Situated at the confluence of the Fox and Illinois Rivers, this community has much to offer the casual visitor. From family-friendly attractions and a brewing nightlife to historical landmarks and nature getaways, this town knows how to have fun.
After a year of stay-at-home orders and canceled plans, most people are itching to get back to “normal” life, which typically includes summer vacations or getaways.
Perhaps underrecognized, Ottawa, a small city located at the confluence of the Illinois and Fox Rivers in LaSalle County, makes for an ideal travel destination.
“Those who are looking for flexibility, ease of planning, and a safe experience to enjoy will choose Ottawa,” says Curt Bedei, executive director of the Ottawa Visitors Center. “Ottawa offers an alternative to the big-city vacation. It’s a more authentic American experience with all of the modern amenities. Travelers can appreciate different cultures and will be reminded of the beauty in the world.”
Things to Do
Though Ottawa is a great destination to visit year-round, summer is a particularly enjoyable time.
“It basically comes down to three things: hiking, biking and boating,” Bedei says.
Located within 30 minutes of four state parks, the largest of which is Starved Rock, Ottawa is centered in an abundance of trails and hiking opportunities. The city itself also has Dayton Bluffs Preserve, located right off the interstate and only 5 minutes away from downtown.
“The bluffs are basically how Illinois looked back in the prairie days before the Industrial Revolution took over,” Bedei says. “There are some great trails there. One of them will take you all the way down to the banks of the Fox River. But there’s also an old cemetery and some Indian burial mounds there. It’s a great recommendation for anybody who wants to avoid the crowds at the state parks because everybody knows about those locations. This is a hidden little gem where people can also feel connected to nature, but not necessarily be around a lot of people.”
After years of being empty, the Illinois & Michigan canal, which runs through the heart of Ottawa, is now refilled with water, Bedei adds. Visitors can walk or bike about 90 miles around the whole canal, or opt to kayak or canoe on a portion that’s now open to the public. Boats, paddleboats and Jet Skis are also available for rental on both the Illinois and Fox rivers.
If you’re interested in shopping, there are plenty of locally owned stores in downtown Ottawa.
“To name them all would take forever, but just off the top of my head, we have City Folk Urban Decor, which has all kinds of interesting art pieces and paintings,” Bedei says. “Right next door is A Mess of Things, which has chic, eclectic handmade jewelry and a lot of neat knickknacks. Deja Vu has all kinds of household decor and jewelry. And then we also have a great bookstore.”
Prairie Fox Books, located at 719 La Salle St., Ottawa, is co-owned by mother-daughter duo Mary Olson (mom) and Gabriella Crivilare (daughter).
“There was another longstanding bookstore in the area, and the owner was getting ready to retire, so Mary and Gabriella thought it would be a fantastic opportunity to open a brand-new bookstore,” says Dylan Conmy, Prairie Fox Books’ general manager. “Gabriella’s degree is in children’s adolescent literature, and she’s a writer, so it was a perfect fit.”
Olson co-owns Rock Paper Scissors, a store that specializes in educational toys and games for children.
“It’s right across the street, so she’s always bouncing back and forth,” Conmy says. “I don’t know how she does it!”
In 2018, Prairie Fox Books moved into a bigger building that not only allows space for more inventory, but also provides more room to host events for visitors and the community.
“We have a specially curated selection of books,” Conmy explains. “We don’t just carry popular mainstream titles. We carry a lot of indie and local authors. Right now, we have more than 50 local authors with their books in stock here. These are just phenomenal stories that you might not have discovered if you stuck to the mainstream. So, we’re able to provide a more diverse, curated collection.”
Though larger vendors may entice with cheaper prices and faster shipping, Conmy says special orders through Prairie Fox Books are usually delivered in a day or two.
“So, you might as well have a great experience knowing that the turnaround is the same,” he says.
The shop hosts events for all ages, including a popular murder mystery dinner held annually.
“We also just started a newsletter with online and snail mail options,” Conmy adds.
There’s a loyalty membership program that gives discounts year-round, and teachers always get 15 percent off. Recently, Prairie Fox Books started offering subscription boxes that now ship nationwide. Future plans include creating a tea room and cafe so even more events can take place.
“It’s so important to continue to shop local and have a little bookstore like us,” Conmy says. “Our town is full of small businesses – it’s boutiques, it’s independent restaurants, and if you look around at all of the owners, I think the biggest difference is every store has become a labor of love. Every store is based on a passion. I hope by the time somebody leaves our store, they feel like they were instantly treated like a regular customer.”
