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.
Rock Falls, Ill.: A Paradise for Outdoor Adventure
By Pat Szpekowski
As summer winds to a close, there’s still plenty of time to explore the great outdoors. Take a hike, ride a bike, rent a kayak and delve into nature’s treasures found along the riverbanks, parks and canals of the picturesque city of Rock Falls, Ill. Whether you are driving from northwest Illinois or from the Chicago suburbs, an amazing day or weekend is less than 2 hours away.
“We strive to inspire our visitors to take advantage of the beauty of our area and all the unique events and venues we offer,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events for the City of Rock Falls Tourism Department. “Outdoor recreation is still in its prime here during the late summer and early fall season.”
Everyone is invited to pay tribute to the sacrifices made by our veterans at the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall, on display in RB&W District Park from Aug. 31 through Sept. 4.
“We will have an opening ceremony on Friday, Sept. 1 at 6 p.m.,” says Jones. “We are honored that the 144th Army Band will perform a free concert on Sept. 3 at 2 p.m.”
At the same time, the 9/11 Remembered Traveling Memorial Wall will be on display. It’s a solemn tribute that shares history and artifacts from the events of that fateful day.
The RB&W District also hosts the annual Art in the Park Sculpture Walk unveiling on Sept. 2 from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
“Be there for the excitement when eight new sculptures will be installed here to remain on display for one year,” says Jones.
The Rock Falls area is rich in natural wonders. This time of year, visitors appreciate the opportunity to explore the Rock River, Hennepin Canal and Centennial Park, which all factor into the waterside wonders of Rock Falls.
For some cycling, paddle boating and kayak adventures that leverage technology to get back to nature, stop by Rock Falls Kayak Rentals at the Hennepin Canal Route 40 boat launch. Visitors who use the Rent.Fun app can rent kayaks right from their phone before paddling around the canal.
There’s also an app to take advantage of the Rock Falls Bike Share Program. Download the Movatic app, find bikes sitting around the scenic RB&W District and start pedaling around town.
Rentals through Centennial Park also are available on weekends through the Coloma Township Park District, which is the second-largest park system in Whiteside County. Centennial Park spans more than 50 acres and is the place to be for angling, paddle boating and exploring along the Hennepin Feeder Canal State Park.
No matter what you decide to do when you arrive, the natural wonders and outdoor fun of Rock Falls are waiting to be enjoyed.
To start your Rock Falls adventure, head to visitrockfalls.com.
Freeport: Where Adventure Comes to Play
By Pat Szpekowski
The changing seasons and beautiful foliage are on full display in Freeport, an active and unique enclave in northwestern Illinois’ Stephenson County along the northern U.S. Route 20 pathway.
Its convenient location makes Freeport an appealing stop. Take in the fresh air and natural settings along with the relaxation of shopping, entertainment, dining, and popular wine and beer tastings.
“We offer many unique choices to get your imagination rolling and make it easy for you to have fun and make lasting memories,” says Nicole Haas, brand director for Greater Freeport Partnership.
Baseball season is definitely not over, especially when you visit the beloved and iconic Little Cubs Field. Kids can bring their bats, balls and gloves to enjoy big-league fun at the miniature Friendly Confines. You’ll be amazed at the likeness to its major-league counterpart. Grab a picnic lunch and play ball.
When your game is finished, venture a few blocks to beautiful Krape Park, an award-winning park that features a 44-foot waterfall, wooded multi-use trails, an 18-hole disc golf course, a one-of-a-kind carousel and a duck pond with pedal boats shaped like dragons, rubber ducks and swans.
A ladies’ weekend is just the ticket for bonding, shopping and relaxing with cocktails and dinner. The Wagner House, a beautiful and historically preserved three-story industrial warehouse in downtown Freeport, is a great stop to enjoy all of those ladies’ day essentials. Its first floor hosts The Great Debate, featuring an extensive cocktail and wine list, plus Swank & Mercier, a unique jewelry and apparel boutique.
