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: Your Next Close-to-Home Adventure Awaits
By Kathy Casstevens, marketing manager, Starved Rock Lodge
There are many reasons to savor the flavors of fall at Starved Rock Lodge, near Oglesby, Ill. Inside the only hotel at Starved Rock State Park, visitors can find several restaurant options and some fun events to truly satisfy those fall cravings.
Overnight guests get free, priority parking close to dining, comfy rooms or a cabin in the woods, an indoor pool and 13 miles of hiking trails. Instagram-worthy photos of scenic sandstone canyons are around every turn, and the park takes on the hues of the season when the leaves turn from green to gold, red and brown.
The main dining room at Starved Rock serves up delicious, locally sourced prime rib that’s covered in a “secret spice” rub and smoked that day. It’s served Saturday night.
New this fall is Yoga & Hike, featuring a 75-minute yoga class and a 3-mile hike to scenic St. Louis Canyon. Depart on Sept. 25 at 9 a.m. or noon with Matt Hancock. He’s taught more than 11,000 classes and is the owner of Hancock PowerFit Yoga, a yoga practice that’s focused on building the body’s strength and increasing endurance. Reservations are required.
Trolley Tours are offered each weekend. Pair them with lunch and a river cruise or book a combo tour that includes a guided hike to see Council Overhang and Ottawa Canyon followed by a boat ride on the Illinois River. Fall Colors Trolley Tours and Autumn on the River Cruises are offered in October. Guided Hikes, with a backpack lunch, are offered year-round.
The historic Great Hall comes alive when the music of the Dusseldorfers fills the air at the Oktoberfest Dinner (Oct. 16) and Matinees (Oct. 24-25). The menu features German favorites from schnitzel to strudel with German wine and beer to wash it down.
Music lovers won’t want to miss The Chairman’s Board Tribute to the Stars Matinee on Oct. 17 and 18, starring Peter Oprisko. Tickets include a hot lunch buffet. The WWII Radio Show, featuring songs from the Andrews Sisters, is set for Nov. 14 and 15.
Because Starved Rock Lodge is conveniently located less than 90 minutes from the Chicago suburbs, Rockford and Bloomington, it’s the destination of choice for dream weddings, corporate team-building activities, family reunions and special occasions. The Lodge’s sales team specializes in working with each group to customize the menus and every detail to make special events full of wonderful, lasting memories.
Book early for the Lodge’s annual Thanksgiving Buffet. Reservations and pre-payment are required. Of course, just around the corner is the holiday season, when the Great Hall is all decked out. A special New Year’s Eve party closes out the year and welcomes all that winter has to offer.
Learn more about autumn events, special getaway packages and more at starvedrocklodge.com.
Rock Falls: A City with Many Outdoors Destinations
By Pat Szpekowski
Our region is full of incredible places to either de-stress or embark on an adventure. Choosing just one destination can be a real challenge, especially when visiting Rock Falls, Ill. Located in the Sauk Valley, along the Rock River, this is a getaway where you can happily find an array of fun in one place. Whether you take a day trip or stay a few days, you’re in for an unexpected and surprising visit.
“We offer such a vast variety of things to do,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events for the City of Rock Falls. “No matter what type of adventure our visitors are looking for, we can help them select day trips to suit their passions. We have trips to our local museums, open spaces, outdoor recreation parks and dining establishments.”
The Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park provides a variety of outdoor activities including fishing, boating, picnicking, canoeing, hiking, horseback riding and bicycling in the summer. The winter months are no less exciting, as Hennepin hosts skiing, ice skating and snowmobiling.
The Hennepin was the first American canal built of concrete without stone cut facings. Today, this waterway is a 104.5-mile linear park spanning five Illinois counties (Bureau, Henry, Lee, Rock Island and Whiteside), and it boasts a rich history.
Fans of the Hennepin Canal rave about its scenic views and hint that it offers surprises along the way. Among all of the magnificent state parks in Illinois, Hennepin is a unique jewel.
The Rock River is a centerpiece of Rock Falls and a center of activity all year long. In the summer, people traverse the new Riverfront Trail path. During the winter months, bald eagles congregate to fish, and they can be seen in trees next to the open water beneath the dams.
The RB&W Riverfront Park provides beautiful green space along the Rock River. Open all year, it sets a backdrop for the Art in the Park Sculpture Walk, which displays unique sculptures created by local and non-local artists.
