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.
Starved Rock Lodge: How to Plan a Great Extended Weekend
By Kathy Casstevens, marketing manager, Starved Rock Lodge
Are you struggling with work week woes after a long winter? Starved Rock Lodge knows the remedy: an extended weekend getaway. Just imagine, instead of spending your Sunday dreading another work day, you’re instead starting an exciting stay at Starved Rock Lodge. Avoid the weekend crowds and carve time for yourself during the week.
Starved Rock Lodge is just outside Oglesby, Ill., less than 90 minutes from Chicago. The Lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and its Great Hall is the hub of activity. Guests love to sit by the two-sided fireplace and enjoy all of the amenities this gem has to offer, including overnight accommodations inside the Lodge or in cabins in the woods.
Sunday Brunch is available in the Main Dining Room from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served daily.
The main reason visitors come to Starved Rock is to hike the 13 miles of scenic trails that meander through glacier-cut canyons. Seasonal waterfalls pass through St. Louis, Wildcat and LaSalle canyons. Geological beauty is best seen at Council Overhang, which is just a few steps away from Ottawa and Kaskaskia Canyons.
Along your hike, watch out for a variety of wildlife, including wild turkeys and bald eagles, and bring your field guide to see if you can identify the many wildflowers that reside here.
It takes about 40 minutes to hike the west trails from the Lodge past Aurora, Kickapoo and Sac canyons on your way to St. Louis Canyon. For longer hikes, take the east trails to Wildcat Canyon (which features two scenic overlooks) or LaSalle Canyon (referred to as the most scenic canyon in the park).
Waterfall & Canyon Tours run throughout the warm season. This tour includes a ride on the Starved Rock Trolley and a hot lunch from a special menu. Historic Trolley Tours run from March through December. Guided hikes are the best way to see the park and learn about its rich history. Reservations are necessary, so plan ahead.
In the summer months, the Eagle 1 River Cruises are the most popular outdoor activity. These leisurely boat rides travel along the Illinois River.
Outdoor dining on the Veranda is highly recommended. The panoramic view from the bluff is photo-worthy, and live music fills the air Friday nights. The adjacent, air-conditioned Back Door Lounge is a great place to cool off on a warm day.
Music lovers who would enjoy a walk down memory lane don’t want to miss the “Tribute to the Stars” matinee shows. Ticket price includes a hot lunch or dinner buffet and a show presented by talented vocalists who perform hits made famous by Patsy Cline, Elvis, Tom Jones, Dean Martin and many other favorites.
In addition to guaranteed, priority parking, Lodge guests can relax in the aquatic center, which includes a giant lap pool, shallow-depth children’s pool, two saunas and a hot tub.
And what’s the best thing about an extended weekend at Starved Rock? A short work week to follow. To learn more or make reservations, go to starvedrocklodge.com or call (815) 667-4211.
Freeport: Choose Your Own Adventure
By Jim Taylor, multimedia editor
The only problem with planning a day trip to Freeport is that one day simply isn’t long enough. A visit to the Pretzel City offers more twists and turns than one visit can handle.
“There is so much to experience in Freeport and Stephenson County,” says Nicole Haas, brand director for the Greater Freeport Partnership. “We know that, when someone comes to visit, they’re going to be happy they came.”
One of the city’s more exciting developments is the Freeport Arts Plaza, a relatively new addition to downtown. An agora that combines a daytime splashpad with relaxing park space, concerts and cultural experiences, the Arts Plaza this summer hosts Music on Chicago, an outdoor music fest featuring local and regional musicians. The event happens on the first Friday in July and August.
Music on Chicago is just one reason to get excited about the Plaza. Since opening in 2020, it has served not only as a gathering place but as the anchor to the Freeport Arts Corridor, an ongoing project that is moving into an exciting new phase. The Corridor, which stretches up Chicago Avenue and encompasses landmarks like the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Square and the Lindo Theatre as well as restaurants and taverns, is currently experiencing a makeover.
“It’s being resurfaced, and we’re bringing in new trees and fixtures, so expect some construction,” says Haas. “But it’s going to be beautiful, and it’s a key artery that will energize our downtown.”
For outdoor fun, Lake Le-Aqua-Na State Park, in nearby Lena, Ill., is the perfect place for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Now open for the season, the 40-acre lake, with surrounding trails, picnic areas and camp sites, is newly filled and stocked for boating and fishing. A small swimming beach is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
“Lake Le-Aqua-Na is a fantastic place to relax for a day or a weekend,” says Haas. “Don’t forget to stop in Lena for lots of great dining, shopping and ice cream.”
Krape Park is another destination for outdoor fun in Freeport. This award-winning park, shrouded with thick woodland, features multi-use trails, 18 holes of disc golf, mini-golf, adorable duck-shaped boats to rent, a baseball diamond and a waterfall. It’s also home to the Krape Park Carousel, a 60-year-old carousel with beautifully hand-painted horses.
Koenig Amphitheater, another beloved fixture of Krape Park, hosts another season of Music Under the Stars on Sunday evenings at 7 p.m., from June 12 to July 24. Celebrating more than 100 seasons now, Music Under the Stars is one of Freeport’s most beloved summer traditions.
Car enthusiasts will want to drive to town on Aug. 13 for Cruise Night. More than 1,000 car collectors display their works of automotive art starting at 4 p.m. The event culminates in a cruise through downtown Freeport.
