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.
Ottawa, Ill.: Yours to Discover
By Jim Taylor, managing editor
There’s a reason why Ottawa, Ill., is known for being “in the middle of everywhere.” Natural beauty, history, shopping, dining and accommodations are all on display at this destination in the heart of Starved Rock Country.
Nestled at the meeting point of the Illinois and Fox rivers, Ottawa is an oasis for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers can venture out to explore during the day while enjoying first-class accommodations and dining experiences at night.
“We have three state parks that are within less than a 10-minute drive,” says Donna Reynolds, tourism and operations manager at the Ottawa Visitors Center. “We also have a wildlife preserve that is great for hiking and cross-country skiing.”
While every nearby state park offers its own unique experiences, Buffalo Rock State Park, just 3 miles out of town, is a particular favorite amongst locals and regular visitors. With 298 acres to explore, this park, once an island unto itself in the Illinois River, is now a promontory on the river’s north bank that offers stunning views for anyone wishing to take a photograph or spend a moment in quiet contemplation. You can even pay a visit to the park’s permanent residents.
“Buffalo Rock has three bison that live at the park year-round,” says Reynolds. “Their names are Cocoa, Pebbles and Hope. Be sure to stop by and say hello.”
Buffalo Rock State Park is also an access point for the I&M Canal State Trail. Named for the former Illinois and Michigan Canal that established Ottawa as a major transportation center, the I&M Canal State Trail is 15 miles of scenic natural views and fascinating local history. While exploring the trail, be sure to check out the Ottawa Toll House, the last of its kind on the former canal. A peek through its windows offers a glimpse into a time when rope beds were considered the peak of comfort; when the I&M Canal connected the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico; and when luminaries like Abraham Lincoln made regular business trips to Ottawa.
“The I&M Canal goes right through the heart of the city,” says Reynolds. “It’s a great way to get outside and explore everything Ottawa has to offer.”
Speaking of Lincoln, Ottawa is where he and his political opponent, Stephen Douglas, held their first of seven historic senatorial debates. A trip up the Ottawa Riverwalk to Washington Square Park will take you to the site of the debate, where statues of these political rivals are frozen in mid-debate. Thousands of spectators congregated here to see the spectacle. Some stood on the steps of William Reddick’s mansion. This mogul, merchant, sheriff, senator and philanthropist left a huge portion of his land to the city following his death. History buffs can book a tour of his mansion and learn more about his contributions to Ottawa.
After taking in the natural scenery and local history, visitors will want to explore the local shopping and culinary scene. Ottawa’s shops and restaurants offer an abundance for shoppers and diners, punching well above their weight for a city of Ottawa’s size.
“We have many unique boutiques, like Déjà vu, Heartland by Hand, and our newest shop, RPS Toys,” says Reynolds. “After a day of shopping, grab dinner at Ingia Pizzeria, Burger and Sushi House, or the Beach House.”
Ottawa has always been a city “in the middle of everywhere.” Now is an ideal time to visit and discover for yourself just how completely it embodies that phrase.
To learn more, or to plan an adventure in Ottawa, check out pickusottawail.com.
Fun in Freeport: A One-Stop Destination for Winter Fun
By Pat Szpekowski
If the winter blues are getting you down, a day trip to Freeport will melt your cabin fever away.
“We have a variety of fun and unique events in the first part of the new year throughout Freeport and Stephenson County,” says Nicole Haas, brand director for the Greater Freeport Partnership.
An evening of live theater is always a great way to warm up those winter nights. The historic Winneshiek Playhouse is mounting a number of productions to enjoy in 2023.
“Winneshiek is the nation’s oldest continuously running amateur theater and is celebrating its 95th season,” says Haas. “Come for the beautiful theater and stay for the amazing talent.”
Get outside and stroll the streets of downtown Freeport on Feb. 25 during the popular Arctic Ale & Art Walk. More than a dozen businesses participate in this afternoon event where local artists appear in pop-up locations throughout the downtown.
“This is a perfect time to leave the house, see friends, shop local and enjoy the day,” says Haas. “Along the way, you’ll have the chance to sample delicious beer from our local and regional breweries.”
February features two special events hosted by the Freeport Park District at the Masonic Event Center. The Candyland Ball on Feb. 10 is a treasured gala for dads and daughters to share an evening of dancing that’s fit for royalty. On Feb. 24, moms can bring their sons to the Mom & Me Masquerade for an event filled with dancing, prizes and entertainment.