If the guys want their own fun getaway, the challenge of the championship courses at Park Hills Golf Course in Freeport or Wolf Hollow Golf Course in nearby Lena, will fit the bill. After 18 holes they can relax and enjoy locally crafted brews at Generations Brewing Co. or Lena Brewing Co. Hearty appetites can be satisfied at a wide variety of eateries. You can’t miss the big red barn that houses the popular family-owned Rafters Restaurant in Lena. Big O’s on the Hollow in Freeport serves traditional American fare that’s comfort food at its best.
A trip to Freeport is never the same thing twice, with a huge variety of indoor and outdoor activities to keep your family guessing at the next adventure.
“Try something new, stay outdoors and explore,” says Haas. “Enjoy countryside views as you pedal down the Pecatonica River, where you’ll find miles of low-current waters that stretch along in a mild and friendly manner. When you’re done navigating the waters, enjoy the tasty offerings of Lena with lunch at Lena Mercantile and its delicious bistro-style options or refreshing drinks at Sugarbaker’s Wine Bar & Boutique.”
If a bike ride is on your list, why not trek the flat, 17-mile Jane Addams Trail? It all starts at Tutty’s Crossing Trailhead in Downtown Freeport.
The possibilities for day-tripping in Freeport and Stephenson County are endless. Visit greaterfreeport.com to start planning your escape.
Elkhorn, Wis.: A Place to Celebrate a Rural Autumn
By Pat Szpekowski
The kids might be back in school, but there’s no stopping the variety of can’t-miss weekend adventures. Pack up the car and drive a few miles north to Elkhorn, Wis., and get ready for unique late-summer and early fall fun.
“We’re proud to say that it’s definitely four seasons of fun here in Elkhorn,” says Kate Abbe, director of partner engagement and marketing, Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce. “Fall is very busy with a lot of engaging events to enjoy and see.”
The Walworth County Fair, one of the oldest and largest county fairs in the state, is filled with tasty food, animal exhibits, lively entertainment and grandstand thrills. Now in its 174th year, the fair takes place Aug. 30-Sept. 4. This old-fashioned community celebration always promises something new and rarely disappoints.
Treasure hunters will have one last chance to find something new at the popular Elkhorn Antique Flea Market, which has been an area institution since 1982. The flea market season comes to a close on Sept. 24. More than 500 vendors are sprawled across the Walworth County Fairgrounds, inside and outside, as they offer a wide range of merchandise. Are you looking for pottery, dolls, glassware, rough or refurbished furniture, and everything else between? You’ll find it during a fun day that’s perfect for all ages.
Don’t miss the Apple Barn Winery and Orchard – a family-owned farm since 1848. The family-friendly farm opens to all from late September to the end of October. Visit the country store and splurge on those homegrown apples, homemade cider, delicious cider doughnuts and caramel apples you’ve been craving since last fall. There’s a lot more, including local honey and Wisconsin cheeses, plus seasonal decor, candles, candies and gifts. Let the kids pick their own pumpkins, too. Adults can take time to enjoy the award-winning fresh-fruit wines that are grown and produced on site. Try the Estate Apple Barn Blush, Honey Crisp Apple, Hardy Pear and other colorful fruit variations.
Find the best bands, brats, brews and businesses at the Elkhorn Oktoberfest on Oct. 21. The entire downtown is filled with craft and commercial vendors, lively music, local and German cuisine to fit the theme, and both beer and wine tasting all around town.
Finally, cryptid hunters will want to search for an upcoming event that highlights the mysterious Beast of Bray Road, a wolf-like creature that has been part of Walworth County folklore since the mid-1930s. Some claim this werewolf-like creature to be merely an urban legend, but others claim it’s very real. As speculation about the legendary beast continues, a spook festival is held in its honor – just in time for Halloween.
“BEASTFest will take place the last week of October, with a variety of restaurant and retail specials and a grand finale feast on Halloween night,” notes Abbe.
Don’t miss a beat, or beast! Take your own surprise getaway adventure to Elkhorn. Visit elkhornchamber.com to start planning.
Monroe, Wis.: A Picturesque Rural Retreat in Wisconsin
By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor
As the summer sun wanes, the scenic town of Monroe, Wis., ignites with the magic of autumn. Located in the heart of southwest Wisconsin, Monroe offers a unique and inviting destination for memorable fall getaways.