“It’s a great way to see some beautiful cars in a beautiful setting,” says Haas.
Freeport is a city that’s bursting with adventures and memories-in-waiting. No matter what twists or turns you choose, the Pretzel City is sure to leave you hungry for more.
To start your Freeport adventure, visit greaterfreeport.com.
Explore Ottawa: A Gateway to Paradise on the Illinois River
By Jim Taylor, multimedia editor
Located in the heart of LaSalle County, Ottawa, Ill., has everything a day tripper needs to make memories that last a lifetime.
“There are so many things to do and see in Ottawa,” says Donna Reynolds, administrative assistant for the Ottawa Visitors Center. “I’ve lived in Ottawa my whole life, and I’m still finding new things to do and see.”
As the gateway to Starved Rock Country, Ottawa is a magnet for nature lovers who want to fuel up before exploring the great outdoors. Buffalo Rock State Park is a favorite of novice hikers, with easy trails to put beginners on the path to a lifelong love affair with nature. After surveying breathtaking views or finding the perfect photo opportunity near a sparkling waterfall, check out the park’s “Effigy Tumuli,” created by artist Michael Heize. These natural, poignant earthen mounds, molded to represent local fauna, include a snake, a turtle, a catfish, a frog and a water strider. They pay tribute to the natural world and American Indian groups that once lived here. While you’re there, be sure to pop by the grazing area of three American bison that call this park home.
“The bison at Buffalo Rock State Park are close to my heart,” says Reynolds. “My grandfather used to take care of the bison there when I was young.”
Located where the Illinois and Fox rivers meet, Ottawa is also a stop on the I & M Canal State Trail. This 15-mile stretch of recreation path snakes between LaSalle and Ottawa, and it offers glorious scenery as visitors bike or hike between sandstone bluffs and shimmering lakes where turtles, waterfowl, beavers and muskrat make their homes.
The trail turns into the Ottawa Riverwalk, where visitors can see the only remaining I & M tollhouse. Built in 1848 and furnished to reflect the era, the tollhouse takes visitors back to a time when the canal was a lifeline to the nation. Visitors can also work a model lock, to see how boats were raised and lowered, examine tools used by the toll collector and boat captains, and take a photo with a replica canal boat, parked just across the trail from the tollhouse.
Once you’ve finished exploring the great outdoors, it’s time to head indoors for some refreshing food and drink. Ottawa is bursting with local restaurants serving everything from tapas and woodfired pizza to farm-to-table fare. For a truly unique fusion experience, check out B.A.S.H Burger and Sushi house, where delicious American cuisine meets elegantly crafted sushi.
A wonderland of outdoor beauty and historic significance, with a touch of local flair, Ottawa is a must-see for any day-trip adventurer.
“Ottawa is an amazing place to visit any time of year,” says Reynolds. “Come in the spring and see our city in full bloom.”
To learn more about Ottawa, visit pickusottawail.com.
Enjoy Rock Falls: A Not-So-Hidden Gem Just off the Beaten Path
By Jim Taylor, multimedia editor
Nestled in the heart of northwest Illinois, Rock Falls offers plenty of scenic beauty and small-town charm with just enough big-city beat to feel at home.
Speaking of beats, Rock Falls honored one of its most famous citizens, Louie Bellson, this June. The Bellson Music Fest brought a celebration of the legendary jazz drummer and composer who’s best known for pioneering the double bass drum.
“This is our way of honoring Louie Bellson’s legacy,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events for the City of Rock Falls. “We’re excited to celebrate his life and his music.”
The festival, held at RB&W District Riverfront Park, kicked off with a presentation at noon, followed by big band and swing performances by Josh Duffee and his Orchestra, Pippi Ardennia & Daniel Leahy, the Joel Paterson Trio and the Rock River Jazz Band.
Music lovers are returning to RB&W Park for Jammin’ on the Rock, continuing the first Thursday of every month until Aug. 4. The event, which runs from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., features local bands along with food trucks, to keep visitors fed, both body and soul.
“Jammin’ on the Rock is a great way to check out the local music scene,” says Jones. “It’s been growing each year.”
Summer Splash, hosted by the Rock Falls Chamber of Commerce, is a perfect way to cool down. Held at RB&W Park on June 24 and 25, this family-friendly festival features live music, kids’ activities, a wild game cookout and live music.
RB&W Park is also home to the Art in the Park Sculpture Walk. Visitors can roam through this outdoor art gallery to see 10 original sculptures, eight of which sits in the park for a single year before being replaced with new works in September. The Sculpture Walk’s one permanent piece, Nemesis, is always on hand for photos.
Visitors who happen to visit the park on Fridays may want to check out Food Truck Fridays, which is the second Friday of June, July and August.
“Come on down for food and live music,” says Jones.
Hikers and cyclists will want to head to Hennepin Feeder Canal, a year-round multi-use trail designed for jogging, biking or strolling along a historic canal. Visitors who forgot their bikes don’t need to fret. Bike rentals are available at RB&W Park. Kayaking is also a popular pastime on the Hennepin.
No matter what time of year it is, Rock Falls is always worth a trip for family fun and adventure.
“We’re right on the Rock River, and there’s lots of boating and fishing here,” says Jones. “We can’t wait to welcome our visitors. We know you’ll be happy you came.”
For more information, go to visitrockfalls.com.