Recreation & Destinations

NWQ Getaway Guide, Winter Edition

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Our region has so many places to play and get away! Here are a few worth visiting this season.

Starved Rock winter fun includes dogsledding demonstrations. (Kathy Casstevens photo)

Starved Rock Lodge: Embrace the Beauty of Winter

By Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek, Director of Marketing, Starved Rock Lodge

As New Year’s resolutions fall into the dusty pile of “To Dos,” there’s one that’s worth keeping. A trip to Starved Rock offers a unique experience for people of all ages.

Children and adults alike enjoy getting a glimpse of a frozen waterfall or bald eagles in flight. Snow-covered bluffs with expansive Illinois River views are best when seen from the top of Starved Rock, Lovers Leap or Eagle Cliff, three of the park’s most famous rock formations.

New in 2013, guided hikes will be offered every Saturday and Sunday, even in the winter. Led by expert guides from Starved Rock Lodge, the hikes are the safest and most expedient way to see the park from an insider’s point of view. Plus, most visitors tend to visit the canyons closest to the Lodge. This trip takes hikers on a 4.5-mile adventure to see LaSalle and Tonti canyons, plus extraordinary views from some of the most beautiful lookout points in the 2,600-acre park.

Also this year, the Lodge is sponsoring a photo contest, themed “In Touch with Your Natural Side,” which invites photographers to submit their best Starved Rock photos into one of five categories. Prizes will be awarded at a photo show scheduled for Feb. 24.

Ice climbing is allowed, when park officials declare the frozen waterfalls ready for the sport (climbers must be certified).

Climbers and hikers alike enjoy seeing frozen waterfalls, which form in frigid temps. Your camera will capture an amazing photo that displays nature at its best, but you’ll need a video camera to capture the sound of water trickling within this frozen work of natural art. If there’s measurable snowfall, cross-country skiing is offered at nearby Matthiessen State Park. Skis, boots and beginner lessons are available.

Winter’s big highlight is the Eagle Watch Weekend, set for Jan. 26-27, with its “Birds of Prey” show and hands-on exhibits. Throughout January and February, guests can join the Eagle Trolley Tours, which include lunch and a guided tour aboard a Starved Rock trolley, to see America’s symbol of strength. This is Starved Rock’s most popular winter tour.

In the quiet of winter, visitors can enjoy a giant fireplace in the Lodge’s Great Hall, and smaller fireplaces in several of the Lodge’s 13 cabins in the woods. Sometimes, the Great Hall’s fireplace is roaring, and other times, the red-hot embers just glow and cast a calming kind of warmth that fills the massive space.

A wide variety of special events are planned for the winter months, from interactive dinner theatre (Feb. 2) and musical tributes to drum circles (Jan. 20) and sled dog demonstrations (Jan. 13 and Feb. 3). Details and our full event calendar are available at www.starvedrocklodge.com.

Fly RFD: From Cornfield to Mountaintop in a Morning

Whether you love to ski or simply relish the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, the Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD) can whisk you to Denver in less time than it takes to drive from Rockford to Peoria, Ill. Frontier Airlines offers nonstop service from Rockford to Denver three times a week. Flight time is less than 2.5 hours and round-trip bookings average less than $200.

Once in Denver, it doesn’t take long to climb high into the mountains. Many ski destinations are just an hour or two away by car, including Vail, the largest in the U.S., at more than 5,000 acres. Other top Colorado ski areas include Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Crested Butte, Keystone, Durango, Silverton, Snowmass, Steamboat Springs, Telluride and Winter Park – the latter just 67 miles northwest of Denver. By afternoon, you could be speeding down the slopes, adrenaline rushing, the spray of powder in your face.

But what if your partner loves to ski and you don’t? Is there any reason to tag along to the Rocky Mountains? Well, for starters, it’s never too late to learn to ski, and most resorts have bunny hills and instructors. But if it’s really not your thing, there’s still plenty to see and do, starting with stunning mountain scenery.

Tucked alongside the slopes are some of the most posh and charming resorts, spas, shops and artist’s enclaves one could wish for. For example, the Austria Haus Hotel, along the quaint, cobblestoned streets of Vail Village, with its lovely covered bridge, sparkles with Old World charm and offers a warm whirlpool overlooking Gore Creek. Enjoy contemporary French cuisine at nearby La Tour, or ride the Eagle Bahn Gondola to Bistro Fourteen for a mountaintop fine dining experience.

Or perhaps you’d enjoy a horse-drawn sleigh ride, like the one offered by Beaver Meadows Resort Ranch near Roosevelt National Forest. Enjoy cowboy stew, cornbread and hot cider served in a rustic cabin in the woods. Maybe you’ve never before mushed a team of energetic Siberian and Alaskan huskies over snow-packed trails – an experience you’ll find at Durango Dog Ranch or Dog Sled Rides of Winter Park.

Plenty of other snow sports await you in Colorado, whether or not you ski. Sure, snowmobile rides, snowboarding, ice skating and ice fishing come to mind. But there’s also snow tubing – as in racing and rolling around snow-packed slopes in a giant rubber inner tube. Copper Mountain and Vail’s Adventure Ridge are well-known for their tubing hills.

How about snow biking? Snow cycles look like a bicycle but have skis instead of tires. Many resorts employ instructors who’ll teach you how to operate them. The truly adventurous may enjoy climbing up frozen waterfalls – a sport that’s also a lot of fun to watch. Many consider Ouray, Colo., to be the ice-climbing capital of the world, and thousands participate in the Ouray Ice Festival there each January.

As you wind back toward Denver, you might want to take time to tour the United States Mint, where more than 50 million coins are produced each year (reservations are recommended), or to visit one of the city’s excellent museums, wildlife or Wild West attractions, breweries, gardens or shopping areas.

To learn more about Colorado and the Denver area, including special events that may coincide with your trip, visit colorado.com or denver.org. And remember: Whether or not you like to hit the slopes, a Rocky Mountain high can still be yours.

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