Besides making in-store purchases, shoppers can also browse online at prairiefoxbooks.com.
History buffs may already know that Ottawa is famous for hosting the first of seven debates between President Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, back in 1858 in Washington Square Park. But to get to know Ottawa more thoroughly, visitors can turn to Awesome Ottawa Tours, at 624 Court St., for guidance. The founder, Tom Aussem, first had an idea 10 years ago to put together a bicycle tour. Fast forward, and Aussem now has seven tours that cater to different interests, with options to walk, drive or bike.
“I was a teenager back when I started doing research on Ottawa’s history,” Aussem recalls. “Growing up locally, you learn about Abraham Lincoln, and that’s about it. I kept finding more and more fascinating stuff that proved the significance of Ottawa to our expansion to the west, and also how important we were as a trade location back in the early 1800s, and it just went on from there.”
Tours are offered seven days a week, year-round, and Aussem leads every tour himself.
“I’m the chief, cook and bottle washer for this organization,” he says.
The bicycle and walking tours are the broadest options available, and they cover Ottawa’s history from its founding up to the present. The bicycle tour is only offered seasonally, as is the Haunted Tour, which is held during October. Aussem writes it new every year. Every other tour is offered year-round.
Thanks to a Netflix documentary and best-selling novel, a popular tour right now is the Radium Girls of Ottawa tour, which educates about women who were poisoned by radium while working in factories during the 1920s. It’s a driving tour with the option to get out of your vehicle to look around at certain locations. Aussem also leads a driving/hiking tour called Indian Burial Mounds and Forgotten Graveyards, which divulges who is buried at various pioneer-era cemeteries and within several Indian mounds.
The Wine Through Time tour, organized like a pub crawl, follows Ottawa’s mayor during the Prohibition era, exposing some scandalous activities he was involved in.
“That’s a fun one because each person plays a role on the tour, and they have a line or two to say as the tour goes on,” Aussem says.
Finally, a brewery tour through The Lone Buffalo by Tangled Roots Brewing Company ends with a complimentary flight of craft beer.
“Everything is history related; it just depends on what conveyance you’re interested in,” Aussem says. He also leads custom tours if people want something more specific to their interests.
The farther out you book a tour, the better, but Awesome Ottawa Tours allows people to register up to an hour before they start. Visit awesomeottawatours.com or call (815) 343-4940 to see what’s available.
“What people walk away with on our tours is ‘Wow, I never realized all of that was so significant here in Ottawa,’” Aussem says. “But more importantly, it gives them a spark to go and do research on their own town, their own past, their own history. It’s important that we know where we come from, and I like to leave people with that. You may be fascinated with what you find.”
Where to Stay
In order to take in Ottawa properly, it’s best to stay in the area. While nearby hotels provide lodging options, there are other, more-unique options as well, including both Kishawau Cabins and Heritage Harbor.
Terisa King, owner of Kishawau Cabins at 901 N. 2129th Road, in nearby Tonica, says her in-laws originally purchased the property from the Boy Scouts of America back in 1986. Today, 17 cabins are located throughout 65 acres of wooded property, and each one has a full kitchen, personal bonfire pit, picnic table, grill, and other amenities. Plus, the whole property is mosquito-treated, so you don’t need to worry about bugs.
“Our cabins aren’t even like typical camping cabins,” King says. “Thirteen of them are studios, but even those are about 750 square feet. So, they’re decent sized. It’s kind of like modern-day glamping. It’s a happy medium between people who love camping and people like me who are kind of over it and want running water and a nice bed.”
While many of the studios have queen beds, an extra twin bed and maybe a fold-out futon, five cabins are specifically designated to sleep couples for romantic getaways. Four cabins are specific to customers with dogs, and 12 cabins have large Whirlpool tubs.
Larger cabins have separate bedrooms and baths, and the largest cabin on site, Grandma’s Cabin, is a four-bedroom, two-bathroom cabin that can sleep up to 14 people. The site as a whole is popular for family reunions, with Grandma’s Cabin typically serving as the epicenter. The property can accommodate up to 70 people in total.
“What everybody loves about our property is that you would never know that all of that is here,” King says. “Everything is just so nicely spread out. People love the homey feel here. Our longtime customers who’ve been coming here since the beginning – they walk in the door and they say, ‘We’re home!’ You definitely get the mom-and-pop vibe here. ”
The office is always open with access to movies, puzzles, games, books and magazines. Everything is loaned outon a cash-only honors system.