“One of the biggest benefits of living in a rural area is that rural comes alive so much in the fall. That’s especially true for Monroe,” says Jordan Nordby, executive director of Main Street Monroe. “It’s a nice destination for families looking for something that doesn’t have to be overly planned.”
Monroe exudes that quintessential fall charm with an abundance of crisp air and vibrant foliage – and a surge of activities that make the most of this setting.
The farmers market on the grounds of the historic Green County Courthouse, runs every Wednesday afternoon and Saturday morning through Oct. 28. It treats visitors with fresh produce, pumpkins, cider and other local delights. The popular Halloween Trunk or Treat event promises a spooktacular time for families, while November’s wine walk provides an opportunity to savor local vintages while perusing nearly two dozen locally owned shops.
This year, Monroe unveils its inaugural Art Walk from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 7. The event spotlights local artists and showcases the vibrant art community of Monroe and the wider Green County area.
“We’re going to have 20 to 22 participating stores that will all be featuring a local artist,” says Nordby. “We’ll have everybody from professional artists to community members who have long had a talent and passion for art.”
Monroe’s culinary scene is a feast for the senses. Wisconsin’s oldest cheese store, Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, serves up daily specials and delectable soups with locally sourced ingredients.
“It’s kind of a nice recharge station,” says Nordby. “It’s a beautiful spot for those final patio days.”
Mad Charlie’s Cafe offers an ever-changing seasonal menu of comfort food like flaky hand pies with ground beef, potatoes, carrots, peas and chimichurri sauce that tantalize the taste buds.
Decatur Dairy in nearby Brodhead is another hidden gem to explore. The scrumptious made-to-order grilled cheese is a local rite of passage.
“I believe it’s been open since 1941, so that’s a fun spot,” says Nordby. “They’ve got cheese curds and you can get a half-pound of cheddar or whatever kind of cheese you’re looking for.”
For shopping, Vintique Junque carries items that reflect the rural heritage of Monroe and Green County. Monroe Antique Mall, located on the square in downtown Monroe, features more than a dozen vendors with a variety of high-quality antiques.
Monroe also offers opportunities to hit the trail. The Cheese Country Trail is a popular way for motorists to enjoy the scenery at Darlington in Lafayette County. Cyclists can ride the Badger State Trail, a recreation path that goes north to Madison or south to Freeport. New Glarus State Park offers stunning views from hiking trails and an accessible viewing platform.
To get your Monroe travels underway, visit mainstreetmonroe.org.
Ottawa, Ill.: Experience the Middle of Everywhere
By Pat Szpekowski
Ottawa, Ill., has long been a favorite getaway location where couples and families seek outdoor adventures, visits to historic attractions and fun times to explore unique boutiques and a diverse culinary scene. The city’s tagline says it all. Ottawa is a vibrant destination that’s smack dab “In the Middle of Everywhere.”
“We welcome visitors to enjoy the variety of diverse activities and benefits that Ottawa offers,” says Donna Reynolds, tourism operations manager for the Ottawa Visitors Center. “We’re sure visitors will find everything they’re looking for here to make their trip the very best.”
Located just 80 miles from downtown Chicago, Rockford and the suburbs, Ottawa is widely renowned for its scenic views. Four magnificent state parks – Starved Rock, Buffalo Rock, Matthiessen and Illinois State Park – offer bluffs, open spaces, rivers and trails, plus areas for camping under the stars. Starved Rock is considered the No. 1 attraction in Illinois – and it rarely disappoints.
As beautiful as the view is on land, it’s even more breathtaking from the water.
“Take an excursion on the Sainte Genevieve Riverboat as it glides down the Illinois River,” Reynolds says. “This new stern wheel riverboat attraction with upper and lower decks seats 149 passengers for comfortable daytime or sunset sightseeing cruises. You’ll gain a whole new perspective as you take in the picturesque views of the river and the sky amid natural surroundings.”
