Several people walk around outside the Transfer House in Decatur.
Photo Courtesy: Illinois Office of Tourism

For a bustling city experience in central Illinois, head to Decatur, a popular city located along Lake Decatur. Steeped in history and scenic beauty, it’s home to attractions like the Scovill Zoo, featuring over 100 species of animals from around the world. From spider monkeys to zebras, cheetahs, and llamas, kids will love the array of animals here! Located along the lake, Nelson Park is also popular in the summer because it hosts festivals, free concerts, etc. On Lake Decatur, families can go boating, fishing, and soak up the sun when the weather is warm. If your kids like museums, don’t forget about the Chevrolet Hall of Fame Museum, the Children’s Museum of Illinois, and the Hieronymus Mueller Museum.

Book your stay at the Hampton Inn Decatur/Mt. Zion today through Hotels.com!

Best Outdoor Adventures in Southern Illinois for Families

Families looking to enjoy the great outdoors have their pick of the best places to visit in Southern Illinois for families. From stunning lakes to the best state parks in Southern Illinois, and more scenic spots, you’ll love the options on this list. Keep reading to learn more! 

Kinkaid Lake 

A waterfall spills over a small rock formation at Kinkaid Lake, one of the best places to visit in Southern Illinois for families.
Photo Courtesy: Curtis Abert

Kinkaid Lake is a fantastic addition to a nature-focused Illinois family itinerary. Located near Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois, the park doesn’t have any towns or homes around the lake. Instead, it’s surrounded by sandstone cliffs. This makes it perfect for camping at the Johnson Creek Recreation Area, located on a finger of the lake. It’s also a great launching spot for hiking, kayaking, fishing, and biking. Remember to bring water shoes to climb and splash in the Kinkaid Lake Spillway! Located at the end of Kinkaid Lake, this three-level waterfall and pool can help you cool down on a hot day. If your family enjoys watersports, Kinkaid Lake is excellent for tubing and waterskiing. 

For more lakeside adventures, check out this list of the Best Lakes in the Midwest for Families!

Lake Shelbyville

Two people kayak across Lake Shelbyville.
Photo Courtesy: Illinois Office of Tourism

Enjoy a summer escape in the heart of central Illinois at Lake Shelbyville! Whether you want to relax on the beach, go hiking, hunting, or fishing, this Midwestern gem has plenty to entertain your family. In the summer, soak up the sun at one of the four beaches located along the lake. Or, head to the Aquatic Center to take a dip in the zero-entry pool. It’s located in Forest Park, where you’ll also find an aquarium, picnic area, and scenic garden to explore. In terms of hiking, families will love the amazing view from the Camp Camfield Trail. Or, the Okaw Bluff Trail overlooking the lake. Boating on the lake is also available, and so is horseback riding. 

Rock Springs Conservation Area

Rear and eastern side of the Trobaugh-Good House, located at the Rock Springs Conservation Area southwest of Decatur, one of the best places to visit in Southern Illinois for families.
Photo Courtesy: Nyttend via Wikimedia Commons

Families visiting Decatur can escape into nature at the Rock Springs Conservation Area. Home to a Nature Center with hands-on exhibits alongside a restored 19th-century farmhouse (the Trobaugh-Good House), it’s the perfect place to entertain kids for a few hours. They’ll learn all about life on the Illinois Grand Prairie in 1860, and maybe even see a live history demonstration! After you visit the nature center and farm, you can explore multiple miles of trails, including easy options for kids. Hike the Prairie Path, Discovery Trail, or Bluestem Loop. Depending on the season, guided hikes are also available, like through the wildflowers. Don’t forget to get a peep at deer, birds, and other animals from the Window on Wildlife! 

Boo Castle Park

A large dragon head as part of the grounds of Boo Castle Park.
Photo Courtesy: Boo Castle Park

One of the best-kept secrets in Illinois is Boo Castle Park. Near Carbondale, this private park commemorates the life of Jeremy “Boo” Rochman. It’s also a fan favorite among Dungeons & Dragons players. Even if your kids don’t like D&D, the park features a ton of cool wizard statues. Kids can climb them, run around the open space, and even navigate a castle maze! Little ones will love exploring the park and hopping on their favorite dragons to take photos. Then, they can wander through the castle’s many floors to find its nooks and crannies. Even adults will love channeling their inner child here. It’s one of the best places to visit in Southern Illinois for families! 

Shawnee National Forest

Several people boulder along a large rock outcropping at Jackson Falls in Shawnee National Forest.
Photo Courtesy: Illinois Office of Tourism

From beautiful woodlands to rolling hills and clear lakes, Shawnee National Forest is truly a sight to behold! Located in southern Illinois between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, the forest boasts a beautifully diverse landscape: rolling hills, lakes, forests, creeks, and rugged bluffs. A particularly famous area here is the Garden of the Gods, one of the most photographed spots in the state! Families can see unique sandstone rock formations from The Observation Trail. It provides panoramic views of the surrounding Garden of the God Wilderness. Or, head to Jackson Falls located near the town of Ozark for awesome rock climbing. Rim Rock is also popular in the spring, since its upper and lower trails bloom with pretty wildflowers! 