Summer availability is already filling up, especially since Kishawau Cabins makes for an ideal socially distant getaway. Visit kishauwaucabins.com or call (815) 442-8453 to secure a reservation.
“This is a type of getaway where you’re really taken back in time,” King adds. “Our society is plugged in all the time, and people can come here to reconnect through telling stories around bonfires, or playing board games. I just want people to experience being unplugged and enjoying each other.”
For a less woodsy and more urban destination, visitors can check out Heritage Harbor at 111 Harbor View Dr., Ottawa. The marina resort community offers both vacation rentals and permanent homes to live in year-round.
“Back in 2007 when we had the idea, we realized that people from Chicago and the suburbs had limited opportunities to go somewhere for the weekend,” says Tammy Barry, vice president of sales and marketing at Heritage Harbor. “People were going to Lake Geneva, Galena and New Buffalo, and we were like, why not go by the four state parks? Heritage Harbor has a 152-acre parcel of land, and we dug out a 32-acre marina that has a walking path around the whole thing. On one side of the resort is the Illinois River; on the other side is the I & M Canal.”
In addition to the walking path, Heritage Harbor has three outdoor swimming pools, a sand volleyball court, a dog park, an on-site restaurant, a tiki bar, and opportunities to rent boats, kayaks, paddle boards and Jet Skis. Year-round events and live music frequently take place. For example, Kites In Flight happens May 23 from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
“There’s going to be a display of these huge kites that are about 20 feet in size,” says Bedei. “There’ll be candy drops throughout the day from the kites, there’ll be food and craft vendors – it’s a great opportunity to get the family out.”
Weekdays are a little easier to book, but options are still available for vacation rentals this summer, Barry adds. Go to visitheritageharborinn.com or call (815) 433-5000 for assistance.
“My biggest goal would be for people to feel relaxed by the time they leave,” Barry says. “I think people will find life is just a little bit simpler down here.”
Where to Dine
In addition to Red Dog Grill, located on-site at Heritage Harbor, downtown Ottawa has a plethora of dining options.
“We have A’Lure Aquarium Bar-Restaurant, where you can watch the fish while you’re throwing back some good drinks,” Bedei says. “Then, of course, there’s Iniga Pizzeria Napoletana, which offers authentic Italian Neapolitan-style pizzas. There are really all kinds of options.”
For something unique, Bedei recommends The Cheese Shop ‘N’ Deli, which specializes in sandwiches but offers other entrees.
“The atmosphere is fun because there’s a bunch of antiques, so they have bicycles, signs, mill jars, just about anything,” Bedei adds. “It’s located right off the canal, too, so if you’re hiking you can just walk in.”
One of Ottawa’s staples would have to be The Lone Buffalo by Tangled Roots Brewing Company. Now in its fifth year of operation, this brewery offers farm-to-table cuisine and craft beers aplenty.
“The reason why the owners and founders chose Ottawa is because of its proximity to Starved Rock, but also because they really believed in building small towns up,” says Anna Wright, senior marketing and experience manager of the brewpub. “They really believed Ottawa was a thriving community and would be a great location.”
With hops and barley fields also located in Ottawa, The Lone Buffalo is the only brewery in Illinois that grows 100 percent of its own ingredients, Wright adds.
Being an upscale brewpub, The Lone Buffalo’s menu is updated annually, with seasonal, holiday and speciality menus often available as well. This year, during American Craft Beer Week, and The Lone Buffalo offers daily beer and appetizer pairings. Oktoberfest is one of the most popular events, Wright adds, and it takes place during the late summer/early fall.
“We really get a lot of different people here,” Wright says. “It’s a nice mix of locals and tourists. You see families with their kids, or an older couple. We have an event space upstairs where we host a lot of rehearsal dinners, business luncheons and small weddings. We host music on the weekends, we have brewery tours – there’s a lot going on at all times.
“It’s a beautiful location, a really friendly staff, and exceptional food and drink,” Wright adds. “We really try to give guests the ultimate experience.”
A Summer to Remember
By the end of your visit, you’ve likely experienced a relaxing time surrounded by friendly people.
“There can be an idea that small towns are stuck in the past, but not Ottawa,” Bedei says. “We’re pleased to be trendsetters and forward thinkers. Hopefully, people walk away with an idea of Ottawa being a friendly town with a modern charm.”