A weekend’s journey is closer than you might think. Check out these fun destinations that are close to home but still feel so far away.
Visit Rock Falls: Autumn Activities at the Crossroads of Fun
By Sam Arco, editorial intern
A little more than 100 miles from Chicago is the small town of Rock Falls, Ill. Don’t let its population of less than 10,000 fool you, because there’s plenty for families to enjoy on a weekend getaway this fall.
Known as the “Urban Crossroads: Where City Life and Nature Meet,” Rock Falls offers a combination of a small-town feel in a bigger city where the rural countryside fits right in.
“Rock Falls is a close-knit community that is home to many fun things to do,” says Melinda Jones, director of Rock Falls Tourism and Events. “Rock Falls is a lot different from most other places because it offers the small-town feel as well as the rural life, which is something you don’t experience everywhere.”
Today, Rock Falls residents know their community for its rich history, art and culture. Rock Falls is home to the Hennepin Feeder Canal, which was the first American canal built of concrete without stone-cut facings. The canal no longer ferries commercial ships, but it still plays an important role as a recreational trail for kayakers, bikers and joggers. The Hennepin Canal offers numerous scenic views, with beautiful bridges and waterfalls over the course of its 100 miles of trails and waterway.
Rock Falls is also home to the riverfront RB&W Park, which consists of many art sculptures for visitors to admire. Beginning in 2018, the Sculpture Walk brings culture, art and color to the developing riverfront park while introducing new sculptures to the riverfront each year. There’s always a reason to come back and see what’s new.
Each year, Rock Falls residents love to spot an abundance of Bald Eagles flocking into their area during the colder months. A new eagle trail, expected to launch before this winter, is under development.
“The trail is a 2.5-mile drive through town along the Rock River,” says Jones. “Eagles can be seen in the trees next to the open water beneath the dams as well as populating the trees that surround the point of Lawrence Park Island and downstream.”
Throughout the fall season, Rock Falls hosts several events that bring people together from all over.
Rock Falls Tourism hosts its annual Lumberjack Show at Selmi’s Greenhouse & Farm Market. Activities include a beard contest, locally sourced food and drink, and Selmi’s Family Farm with plenty of fun for children.
Catch more Selmi’s fun at the seasonal farmers markets, located at the greenhouse, Northland Mall in Sterling, and Dixon Shopping Plaza in Dixon. Each market is stocked with fresh-picked fruit, vegetables and bi-color, super-sweet corn fresh from the farm.
Since 2009, brave travelers have headed to Haunted Haven, located south of town on Illinois Route 40. This haunted house attraction is open every weekend in October, and it’s filled with spooky things that go bump in the night.
Looking for somewhere new to trick-or-treat this year? Rock Falls’ annual Uptown Trick or Treat takes place on Oct. 29 in the city’s Uptown Business District. This event draws together small businesses and the community for some small-town fun. Small businesses in the area help to make this a safe way for young ones to collect their favorite candies and enjoy games with the whole family.
For more information on a Rock Falls autumn getaway, check out visitrockfalls.com.
Princeton, Ill.: The Biggest Little City in the Midwest
By Jim Taylor, multimedia editor
Princeton, Ill., is the kind of city that’s easy to get to, but hard to leave.
Nestled where Interstate 80 meets the Amtrak rail system west of Starved Rock, Princeton is an idyllic community that attracts visitors from the likes of Chicago, Rockford and the Quad Cities, as they seek shopping, entertainment, and rest and relaxation away from the big city.
“Tens of thousands of tourists venture to Princeton each year,” says Jenica Cole, Executive Director of the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce and Princeton Tourism. “There is always something to do in Princeton.”
Visitors find a beautiful, historic community with more than 200 acres of parks, two distinct town squares, a train depot and beautiful covered bridges, including one that dates back to 1863. Surrounded by history, but sporting plenty of modern amenities, Princeton offers a unique opportunity to keep one foot in the past while staying firmly in the present.
“Our history drives much of what we do in moving Princeton forward,” says Cole. “There is no doubt that our history attracts visitors and, once they get here, they realize there is much more to Princeton than what we market historically.”
This destination boasts interesting places to visit and things to do throughout the year, especially during the autumn and holiday seasons.
Princeton’s Witches’ Night Out, scheduled for Oct. 8, involves businesses that promise no tricks but plenty of treats, including in-store specials, grab bags and delicious beverages. There will even be a spooky trolley to shuttle shoppers up and down Historic Main Street. This is the city’s biggest one-night shopping event of the year.
From Nov. 19 to Nov. 21, Princeton becomes a winter wonderland for the Home for the Holidays Open House and Christkindlemarket. Shoppers converge every year upon Princeton’s retail district to take in some holiday cheer and get a head start on their Christmas shopping.
The festivities continue into December, starting with Princeton’s spectacular Christmas tree-lighting on Dec. 3, an event that includes a Candy Cane Hunt and Santa’s arrival. Then, on Dec. 4, families can have breakfast with Santa before he joins in the city’s annual Christmas Parade. A 5K run has also been added to the day’s activities, so avid runners might want to lay off the cookies and milk until the race has been run.
This year’s Christmas festivities also include a brand-new event: a drive-thru light display hosted by the Chamber, local businesses and families, and the Bureau County Fairgrounds.
Princeton is often described as a short drive that takes you far. “The comment I get most from visitors is how friendly and welcoming our residents and business owners are,” says Cole. “Many people visit Princeton and end up staying a lifetime.”
The city’s charm is becoming an open secret as Princeton continues to grow.
“We are the epitome of a charming, quaint town,” says Cole. “We invite you to visit for a day or a weekend. You won’t be disappointed.”
In fact, you might never want to leave.
