A Journey Down Route 2: Discover Adventure, Dining and Shopping

As it follows the Rock River southward, Illinois Route 2 winds its way through scenic landscapes, cute towns and unique attractions just waiting to be discovered. We found a few places to start your day trip adventure, but that’s just the opening act to an unforgettable autumn.

Dillon Home near Sterling (Samantha Behling Photos)

Heading south from Rockford, Illinois Route 2 is dotted with boutique cafes, cozy retail shops, forest preserves, art galleries and more.

We’ve mapped out 10 must-visit stops, starting with an expansive botanical garden in Rockford and ending with the urban crossroads known as Rock Falls. Make a day of it by picking things to do, places to eat and fantastic shops along the way.

Roll the windows down, play “Life Is a Highway” at full blast and take the family on a leisurely drive down Ill. Rt. 2 for a time you won’t soon forget.

Klehm Arboretum’s Splash Pad

Stroll through Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden
Formerly the site of two Rockford nurseries, Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Gardens is the largest public garden in Winnebago County, boasting a variety of flora, miles of wooded trails and paved paths, a children’s garden and splash pad, and a variety of indoor and outdoor settings for rentals and events. The arboretum has a unique collection of mature trees and shrubs, some of which have been growing for 99 years.

“There’s so much open space,” says Lisa Martinez, Klehm Arboretum’s marketing coordinator. “It’s a very tranquil and calm experience. It feels like you’re separated from everything else.”

Families can take advantage of the self-led smartphone tour to learn about the plants they see during their visit.

“There is something to see all year round, whether it’s summer when everything is in bloom, or fall, when the colors are changing,” says Martinez. “There’s almost 2 miles of paved path you can take, regardless of the elements.”

Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for kids. Children 3 and under are free, as are LINK and Museums for All cardholders. Visitors can bring a picnic lunch; dogs are welcome as long as they’re leashed.
Hours: Daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

PrairieView Golf Club

Practice Your Swing at PrairieView Golf Club
In addition to prairies and nature preserves, Byron Forest Preserve boasts PrairieView Golf Club. The 18-hole course, designed by golf course architect James Spear, features a mid-course pond and more than 60 sand bunkers.

Golfers can also rent private Toptracer hitting bays at PrairieFire Golf & Grill. There, you can practice your swing while enjoying a meal with friends. Each bay is heated, so the temperature is mild even when it’s cold outside. It’s the perfect mix of golf and comfort.

Hours: Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 6:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

The Next Picture Show

Tap into Your Creativity at The Next Picture Show
Philip Atilano joined The Next Picture Show (TNPS) as executive director in January. Since then, he’s been working to reimagine what’s possible for the community fine arts center.

“The City of Dixon is quickly becoming a mecca for the arts, and big things are on the horizon for TNPS,” says Atilano, a Dixon native and an accomplished artist in his own right.

This season’s final show will feature a multitude of mediums.

“I invited Water Street Studios, an artist co-op from Batavia [Ill.], for the last show of the year, which will run from Oct. 29-Dec. 10,” says Atilano. “There’s going to be photography, drawing, painting and sculpture.”

TNPS’ impact isn’t limited to on-site exhibitions and art classes. Atilano’s goals also include making an impact on the surrounding art scene at large.

“What makes a community fine arts center successful is collaborating with others,” he says. “We have shows around town. We’re giving emerging and established artists a platform to showcase their work. We’re even taking storefronts downtown and putting artwork in them to beautify Dixon.”

Admission is free, with new exhibitions opening every four to six weeks.

Hours: Tue.-Sun. 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Northwest Territory Historic Center

Embrace Local History at Northwest Territory Historic Center
For Jake Wallin, acting publicist at the Northwest Territory Historic Center (NTHC) in Dixon, preserving history runs in the family. His grandfather has worked at the center for almost 30 years and Wallin practically grew up there.

“It’s always been a captivating and magical place,” he says. “Our mission is to bring education to people by seeing, experiencing and discovering.

Admission for the center is free, and there are exhibits on early farming, the Blackhawk War, former President Ronald Reagan and others. Wallin is particularly excited about an outer space exhibit opening in November.

“We’re going to have a scale replica of the solar system,” Wallin says. “There’ll be a display where you can click on a planet, change the gravity and see how that would change the solar system. It’s almost like a video game experience.”

NTHC also participates in the Veterans History Project. “Veterans come in and we video interview them. We archive their stories, submit them to the Library of Congress and use the videos in our exhibit,” Wallin says. “It’s like a movie. It’s living history.”

Hours: Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Midway Drive-In

Explore Rock Falls
Rock Falls is the sort of place where city life meets nature.

“We have so many parks,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events for the Rock Falls Tourism Department. Situated along the Rock River at the head of the feeder canal that leads to the historic Hennepin Canal, the area is full of things to enjoy.

