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Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center

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Starved Rock Lodge (Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek photo)

Although Starved Rock State Park is a 90-minute drive from the stateline area, visitors often make a weekend of it, reserving one of 70 lodge guestrooms, 13 rustic cabins or eight deluxe cabins. Reminiscent of the log lodges at Yellowstone National Park, Starved Rock Lodge has a massive stone fireplace, great hall, large dining room, lounge, and a veranda overlooking the Illinois River Valley and the famed rock itself. Only seven other Illinois parks have such a lodge.

Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek

Once checked in, visitors receive a map with information about the park’s 18 canyons and 13 miles of hiking trails, some short and easy, others long and challenging. Sites like “Lover’s Leap” come with plenty of folklore, and some guests opt for a guided walking tour or trolley ride to discover it. Others start at the Visitor Center, learning about the natural and human history of the places they’re about to visit. Still others enjoy setting off, camera in hand, for a free-spirited exploration of the park’s wildflowers or frozen waterfalls, depending on the season. In warm weather, they may return to relax with a cool drink on the outdoor patio with its scenic views; in frosty weather, they may unwind near the enormous fireplace. The lodge has been expanded and updated, most recently in 1989, and offers a large indoor swimming pool, whirlpool and sauna, along with gift shops and snack bars. The 200-seat main dining room is open seven days a week, for three meals a day. Lunch entrées like Deep Fried Turkey, Penne Pomodoro and Grilled Portobello Focaccia are priced under $10, and all kids’ lunches are $5. Dinner may begin with an appetizer like Lump Crab Cake ($10) or Mango Jalapeno Glazed Shrimp Skewers ($8.75). Along with steak, chicken, fish (like sautéed walleye for $21) and pasta dishes, there are lodge favorites like Classic Fried Chicken ($15) or Pot Roast of Beef ($16). Those who prefer more elegant fare can order Forest Mushroom Farfalle with Smoked Pheasant ($23) or Sea Scallops Alfredo ($24). The bar is fully-stocked and beer and the menu offers wine and food pairing suggestions.

Terry Cross

Although fine wines and modern conveniences like wireless Internet are available, the state-owned facility is not trying to be a four-star hotel. “The water, the woods and the history in themselves make it a worthwhile destination, and we don’t need to make our programming fancy to be successful,” says Terry Cross, who has privately managed the lodge and related businesses in the park, under a concessionaire license with the State of Illinois, since 1989. “People just enjoy being here. We’re consistently packed at 80-percent capacity or more.” The unique public-private management allows for faster implementation of new ideas than was possible under state management alone. “We have the luxury of being more creative and flexible in the programs we provide,” says Cross. “We can say, ‘Let’s offer this bird-watching program, or this photography seminar, next month,’ without first going through layers of state approval.”

The Great Hall of the Starved Rock Lodge and Conference Center features a massive two-sided fireplace. (Kathy Casstevens photo)

Thanks, in part, to aggressive marketing efforts by Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek, who is also a professional photographer and Web design whiz, the lodge has increased its conference and retreat business significantly; it hosted 128 weddings in 2010 alone. Once a marketing executive in Chicago, Casstevens-Jasiek was happy to relocate her family to the natural beauty of her hometown region near Starved Rock. “One day, I was working in one of the cabins, with the door open, hanging some artwork, and the smell of sun-warmed pine needles filled the room,” she says. “The view outside every window was beautiful. There was a cool breeze, and I thought how happy it makes me just to work in a place like this.” Cross has been working to preserve a collection of more than 30 chainsaw sculptures throughout the park that have been disintegrating over time. He personally donated two bronze sculptures; one replaces a crumbling wooden Indian with a bronze Native American Crow Medicine Man; the other is a bronze eagle, “the symbol of American freedom and the most revered bird in Illinois and the United States,” says Cross. It looks quite at home standing near the Visitor Center, a place where real eagles often glide above the river in winter months. The park offers many tours and packages, such as the wintertime “Discover the Eagles Tour” or the springtime “Wine & Shopping” and “Waterfall & Canyon” tours. “I’m very proud of the primary feedback we receive, which is that our staff is friendly and efficient, making guests feel welcome,” says Cross. “We have a wonderful team here, and we’ve built up the brand, so to speak, and built up relationships around the state and beyond, reminding people of what a treasure they have in this place.” ❚

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