Recreation & Destinations

NWQ Getaway Guide, Fall Edition

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Our region is filled with exciting destinations, available practically in our backyards! Learn more about these popular getaways.

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Sycamore: Little City, Big Fall Fun

Sycamore’s family-friendly attractions and events make it an exciting, close-to-home getaway, and this is a town that really knows how to have fun.

It’s a good thing the displays aren’t alive at the Midwest Museum of Natural History, downtown. This collection of large, preserved beasts tells the story of the wild world, and the animals are posed in dramatic dioramas.

Tour the North America, Africa and Ice Age displays to see giant black bears, lions attacking prey, and fossilized mastodon bones, or stop by the field station to touch live crawling critters. Kids here can touch live koi fish, tarantulas, turtles and lizards, and they can watch backyard critters inside the museum’s urban oasis.

On Oct. 8, kids can join Explorer Day and learn about Christopher Columbus’ American discoveries; youngsters can enjoy more icky animal fun on Oct. 20, during the Creepy Crawly Halloween Party. Costumes are encouraged.

Speaking of costumes, you’ll need one when visiting the 51st annual Pumpkin Fest, held every year on the lawn outside the DeKalb County Courthouse. From Oct. 24-28, the city goes wild as nearly 30,000 visitors enjoy pumpkin showcases, autumn treats, carnival rides, pie eating contests, craft shows and more.

“People really take the pumpkin decorating seriously,” says Lauren Diehl, director of Discover Sycamore. “You should see how creative people are.”

On Saturday of Pumpkin Fest, Sycamore History Museum staff members guide visitors through historic homes, a renovated train depot and an old school.

Sunday’s festivities open with more than 1,800 runners filling the streets for the annual Pumpkin Run 10k road race. Later that day, the city hosts its festival parade, with more than 300 floats.

Even if pumpkins and animals aren’t your thing, there are amenities aplenty in this vibrant downtown. Go antiquing, relax in a spa, shop for shoes and clothing accessories, or visit a winery tasting room, like the one at Prairie on State Wine Cellars. Dinner options range from high-class to simple. In between is Nat’s on Maple, a cozy, chic restaurant with everything from sirloin steaks to comfort foods like meatloaf. And there’s one treat that’s not to be missed downtown: custom-sprinkled caramel apples.

“The best-kept secret I can tell you about is getting a caramel apple at The Confectionary,” says Diehl. “They only have them while they’re fresh, and they’re harvested locally, so once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

Sycamore is just 7 miles from DeKalb, home of Northern Illinois University and the NCAA Division I Huskies. This fall, stop by for a home football game, or discover the many orchestral performances and student theatre shows, including “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “An Ideal Husband.”

Autumn officially ends in Sycamore on Nov. 18, when the city welcomes the holiday season during its Moonlight Madness event. Live characters like the Grinch and Mrs. Claus will be staged in store windows downtown, and merchants will offer evening specials, as shoppers get a head start on Black Friday.

Your fall fun is just about to begin in Sycamore. “Our city gives you a small-town feel,” says Diehl, “but we have some big fun here, so there’s no way you’ll be bored.”

Elmhurst’s Wilder Mansion (Chris Linden photo)

Elmhurst: A Suburban Escape that Offers Lots of Fall Fun

Chicagoland has plenty of quaint fall destinations, but few compare to Elmhurst. Named for the Old English word for “a grove of elms,” this city in western DuPage County glows with fall color along its tree-lined streets and neatly manicured neighborhoods. Located near state routes 83 and 64, and Interstates 290 and 294, Elmhurst is easily accessible. Thanks to this city’s vibrant cultural life, there’s ample reason to stay and play here, both indoors and out.

There’s plenty to explore at the downtown Elmhurst City Centre, a hub of local restaurants, unique shops and entertainment venues. Neighborhood pubs, authentic Chicago pizza, sweets shops and a 10-screen movie theater are just the start. A block away, visitors can access Metra’s Union Pacific/West Line and travel toward Chicago or Elburn.

Elmhurst College hosts a variety of lectures and arts events all season. This fall, lecture guests include Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop; Lydia Villa-Komaroff, a Northwestern University researcher who was the third Mexican-American woman to earn a science doctorate; Ross Douthat, a New York Times religion columnist; and other guests who raise thought-provoking questions about justice, bioethics and faith.

The college also celebrates the arts with events like the World Music Festival on Oct. 26-27 and student performances of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.”

On Oct. 13, the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra kicks off its 52nd season with a celebration of classical composers including Mozart and Haydn. In November, the orchestra takes on Beethoven.

This small city of just 44,000 has a wide array of museums. At the Elmhurst Art Museum, visitors will find an exhibit on contemporary ceramic sculpture, with displays and interactive art events. The Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art includes displays of intricately carved stone, and from Nov. 10-11, Florentine stone workers will demonstrate their mosaic techniques.

You’ll also find gems like the York Theatre’s American Movie Palace Museum, the national headquarters for the Theatre Historical Society of America. And this fall, the award-winning Elmhurst Historical Museum displays a collection of memorabilia, photographs and artifacts in “Centuries of Progress: American World’s Fairs: 1853-1982.” Along with the national traveling exhibit, the museum hosts lectures on Oct. 18 and Nov. 15 that highlight Chicago’s connections to two World’s Fairs.

Pedestrian-friendly Elmhurst is easy to walk, no matter where you’re going, and bicyclers find it’s especially easy when traveling the Prairie Path bike trail, one of the nation’s first rail-to-trail recreation paths. The trail passes southern Elmhurst on its 61-mile stretch from Cook to Kane counties, following the old Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railway line.