Look for homestays near Shawnee National Forest here through Vrbo!

Ferne Clyffe State Park

A dry waterfall bed, with greenery flanking the stones, at Ferne Clyffe State Park, one of the best places to visit in Southern Illinois for families.
Photo Courtesy: Curtis Abert

Take your next family vacation to Ferne Clyffe State Park! Located on Illinois Route 37, only one mile south of Goreville and 12 miles south of Marion, this 2,430-acre state park is easily accessible. This makes it one of the best state parks in the Midwest for families. The park is known for its unique abundance of ferns and other wildlife. Families can see some on the many miles of trails winding through the picturesque woods, offering glimpses at rock formations and scenic vistas. The Big Rocky Hollow Trail is a popular choice for families since it’s easy and leads to a beautiful waterfall. Ferne Clyffe State Park also offers camping, hunting, fishing, and picnicking. 

Giant City State Park

The Giant City Lodge atop a grassy hill at Giant City State Park.
Photo Courtesy: Illinois Department of Natural Resources

A perfect day trip awaits families at Giant City State Park! Nestled in the Shawnee National Forest near Carbondale, the park is named for its ​​massive sandstone structures. It also has a uniquely picturesque landscape, featuring fern, moss, wildflowers, and towering trees. This provides the perfect backdrop for family-friendly fun, between hiking, biking, and horseback riding! Take the Giant City Nature Trail to see one of the park’s most famous attractions, Devils Standtable. This incredible rock formation is ideal for wildlife viewing. Rock climb and rappelling are also permitted in certain areas, as long as you’re with a guide. As one of the best places to visit in Southern Illinois for families, Giant City State Park is also popular for camping. 

More Great Things to Do in Southern Illinois for Families

Animal lovers and presidential library enthusiasts will be impressed by the opportunities in Southern Illinois. Here are two more great things to do in Southern Illinois for families

Aikman Wildlife Adventure

A zebra runs alongside a golf cart filled with guests at Aikman Wildlife Adventure.
Photo Courtesy: Aikman Wildlife Adventure

Aikman Wildlife Adventure offers families a unique animal experience. If you’re tired of seeing animals in far-away enclosures, this drive-through zoo in Arcola is the only of its kind in Illinois. Stay in your car as you pass over 100 exotic animals throughout the property, from zebras to wildebeests, deer, buffalo, and more. Then, you can exit the car to wander through the small walk-through area. It features a petting zoo where kids can feed and pet alpacas, goats, and other adorable animals. Once you’re done seeing the animals, feel free to venture inside. Check out the interactive exhibits at the Museum of Prehistoric Life, where kids can learn about cool animals from thousands of years ago! 

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum

Kids wander around the exhibit of the White House at Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Photo Courtesy: Adam Alexander, Courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism

A great educational destination for kids in Illinois is the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. It’s a massive library that houses papers from Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the Civil War, and even some of the original furnishings and personal possessions in the White House during Lincoln’s time. Children will enjoy acquiring knowledge about all aspects of life in Illinois during the 19th-century through tons of artifacts and displays, from Lincoln’s bed to his rocking chair, personal pictures, etc.

In addition to interesting exhibits, there are plenty of interactive stations including a scavenger hunt. Children can work together on teams to identify clues, search for missing objects, and then solve riddles based on gathered information to solve a mystery! With so much to offer, this is certainly one of the best places to visit in Southern Illinois for families.

Plan your next Midwest vacation to these Exciting Midwest Hotels With Indoor Water Parks For Families (By State)!

Happy Travels!

Three kids stand amongst five wax statues of Abraham Lincoln, his wife and three others at the Springfield Lincoln Museum.
Photo Courtesy: Angie Reedy

We hope you liked this list of the Best Places To Visit In Southern Illinois For Families! Between history, recreational activities, and scenic views, this Midwest destination is fantastic for all ages. Whether you are driving through or planning a visit, surely this list shares the best things to do in the area! Enjoy Southern Illinois with your kids.

*Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the attractions, accommodations, or things to do on this list may be closed. Please ensure availability before making your decision. 

*This post may contain affiliate links that may earn us a small commission, at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links in no way inform the hotels, sights, products, or other recommendations included in our articles. All opinions and recommendations expressed here are compiled from submissions submitted by the generous members of our Families Who Love To Travel community.

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Families Love Travel Team

The Families Love Travel Team has a zest for life and an even bigger passion for globetrotting! Comprised of real-life travel professionals, we work hard behind the scenes to provide dynamic solutions for adventuring with children. Our enthusiastic team understands the challenges that often accompany traveling with kids and is committed to making Families Love Travel an inclusive space to convey these experiences.