If the idea of a cabin in the woods dredges up images of a dank, musty-smelling place filled with spiders and cobwebs, then you haven’t been to White Pines Inn. Nestled among the natural wonders of White Pines State Park in Mt. Morris, Illinois, the cabins were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. But they have been fully rehabbed. Today, the cabins are neither musty nor cobweb-encrusted. Indeed, they are downright charming.

Charming and Small White Pines Inn and State Park

Cabins built by the CCC are nestled among the natural wonders of White Pines State Park

Tiny cabins at White Pines Inn feel like a Disney recreation of what a cabin should look like. Photo credit: Cindy Richards/ Empty Nest TravelingMom

White Pines Inn is two hours and world away from Chicago. Tucked away among the natural wonders of a small state park, everything about White Pines is small and soothing and quiet—exactly what a major city like Chicago is not.

The stature of the tiny cottages, like the park itself, is so small that they have a “let’s pretend” playhouse feel to them. It’s almost as though they are a Disney recreation of what a rustic cabin in the woods should look like.

Similarly, the 385-acre state park is entirely manageable—there are several trails, but none is longer than 1.2 miles. Even the longest, toughest trail felt like it was unnaturally long. My husband and I both thought we had crossed the same stream several times, much like the lines for a Disney ride snake back and forth to give visitors the feeling they are moving a great distance without going far at all.

As we walked the longest, most difficult trail, my husband suddenly turned to me and said, “I know what this feels like: It’s a mini Starved Rock.” That much larger state park about 90 minutes south of White Pines has the larger version of rock outcroppings and much longer and more challenging hiking trails. It’s a beautiful spot, but after several stressful weeks of buying our smaller, empty nest house and purging our 20 years’ worth of possessions, we didn’t want any more challenge. We were ready for a more relaxing and manageable weekend getaway near Chicago.

White Pines Inn Cabins

Cabins at White Pines Inn

Photos by Cindy Richards/ Empty Nest TravelingMom

The interior of the tiny cabins is dominated by a giant stone fireplace that fills one wall. Originally built to be wood-burning, today the fireplaces are gas powered and turn on and off with the flick of a switch. We visited on an unseasonably chilly spring weekend and quickly flipped on the fireplace—only to flip it off again 30 minutes later as we started to swelter in the small space.

natural wonders of White Pines State Park

Huge stone fireplace at White Pines Inn, Mt. Morris, Illinois. Photo credit: Cindy Richards/ Empty Nest TravelingMom

Gas to the fireplaces is turned off in the summer, operator Beth Henderson says. That‘s because visitors who want the ambiance of the fireplace during warmer weather will crank up the air conditioning to counteract the heat, wasting energy on both sides.

A comfy queen bed fills most of the main room of the cabin, with just enough space left over to accommodate a small table for two. The inn literature says the cabins can sleep four. There is a full size trundle bed stored under the queen, but I couldn’t figure how the small space could possibly accommodate both beds, even if you moved the table and chairs. A White Pines worker said that when people need to use the trundle, they generally just pull it out far enough to sleep one. Families staying with more than two people should consider renting one of the bigger cabins with adjoining doors or one of the larger, newly built cabins across from the entrance to the park.

Amenities at White Pines Inn

The renovation of the original Civilian Conservation Corps cabins included the installation of

phones and televisions, both of which seem wholly out of place in this quaint setting. We didn’t use either (but we did notice that cell service was spotty in this rustic location, so it’s possible the phones would have proven to be a necessity had we felt the need to call someone.)

The cabin includes a full bath with a small shower. The soap is locally made and sold at the Soap shoppe. A lovely spruce scent wafts throughout the tiny cabin when you use it to wash and, true to the claims of the paper wrapped around the tiny bar, it does leave your hands feeling silky soft. However, I was unwilling to believe the claim that the all-natural ingredients could double as shampoo and conditioner.

Dining at White Pines Inn

White Pines inn

The Sunday buffet fills a room at White Pines inn. Photo credit: Cindy Richards / Empty Nest TravelingMom

The onsite Lodge restaurant offers delicious oversized meals at affordable prices served with the cheeriest wait staff this side of the Mississippi. (Consider ordering one dinner and splitting it unless you arrive really famished—or really like leftovers.)

Sunday brunch is an even better deal. The buffet table fills an entire room, with choices ranging from fresh fruit to barbecued ribs, all for less than $15 for seniors. Definitely make reservations if you want to be assured a table. There may only be 13 single-room cabins and 3 four-bedroom cabins onsite, but this is a popular spot for the locals.

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, the Lodge offers an afternoon matinee dinner theater package. Based on the warmth and charm of the locals we met, we were sorry not to have had a chance to see the show.

Outdoors at White Pines State Park

natural wonders of White Pines State Park

Nature is the big draw at White Pines State Park. Photo credit: Cindy Richards / Empty Nest TravelingMom

The cabins are cute and the food is delicious and plentiful, but the real draw here is Mother Nature. White Pines was the third state park in Illinois. It took nearly 25 years for a group of locals to convince the state to preserve the natural wonders of the area and raise the money needed to buy the land for the state park. Support from WGN and the Chicago Tribune for the project finally put it over the top. In 1927,  Gov. Len Small bought the land for $63,949.

Twenty years later, another 70 acres was added, bringing the state park total to 385 acres.

White Pines has eight hiking trails, the longest and most challenging of which is just 1.2 miles and winds up and down some hills and across a couple of streams (use the cement stepping stones to stay dry). There’s even a half-mile nature trail for those with physical challenges.

Fording the Streams at White Pines

Unlike its big brother to the south, White Pines has a ford. Two of them, in fact. This is a spot where a shallow concrete drive has been placed under the stream.

According to the literature at the cabin, it was determined that it would be too expensive to build a bridge over the stream. Instead, engineers built a concrete drive below the stream.

We crossed it several times just for the fun of it, imagining we were pioneers–or at least pioneers if they happened to be driving a Dodge Durango rather than a covered wagon. It was hard not to smile as we drove across.

As you can see from this video, there are rules for fording a creek–but rules are sometimes made to be broken.

And, while there are signs warning visitors not to wade across the fords (there’s a foot bridge nearby), we saw several people doing it even on a chilly day when the water temperature had to be quite cold.

The park also offers fishing, hunting, picnicking, and camping.

Getting there

White Pines Inn is located inside White Pines State Park in Mt. Morris, Illinois. For reservations, call (815) 946-3817 or visit online at whitepinesinn.com