This delightful riverboat tour departs from downtown Ottawa and cruises by Buffalo Rock or near the Marseilles Lock and Dam. With its friendly crew, full bar and occasional live music, the Sainte Genevieve Riverboat is a great place for kicking back on public cruises or private events. Sunset cruises provide guests with heavy appetizers and bites specially curated from local markets and restaurants.
Speaking of food, it’s always a hot topic in Ottawa, given the city’s many choices for creative cuisine. New on the scene is Iniga Pizzeria Napoletana, famed for its pizza, art and music. Iniga means “fiery” in Italian. This is home for authentic Neapolitan pizza baked in a 6,600-pound wood-burning oven from Italy. The menu also features the freshest antipasti and insalatas, more than 15 pizza variations and scrumptious desserts. Now that’s amore.
Art and music are also a big part of the Ottawa scene. The Iniga dining room features works of art, including two pieces by French artist Philippe Jestin and abstract works by local artist Jeremy Johnson.
“If you’re heading out to Ottawa in early fall, don’t miss the SmoketoberFest & BBQ Competition on Oct. 7,” says Reynolds. “It’s located in beautiful downtown Ottawa at the Jordan Block, Art & Sculpture Gardens. Locals vie to be crowned with the best barbecue, while attendees enjoy the results of a delicious pig roast with pulled pork, baked beans, coleslaw and cornbread.”
Ottawa is truly “In the Middle of Everywhere” and is a one-stop destination for relaxation, creative cuisine and comfort.
Pick Ottawa as your next getaway stop. Take a look at pickusottawail.com.
Starved Rock Lodge: Celebrate the Best of this Fall’s Bounty
By Kathy Casstevens, marketing director, Starved Rock Lodge
If you’re mourning the end of summer, here’s some news that will certainly brighten your day. Starved Rock Lodge is now accepting reservations for its Oktoberfest celebrations.
The chefs are ready to prepare steaming dishes filled with sauerbraten, wienerschnitzel, bratwurst and sauerkraut. The ceramic steins have been polished and the Duseldorfers German Band is rehearsing the polkas that will soon echo through the Great Hall and Starved Rock Room at the Lodge, located inside Starved Rock State Park near Oglesby, Ill.
The first of three Oktoberfest events is a dinner on Sunday, Oct. 15, followed by matinees on Monday, Oct. 16 and Tuesday, Oct. 17. If you have the strength, sign up for the stein hoisting contest. Tickets include the delicious buffet, a souvenir stein, tasting tickets for beer or wine, and musical entertainment.
The more relaxed Autumn on the River Cruises run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in October. The tour begins with lunch at 11 a.m. in the historic dining room at the Lodge, followed by a narrated trolley tour explaining the history and legends of the area. The trolley then takes travelers to the Eagle I riverboat for a look at the beautiful fall foliage of Starved Rock State Park by water.
History buffs love the Historic Trolley Tours on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in October. On this tour, you’ll learn about the National Historic Landmark known as Starved Rock State Park and Lodge. Travel to the Lock and Dam, the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center and through historic downtown Utica, Ill., and pay a visit to the Starved Rock Visitor center.
Fall Colors Trolley Tours run on Saturdays and Tuesdays in October and include a trolley ride with lunch in the restaurant followed by a guided hike to scenic Council Overhang and Ottawa Canyon.
Take a Hike and a Lunch Guided Hikes run every Saturday and Sunday through November. On these outings, explore Starved Rock and discover canyons, bluffs and seasonal waterfalls during a guided hike. Listen as the guide tells stories of how Starved Rock got its name along with other legends of the area. At the halfway point, break for a lunch that includes your choice of turkey, ham or veggie wrap, snacks and bottled water.
Visit a Canyon and a Boat Ride is October’s premier tour, departing every Sunday at 11 a.m. Board a trolley with a guide and head to the entrance of one of Starved Rock’s most scenic canyons. Following the hike, relax with a boat ride on the picturesque river.
Waterfowl Cruises depart every Sunday in October at 1 p.m. Board a trolley outside the Great Hall of the Lodge and head to Lone Point Shelter to enjoy an hour-long boat ride on the Eagle I, where you can see the waterfowl of the Illinois River.
Are you ready for autumn yet? Book your adventure at starvedrocklodge.com.