The Freeport Art Museum has been selected by Arts Midwest as the anchor organization for its World Fest Program, an event that brings international musical artists to Midwestern communities. Pamyua is known as Alaska’s most famous Inuit band, and the group stops at the museum Feb. 12-18. Founded in 1995 by brothers Phillip and Stephen Blanchett, with Ossie Kairaiuak and frequent guest member Karina Moeller, the group presents ceremonies and songs that honor and share Inuit cultural traditions.
The 32nd annual Depot Stove Gang Model Railroad Show returns to nearby Lena on March 18-19. Train enthusiasts are on hand to swap stories, model trains and accessories as their trains move through intricate displays in one of the largest model train events in the Midwest.
For outdoor adventurers, there is plenty of sledding in Krape Park, ice skating in Read Park and cross-country skiing on the 17-mile recreational Jane Addams Trail, with each location packed with stunning scenery and views. Oakdale Nature Preserve offers a picturesque experience on 133 acres of forests, restored prairies and more than 4 miles of trails for hiking and snowshoeing. Lake Le-Aqua-Na State Park is also a snow lover’s paradise, with nearly a dozen paths throughout 200 acres.
“There’s so much to do here in northwestern Illinois,” says Haas. “We welcome you for an adventure you’ll never forget.”
Pay a visit to greaterfreeport.com to learn more.
Rock Falls: Where Eagles Fly
By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor
Rock Falls’ proximity to natural settings like the Hennepin Canal and the Rock River has earned it the moniker “where city life and nature meet.” It’s during the winter – when the eagles return to hunt fish along the riverbanks – that this title is put on full display.
“We have two dams here on the Rock River and those are great places for them to catch fish,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events in Rock Falls. “We’ve already seen quite a few.”
The return of the eagles has become so popular that the city offers Flock to the Rock this winter. Set this coming year for Feb. 11, this annual one-day event provides a closer look at the eagles. A presentation from Northern Illinois Raptor Rehab and Education features four to six live birds.
The Hennepin Canal isn’t just for eagles to stay active. Outdoor enthusiasts gather there for the scenic trails and ice fishing. Since there is no current in the canal, it typically freezes every winter, Jones says. Located nearby is the Rock Falls Birding Trail. Developed earlier this year, the trail begins at the upper dam and runs through town. Signage along the trail lists places to stop and observe all of the birds in the area.
Aside from outdoor activities, those looking to stay warm and full can visit one of Rock Falls’ local dining establishments. For a home-cooked meal and a homey atmosphere, Jane’s Place is a bar and grill offering weekday specials and comfort dishes like meatloaf, gravy burgers and pretzel puffs.
Two-and-a-half blocks east, The Industrial is a newcomer with a fine dining experience.
Noteworthy dishes include the 14-ounce prime New York strip and chicken penne pasta with asparagus, cashew butter and parmesan.
After enjoying a mouthwatering meal, brush up on Rock Falls’ history by visiting a museum. The Firehouse Ministries Fire Museum features memorabilia that dates to the original Rock Falls Fire Department. Old engines, hoses, uniforms and photographs abound.
Across the river in sister city Sterling is the Dillon Home Museum, an Italianate-style home built in 1858. This former home of P.W. Dillon, president of Northwestern Steel and Wire, features his original belongings and furnishings.
Meanwhile, back in Rock Falls, the always popular RB&W District Park houses a permanent sculpture collection. In the winter, this artwork takes on a picturesque effect, Jones says.
“They’re actually really cool to see in the winter time,” she says. “We have one that lights up in the night and glows.”
For more information, head over to visitrockfalls.com.
Elkhorn, Wis.: Embrace the Best of a Wisconsin Winter
By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor
With the winter season officially in full swing, there’s no shortage of excitement in Elkhorn, Wis. In fact, this time of year residents and visitors alike trade in their shorts and hiking shoes for snow pants and boots.
“People are no longer boating but they’re ice fishing,” says Kate Abbe, marketing director for the Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce and an Elkhorn resident for over three decades. “We still see the same amount of people. We just see less of them because they’re bundled up in all the winter gear as we enjoy Wisconsin winter. There’s still lots to do under the beautiful blanket of white snow.”