“This year’s unveiling of eight new juried selected sculptures took place on Sept. 3,” says Jones. “It was a big event that included an outdoor art gallery with many artists selling art. Plus, there was food and music. The creators of each sculpture were also there to talk about their work.”
Check Visit Rock Falls’ website for fun itineraries and tour ideas, including the “MileZ for MillennialZ Tour” targeting the under-40 crowd. This tour kicks off with breakfast at a local restaurant and includes a cup of Joe and baked goods. This is followed with shopping at the city’s quaint, locally owned boutique stores and a farmers market, outdoors in the summer and indoors during winter. Of course, there’s time for a visit to the Hennepin Canal, dinner at a local restaurant and a movie at a local cinema.
It’s time to stay, play and explore Rock Falls, where city life and nature meet. Find more tours and choose your own adventure at VisitRockFalls.com.
Ottawa: Pick Your Own Adventure this Season
By Pat Szpekowski
The scenic Fox River is a familiar and beloved recreation spot for many. It’s a place where people enjoy sitting and watching nature, dining near the water, canoeing and paddling downstream, and enjoying its riches in many other ways. Flowing down from Wisconsin, this waterway meanders through a variety of Illinois communities on its way toward the Illinois River.
The last stop is Ottawa, Ill. A vibrant tourist destination located just 80 miles outside of downtown Chicago, Ottawa just so happens to sit in the heart of Starved Rock country.
“We’re noted as being ‘In the Middle of Everything,’ and we’re just a stone’s throw from many diverse activities, outdoor areas and renowned cultural attractions,” says Donna Reynolds, tourism operations manager at the Ottawa Visitors Center.
Ottawa has really put itself on the map as a must-see place to explore. Its historic downtown streets are filled with boutique shops and a large variety of unique and tasty eateries, from casual and fine dining favorites to pubs and lounges offering their own cold brews and wines.
Many visitors love to stop by Buffalo Rock State Park, located on a bluff that was once an island on the Illinois River. The Dayton Bluffs Preserve offers 100 acres of open prairie while preserving the majesty and cool shade of 150 woodland acres with rugged ravines, glistening water cascades and views of the beautiful Fox River. It also comes with sacred American Indian burial mounds.
For history buffs, a visit to the only I&M Canal toll house in existence is a must-see. Then, there’s the Reddick Mansion, which was built before the Civil War. It’s a magnificent Italianate mansion known to be one of the most expensive and ornate residences ever constructed in the Midwest during the mid-1800s. Philanthropist William Reddick and his family lived here for nearly 30 years.
These are only a few of the tempting attractions that await those who are intrepid enough to plan a trip to Ottawa.
The Ottawa Visitor Center has put together specialized getaway packages to make it easier for you to explore.
“We have our special Girl’s Getaway and Adventure Getaway packages to take our visitors’ fun to the next level,” says Reynolds, adding that it’s a surefire way to take in the city’s colorful history, scenic trails, shopping destinations and culinary outlets.
Pick the Girl’s Getaway trip and select a variety of restaurants, spa services and activities to share with friends while encountering the many charms of Ottawa.
The Adventure Getaway is especially attractive to those who are looking for a couple’s getaway or a weekend retreat.
Choose a hotel or cozy cottage for a minimum two-night stay, then select from a variety of restaurants and activities, including biking the historic I&M Canal or trying a tandem jump at Sky Dive Chicago for a bird’s eye view and photo op from the skies above Ottawa. For any visitor, a trip to Ottawa offers downtime ideas to unplug to exciting water adventures.
The Ottawa Visitor Center proudly exclaims, “Pick Us.” This just might be what you need to unwind, breathe some fresh air, and see where the mighty Fox and Illinois rivers meet.
Check out Ottawa getaway packages and much more at pickusottawail.com.
Elkorhn, Wis. : Fall Festivities in a Postcard-Perfect Town
By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor
Forty-five miles southwest of Milwaukee, in the heart of Walworth County, lies the community of Elkhorn, a smaller town that’s rich with fall activities for visitors of all ages. The city’s motto, “Living in Harmony,” is truly displayed through its close-knit culture.
“The sense of community that exists between the city, the school district and our business community, there’s just such strength in that,” says Kate Abbe, marketing director for the Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce and an Elkhorn resident for over three decades. “When great things happen, we celebrate that together, and when there is a tragedy or things that require us to band together and to lean into that strength as one large community, we see that happen over and over again.”
This fall, the community’s pride is on full display.