Along that former rail line, families can safely celebrate Halloween at the Depot during the Safety Town Family Fall Fest on Oct. 13, sponsored by the Elmhurst Park District. A few weeks later, the park district transforms the Wagner Community Center into a Halloween Town for older children. And, throughout November, the district celebrates spectacular fall flowers at the Wilder Park Conservatory.

It’s a busy season in Elmhurst, with plenty to explore.

Council Overhang is one of many stunning natural features at Starved Rock State Park. Below, Starved Rock Lodge is ready for autumn guests. (Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek photo)

Starved Rock Lodge: Fall Color Lights Up Starved Rock State Park

BY KATHY CASSTEVENS-JASIEK, DIRECTOR OF MARKETING, STARVED ROCK LODGE

An unforgettable display of autumn beauty is just one reason to explore Starved Rock State Park this fall. Just over an hour from Kane and DuPage counties, the park is home to 18 scenic canyons, sweeping views of the Illinois River and historic Starved Rock Lodge.

This is one of the top 10 places in the Midwest to soak up a magnificent natural display of color and texture. The park was recently named No. 1 Fan Favorite Attraction by Facebook Fans of the Illinois Office of Tourism.

Fall Colors Weekend is Oct. 20-21, offering guided hikes. Guests will have to do some hiking to get to Council Overhang and Ottawa Canyon, but they’re well worth the walk. Or, through October, they can take one of the Trolley Tours that depart from the Lodge.

The panoramic view from the veranda at Starved Rock Lodge is always phenomenal, but in autumn, nature paints the peaceful Illinois River Valley in hues of orange, gold and brown. After a scenic hike, sit on the veranda, have lunch and enjoy a refreshing Starved Rock Signature Ale or a glass of wine made exclusively for Lodge guests. For dessert, try some of the new Artisan Ice Cream made fresh at the Lodge, in fall flavors such as pumpkin and apple spice.

The Lodge will kick off the Oktoberfest season with a Keg Tapping of Paulaner Beer on Sept. 30 and Oktoberfest Dinners on Oct. 6 and 20, featuring the Doodledorfers German Band. At the annual Leinenkugel Dinner on Nov. 9, everything on the menu will be made with Wisconsin-brewed Leinenkugel beer, including dessert! A pub crawl follows on Nov. 10.

Free family fun is offered every Saturday night in October, at 7 p.m., next to a crackling fire at Fox Ridge, located across from the main steps of the Lodge. S’mores kits and other fireside snacks are available, too.

The historic Lodge recently received a facelift when all of the hotel room furniture was replaced with hand-crafted, made-in-America bedroom suites. The mortis-and-tenon construction style fits perfectly into the 1930s stone and log decor. An indoor pool complex and on-site massage therapists add to the relaxing aura of this unique place. If your fall visit will include an overnight stay, be sure to reserve a room at the Lodge in advance.

Learn more at the Lodge’s newly redesigned website, www.starvedrocklodge.com.

Photo provided

Beloit: A Taste of Wisconsin at this Close-to-Home Weekend Destination

Outdoor recreation, historical attractions, visual and performing arts and fall festivals galore – Beloit, Wis., keeps humming all season long. Just over the state line, west of Interstate 90, this city of nearly 37,000 can provide a simple pleasures weekend getaway, or one that’s action-packed.

Start your journey along Beloit’s peaceful downtown riverfront, which boasts more than 700 acres of tree-lined parks, a bike path and a canoe/kayak launch downtown. Enjoy public sculptures, spend some time along the fishing bridge, or take the kids and grandkids to the Turtle Island Playground, a family-friendly riverfront park with plenty of interactive features for little ones.

From the river here, put in your kayak and follow Turtle Creek into the quiet countryside and enjoy the yellow and orange foliage along this tree-lined waterway. Or stay on the river and join a guided kayak excursion led by staff from retail outdoor outfitter Paddle and Trail, including trips to historic sites just over the state line.

Back on land, walk a few blocks from the river to the Beloit College campus, for an exploration of art, science and culture. The Wright Museum of Art houses a wide collection of nearly 4,500 items from around the world. As a teaching museum, it also maintains regular student shows and student-curated exhibits. Next door, discover student-led performing arts events at the Neese Performing Arts Center. With a 300-seat auditorium, a television studio and experimental theater, the venue hosts a variety of theater, dance and music events. For more arts events, check out the Beloit Civic Theatre, which plays inside Beloit Memorial High School, and the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra, which plays in Beloit and nearby Janesville, Wis.

Beloit loves its live music, and visitors can find live performances almost nightly. This year’s Rocktober Fest kicks off Oct. 6 on the riverfront. The free event includes a chili cook-off. Speaking of food, you’ll also find a rich array of supper clubs and unique eateries throughout the city.

Outdoors, Beloit has still more to offer. A massive farmers market is held every Saturday morning, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the corner of State Street and Grand Avenue downtown. The 80-vendor event ends its season Oct. 27 with a giant Halloween parade.

Beloit is also a popular scene for motorcycle enthusiasts, who are welcomed locally at many stops. Bring your bike and escape to the winding, scenic country routes just minutes from downtown. Speaking of those pastoral routes, you’ll also find fun tours for geocachers and great lookouts for birding enthusiasts.

Golfers can enjoy eight municipal courses in Beloit, Janesville, Wis., and Rockton/Roscoe, Ill. There’s also a nine-hole disc golf course inside the George Hilliard Park, located near Beloit College’s athletic fields.

History buffs will enjoy the 52-acre Beckman Mill County Park, with a heritage garden, nature trails, picnic space and a restored grist mill. This historic site is also a gathering place for the annual colonial encampment, this year held Oct. 6-7, when reenactors offer a glimpse into early America.

Don’t forget the orchards! Apple Hut, located just northwest of the city, is a local favorite for fresh apples, apple cider donuts and more.

Head north this fall, and discover what lies just across the border in Beloit.

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