“You can kayak and fish in the water and then bike, hike or walk on the trail that’s alongside the canal,” she says.

Golfers will love Deer Valley Golf Club and Rock River Golf & Pool. In nearby Sterling, there’s also Emerald Hill Golf Club.

For the history lovers, Jones suggests touring the Dillon Home and the Lincoln-Manahan Home in nearby Sterling.

“Abraham Lincoln stayed at that house and he did a speech when he was running for president,” Jones says. “He slept on their couch, and he was so tall that his feet hung over the couch. The kids get a big kick out of that.”

You can also visit the Midway Drive-In across the river in Sterling.

“This is the oldest drive-in theater in Illinois,” Jones says. “It was started in 1950 and has continued operations ever since. It’s a historical landmark.”

Sweetbean Cage & Bakery

Indulge Your Sweet Tooth at Sweetbean Cafe & Bakery
When pumpkin spice lattes, cold foam cold brew and made-from-scratch cinnamon rolls are calling your name, Sweetbean Cafe & Bakery in Byron, Ill., is where you want to be. Most days, you can find owner Mindy Hellyer serving customers alongside her mom and two of her daughters.

“We make almost everything from scratch, and we stay local as much as we can,” she says. “We also create a really friendly, warm atmosphere for people. They feel welcome, they’re greeted and they’re treated well while they’re here.”

Hellyer didn’t have a background in coffee when she decided to open Sweetbean in 2016, but she didn’t let that stop her.

“I just like to be creative. I like to cook and entertain,” she says. “It just kind of happened.”
Sweetbean serves beverages, cafe items and baked goods.

“We have a pop-up shop around the holidays, too,” says Hellyer. “We sell candles, jarred preserves, elderberry syrup, jewelry, candies, popcorn and other fun stuff.”

Hours: Mon. 7-11 a.m., Tue.-Sat. to 2 p.m.

Maxson’s Riverboat

Cruise the Rock River on Maxson’s Riverboat
From inside the iconic Pride of Oregon paddleboat, families can enjoy a meal while taking in historical sights along the Rock River. The riverboat, built in 1989 as a replica of the famous Rosie O’Shea paddlewheel, runs daily lunch and dinner cruises from Wednesday to Saturday

Each cruise is around 2 hours and covers 15 miles of picturesque coastline. The real draw, however, is the scenery. From the dining room inside the 102-foot boat, you can see the Black Hawk statue, Castle Rock State Park and Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon.

Maxon Riverboat docks at Maxon Restaurant and Paddlewheel Inn in Oregon.
For more information, go to maxons.net.

Merlin’s Greenhouse

Treat Yourself to Fresh Flowers from Merlin’s Greenhouse
Fresh flowers put everyone in a better mood, and Merlin’s Greenhouse & Flowers in Oregon has a bouquet for every occasion. In addition to being a full-service flower shop, Merlin’s is a great place to find your next peace lily, rubber plant or hibiscus.

Merlin’s has been serving the Oregon area since 1971 and, in 2004, owner Merlin Hagemann opened The Other Side Boutique across the street from the original shop. The Other Side is where you’ll find silk arrangements, decor, jewelry, handbags, gourmet food and clothing.

Hours: Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat. to 3 p.m.

Oregon Soap Shoppe

Lather Yourself in Luxury at Oregon Soap Shoppe
Natural and safe ingredients are imperative at Oregon Soap Shoppe. Located a mile off Rt. 2, the company sells cold-process soaps that are handmade in-house. Each bar is crafted with high-quality essential oils and butters before being wrapped in eco-friendly packaging.

Owner Lynnel Camling started making soaps for a few families, including her own, and now makes a variety of soaps specially formulated to handle sensitive skin, acne, psoriasis, eczema, dandruff and all combinations of dry and oily skin types.

Oregon Soap Shoppe also sells lip balm and gifts. Shoppers can try classic honey and beeswax lip balm or opt for something with eucalyptus, peppermint, mango or Madagascar vanilla.

Hours: Wed.-Sat. 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m.

Grungy Roots

Bring Nature Indoors with Plants from Grungy Roots
Ashley Ruch, owner of Grungy Roots in Grand Detour, says her mission is to make everyone believe they do have a green thumb.

Grungy Roots blends two things Ruch loves: plants and grunge music. She’s filled the walls with memorabilia, including a guitar from Michael Graves, former lead singer of The Misfits.

“I’m the home of the pot-your-own-plant station,” she says. “I have a whole station for anybody who comes in to buy a pot and a plant, and they get to pot their plants themselves.”

Ruch offers many plants that are easy to care for.

“I would never deter people from buying a plant they might think they would kill because I am really big on having a one-on-one conversation,” she says. “I give personal plant care cards. I try to get an understanding of the layout of their space so I can give them the best suggestion possible.”

Hours: Wed.-Sat. 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. noon-5 p.m.