Apple Barn Orchard & Winery has been a family-owned-and-operated business since 1848. It offers apple picking daily during September and October, with pumpkin picking happening on weekends only starting in late September. Additionally, the orchard and winery offer fresh delicacies like crisp apple cider and apple cider doughnuts. Food vendors and live music begin Sept. 17 and return every Saturday and Sunday through the end of October.
Nearby is Hansen Preserve, a 77-acre scenic area nestled along Sugar Creek. The main trail runs roughly a half-mile along the creek, where there’s also access for kayaking and canoeing. The landscape is dotted with wetland shrubbery, sedge meadow and an oak savanna.
Southeast of Elkhorn is the White River Trail, complete with scenic views and 12 miles of crushed limestone trail. Hiking, biking and horseback riding are just a few ways people can enjoy the paths.
“There is plenty to do if you are not afraid to go off the beaten path,” says Abbe.
Meanwhile, back in civilization, Elkhorn’s downtown square is a hub of activity, with quaint shops and a wide selection of homegrown dining establishments.
Warm up with a three-cheese grilled panini at Friends on the Square, a coffee shop that doubles as an event space for bridal showers and weddings.
One block over you’ll find Elk Restaurant, a family-owned staple since 1971. The inside of this diner transports visitors to a time when wooden booths were the standard and the menu was dominated by dishes like steak and eggs, roasted turkey club sandwiches and homemade chili.
“They have a lot of history,” says Abbe. “I can picture myself eating french fries there after school got out in middle school.”
Whether it’s a flakey all-white meat pot pie from Some Place Else Restaurant or a 12-inch butter-crust deep dish pizza from Mamma T’s Italian Eatery, there are plenty of other good eats to be found in Elkhorn.
Despite the leaves changing color, it’s never too late to stop by Elkhorn’s 27-hole Evergreen Golf Club, equipped with a full restaurant and bar. Every Friday, the club hosts Fish FRYday, an all-you-can-eat, family-style fish fry. Even better, the club typically invites golfers out during the winter months.
“I’ve had people who love to be able to say they golf 12 months out of the year in Wisconsin,” Abbe says.
For more information, check out visitelkhorn.com.
Freeport: Clear the Calendar for Some Fresh Fun
By Cira Richardson
If you’re looking to find unique experiences and hidden surprises to kick off the fall season, set your sights on Freeport. Only 30 minutes west of Rockford, this busy city is hosting several fall events that are not only family-friendly but also showcase a vibrant arts scene and more. With so much to choose from, you’ll want to clear a few weekends on your calendar so you don’t miss out.
Coming on the heels of Eats and Beats, a two-day music festival downtown, comes Paint-the-Port, a family-friendly event where the downtown streets of Freeport are transformed into 400 squares of canvas for hundreds of amateur artists of all ages. Kids and adults are invited to get creative and paint street squares with washable, tempera paints.
Paint-the-Port is a fundraiser to bring vibrancy and creativity to Freeport. All proceeds support the remodel of the new downtown site for the Freeport Art Museum.
Have you been missing Rockford Airfest and don’t want to make the drive to Chicago’s event? Check out the second annual Northwest Illinois Airshow at Albertus Airport, 1255 E. Airport Road, in Freeport. The event is scheduled to return Saturday, Sept. 17.
Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the gate, with children 10 and under free. This year’s show is expected to bring exciting performers and acts including pyrotechnics, small stunt planes and an airplane comedy act. There will also be food trucks serving some incredible selections. More information can be found at nwilairshow.com.
On Sept. 24, enjoy the best beer tasting in the region at the Pretzel City Brewfest. You can sample 100 varieties of beer served direct from 50 breweries, and they’re joined by a bevy of food trucks and more. Purchase general admission tickets online and get entry into the festival plus 20 tasting tickets and a souvenir glass. A limited amount of VIP passes are available, and they come with one-hour early entry, 30 tasting tickets, access to special releases, a Brewfest T-shirt, a special VIP souvenir glass, a swag bag, access to the VIP lounge, and an option to buy a discounted, limited-edition Pretzel City Brewfest hoodie.
Brewfest runs Sept. 24 from 1-5 p.m. in downtown Freeport, but VIP access opens at noon. This is a 21 and older event. To purchase tickets to Brewfest, visit greaterfreeport.com/visit/events.
This is just a taste of what’s to come this fall in Freeport. For more fun events and other local attractions that are sure to enhance your visit, check out greaterfreeport.com.