For more information, see princetonchamber-il.com.
Explore the Elgin Area: A Three-Day Adventure Outdoors
By Explore Elgin Area
Fall is in the air, so it’s time to grab an apple cider donut and explore the great outdoors. Treat your family to a weekend exploring the Elgin, Ill., area while checking items off your Fall Bucket List.
Start your trip by checking into an Elgin-area hotel. Many of the most reputable hotels are listed at exploreelginarea.com. Once you’re ready to begin your outdoor adventure, head to a farm that offers activities all season long. Goebbert’s Pumpkin Patch and Apple Orchard, in Pingree Grove, Ill., offers a full day of family activities, including apple picking and feeding a pumpkin dinosaur.
Head over to the family-operated Enjoy Pioneer Farm, in Hampshire, and hand pick from the field a perfect pumpkin for your front porch.
The adults can follow it up with a visit to Plank Road Tap Room. This award-winning tap room is located just outside Elgin and hosts one of the largest beer gardens in all of Chicagoland. Try a local brew and enjoy it with a meal from the food truck outside. Also known for hosting bands and events, this tap room provides a comfortable, laid-back setting with amazing amenities.
If you’re looking for a more family-friendly afternoon meal, check out Old Republic Kitchen + Bar, located just down the road in Elgin. This restaurant features a great outdoor dining experience and food to match.
Finish the afternoon with a hike in the woods, especially at Hampshire Forest Preserve or Burnidge Forest Preserve. Here, you can enjoy nature in a peaceful setting. If hiking isn’t your thing, try something quiet like reading, drawing or meditation while immersed in nature. If you’re visiting with the family, these preserves have excellent trails and large fields that are ideal for activities like frisbee and playing catch.
The morning starts at Lords Park, where you can walk along the nature paths, visit the historic Lords Park pavilion and meet the Lords Park Zoo’s resident bison. There is also Wing Park, home to the oldest municipal-owned nine-hole golf course.
Your main objective today is enjoying the changing leaves, and one of the best places to enjoy the color is along the Fox River Trail. Running through South Elgin, Elgin, East Dundee, Carpentersville and beyond, this 40-mile recreation trail goes through amazing scenery.
Enjoy the trail by bike with a rental from Main Street Bicycles, in Carpentersville, Ill., located right off the trail. From there, you can head south to East Dundee, Ill., where you’ll find some great spots for lunch before making your way to downtown Elgin and, eventually, the brand-new Panton Mill Park in South Elgin, Ill.
When you’ve checked out of your hotel, the day is yours to explore. Take a self-guided house tour of Elgin’s historic neighborhoods or bird watch at Jelke Creek Bird Sanctuary. The sanctuary is dog-friendly, and the deeper ponds are available for fishing.
There’s also Bluff Springs Fen, which is named for distinctive land formations where the spring water stays a constant 50 degrees. There’s a flourish of unique plants, endangered species and other unusual fauna.
For an extra-interesting stop nearby, walk through historic Bluff City Cemetery to see intricate markers and mausoleums dating back to the 1800s.
Whatever your fall adventure is, the Elgin area has plenty of outdoor spaces for you to explore. Plan your getaway at ExploreElginArea.com.
Starved Rock Lodge: Fall Colors are Calling Once Again
By Kathy Casstevens, marketing director, Starved Rock Lodge
It’s easier to say goodbye to summer when you make plans to enjoy the beauty of autumn.
Nestled in the middle of Starved Rock State Park, near Oglesby, Ill., is a unique hotel that sits high atop a bluff overlooking the scenic Illinois River. Starved Rock Lodge is worth more than a day trip. This time of year, it’s a historic hotel with everything you’ll need to enjoy the beauty of fall.
The Cafe opens early and has delicious flavors of ice cream and fudge made in-house. The indoor pool is a favorite for multi-generational families. Outdoor dining continues into the fall as long as weather permits. The Veranda offers the best scenic views in all of LaSalle County. Just steps away from the trails is the Back Door Lounge, which serves locally made craft beer and features music on select Friday nights.
In addition, you can book trolley tours, river cruises and guided hikes to truly enjoy this natural wonder at the most colorful time of the year.
There’s no better way to explore the deep sandstone canyons and seasonal waterfalls than with a guided hike offered each Saturday and Sunday at Starved Rock State Park. A boxed lunch is included, and reservations are required.
A tasty menu of German food, beer, wine and music will be featured at this year’s Oktoberfest Matinees (Oct. 18-20) and Dinner (Oct.17). German tunes will fill the air with music by the Duseldorfers Band. Tickets are $30 for the buffet only or $45 for the buffet, wine/beer tastings and a souvenir stein.
Fall Colors Trolley Tours are offered at 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays in October so leaf lovers can get their fill of fall foliage. “Autumn on the River” cruises depart every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 11:00 a.m.
Ghost Tours are back on select weekend nights in October. Board the trolley and experience a spooky adventure as you travel to local haunts in the Starved Rock area.
The ambiance of the Lodge’s historic Great Hall makes a lovely setting for a music tribute show by the Neverly Brothers. Tickets for the “old school cool” show include a hot lunch buffet. A variety of tribute and holiday shows can be booked through the Lodge’s website.
And, because the holidays are right around the corner, the Lodge is accepting reservations for its Thanksgiving Buffet on Nov. 25. This year, the Lodge will have a new, whimsical theme for Christmas. The Great Hall and Lodge will be decorated before Thanksgiving and the Main Dining Room will be decorated afterward.
Tickets are on sale now for the Lodge’s annual New Year’s Eve Party in the Great Hall. The theme is “Throwback Prom.”
For more information, call (815) 220-7386. Book overnight stays, tours and events on the Lodge’s website, starvedrocklodge.com.