Located 40 miles southwest of Milwaukee at the center of Walworth County, Elkhorn takes on a different look in the cold winter months. Downtown at Veterans Park, a sponsored ice rink comes alive as skaters test their skills on the ice. The rink is open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and is weather-dependent, Abbe says.
After skating the rink, be sure to meander around the city’s historic square for warm comfort food like a flakey all-white-meat pot pie loaded with veggies and potatoes at Someplace Else Restaurant. Nearby, the Friends on the Square coffee and retail shop serves up everything from cappuccinos and chai tea lattes to grilled cheese paninis.
Away from the town center, those who want to get their thrills in Elkhorn’s natural settings might be wise to start their journey at the White River Trail southeast of Elkhorn. Opportunities for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking, walking and ice-fishing abound during winter.
Closer to town, Elkhorn sports several large hills at Sunset Park that are perfect for sledding.
“They’re really big,” says Abbe. “Kids love to roll down them in the summer, and then they sled down them in the winter.”
For a full-fledged skiing experience, venture to the north side of Elkhorn and Alpine Valley Resort. This all-season ski resort features a golf course, an 8-mile mountain bike trail, three terrain parks and alpine skiing seven days a week. Its longest downhill run stretches 3,000 feet. The resort hosts a multitude of events throughout the year – both inside the lodge and on the hills.
Before you leave Elkhorn, be sure to stop by Evergreen Golf Club and try out the new golf simulators. High-speed optical sensors and software ensure you can keep up with your golf game in anticipation of the coming season.
Aside from its close-knit culture and friendliness, it’s the long list of rich activities that makes Elkhorn a wonderful winter retreat.
“It’s snowmobiling, it’s ice fishing, it’s ice skating, it’s sledding – it’s all of those great things, plus a whole lot more,” says Abbe. “You can even enjoy the indoors with hot cocoa and comfort food.”
Head to visitelkhorn.com to plan an adventure of your own.
Starved Rock Lodge: Hurry Up, Spring! We’re Waiting for You
By Kathy Casstevens, marketing director, Starved Rock Lodge
A getaway that’s close to home but worlds away, Starved Rock Lodge and State Park are a one-tank destination located less than 90 minutes from the Chicago suburbs, Rockford, Peoria and Bloomington.
The Lodge, located near Oglesby, Ill., provides free parking for hotel guests, which means you’ll be steps away from trails that lead to amazing places like Council Overhang, Lover’s Leap and Eagle Cliff. Beautiful waterfalls come to life and the forest blossoms in late April.
A relaxing getaway paired with comfort food and short hikes to photo-worthy locations are just a few reasons to book a trip to Starved Rock Lodge. The time between the last snowfall and the first warm day of spring is special because it allows you to reconnect with nature and take in the quiet beauty of this great destination before it turns into a lush wonderland where waterfalls and wildflowers surround you.
Music Tribute Shows are the perfect way to spend an afternoon surrounded by the historic ambiance of the Great Hall. A buffet lunch is included with all matinee performances, which range from Dueling Pianos to an ABBA Salute and Patsy Cline tribute show.
March 11 is the Spring Wine Dinner featuring August Hill Winery. Chef Ian Pries has created a four-course menu filled with recipes that are sure to inspire you for the season ahead. Each course is perfectly paired with a locally produced August Hill wine. The Lodge is also accepting reservations for its Easter and Mother’s Day buffets. Smoked prime rib is available every Saturday night in the main dining room along with a full menu. Brunch opens at 10:30 a.m. every Sunday.
Head to French, Ottawa, Wildcat, LaSalle and Kaskaskia Canyons in the park for the best photos year-round. Hundreds of wildflowers bloom at Starved Rock between March and October. Please don’t pick the flowers, but do pick up a “Wildflowers of the Midwest” guidebook in our gift shop and learn all about them.
Guided hikes are offered on weekends. Waterfall & Canyon Tours run in April and May. Whether you’re traveling solo or in a group, the trolley is the best way to learn about the rich history of Starved Rock and the surrounding area.
An indoor pool means you can let your imagination run free as you spend time swimming. Toddlers love the shallow-depth, gated pool that’s only 1 foot deep. Best of all, everyone in your group can have fun together all in the same place.
From the serenity of the Great Hall to the panoramic view from the east end of the Veranda, you’ll find places to reconnect with nature. Quality family time awaits. It’s all about creating lasting memories with your family or friends.
Start planning at starvedrocklodge.com.