A great weekend’s journey isn’t so far away. Here are some excellent places to visit.
The Change of Seasons Comes to Starved Rock
By Kathy Casstevens, marketing director, Starved Rock Lodge
When the first day of spring is in sight, Illinois residents eagerly await the chance to get outside. Mother Nature stands strong and awaits visitors at Starved Rock Lodge and State Park.
Located just south of Utica, the park and Lodge are under Phase 4 mitigations, so masks are required in public areas.
Hiking to see waterfalls, either frozen or flowing, continues to be the major attraction. Guided hikes are offered each weekend by park staff and the Lodge. These hikes include a snack, drawstring backpack, bottle of water and a voucher for a hot cocoa from The Starved Rock Cafe. Reservations are required.
Park guests can hike on their own to see amazing places such as Council Overhang, LaSalle Canyon and Eagle Cliff. A digital program called Virtual Visits with a Naturalist allows Scout troops and home-schoolers, among others, to learn about Starved Rock. Several other free programs are available from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Save the date for Wildflower Walks with a Naturalist on April 24 and 25. This is an excellent way to experience ephemerals, or wildflowers, and learn how American Indians and pioneers used these plants to fight disease, cure infections and season food. All hikes, tours and events require a pre-registration, and masks are required for in-person outing.
Book these events at eventbright.com.
Hungry hikers and day-trippers are invited to relax by the fireplace in the Great Hall. The glowing embers take the chill out of the air, making it a perfect place to enjoy a cocktail or snack. Capacity is limited to 50 people in the historic Main Dining Room and reservations are required. The menu offers a variety of comfort food and tasty options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Carry-outs are available by calling (815) 220-7321.
Winter Wildlife Trolley Tours run on Saturdays and Sundays with departures at 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. This 2-hour tour takes guests to see the resident bison at Buffalo Rock State Park and to the observation deck of the Illinois Waterway, where guests experience the variety of birds that migrate through the Mississippi Flyway.
Starved Rock Lodge is currently booking weddings. Based on the fluctuating mitigations, the friendly sales team at the Lodge suggests that brides and grooms create guest lists with 10, 25, 50, 75 or 100 attendees so that they can say “I do” to an outdoor wedding. The Canyonside Courtyard is available for ceremonies with 30 or fewer guests, and the Sunrise Shelter area can accommodate a larger crowd. The Great Hall and Starved Rock Room offer the perfect reception or backup location in case of inclement weather.
Frontline workers can book an overnight package and save 25% on the cost of lodging, which includes a voucher for dinner and dessert. The Golden Getaway (for senior citizens) and Celebrate with Us are the most popular getaway packages. Visit the Lodge’s website to see the complete list.
If you have a great story to tell or a memory of winter fun at Starved Rock Lodge or State Park, enter the Lodge’s Slogan Contest before April 15. Submit your story and sum it up with a slogan for next winter’s ad campaign. You’ll even have a chance to star in the video promo.
The winner receives a weekend getaway, Tito’s Bloody Mary Bar and other prizes.
Visit starvedrocklodge.com/slogan to enter.
Encounter History, Nature and More in Ottawa
By Sara Myers, multimedia editor
This in between time of year inspires a yearning for fun activities outside the house. In Ottawa, a wide variety of fun awaits those who seek it.
The Ottawa area is loved for its many open spaces, including Dayton Bluffs Preserve, a relatively new park that has 150 woodland acres to explore. It’s located along the Fox River and has several miles of trails that go through woodlands and restored prairie lands, past Indian burial mounds, a pioneer cemetery, a great oak and numerous cascades. Trails are open year-round.
“These are opportunities to get back outside and enjoy nature but also help in preserving land and the bluff,” says Curt Bedei, executive director of the Ottawa Visitors Center. “It is how Illinois used to look before the result of development from towns and cities. This is the open prairie.”
When the weather dashes a hike outdoors, there’s plenty to explore indoors at the Ottawa Historical and Scouting Heritage Museum. It’s again welcoming visitors to one of the nation’s largest collections of Scouting-related memorabilia. Ottawa is the final resting place of William Dickson Boyce, one of the founders of Boy Scouts of America.
“It is very popular with anyone who has gone through Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts,” says Bedei. “They have a large collection of materials there. You can find badges, Scout manuals, pamphlets and different Scouting wear that people have worn throughout the years.”
A portion of the museum walks visitors through Ottawa’s rich heritage, with many stories shared about its connections to the Illinois-Michigan Canal, the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the manufacture of things like marbles, pianos, organs and buggies.
A trip isn’t complete without a bite to eat. Head to West Madison Street and try something new at Corner 230, a casual eatery where specials include filet risotto with a signature pesto sauce. A’Lure Aquarium Bar offers specials like Mahi Mahi and homemade lasagna, and yes, the drinks bar is literally an aquarium. Both restaurants are open for in-person dining and carry-out.
For more ideas from Ottawa, head to pickusottawail.com.
Tour the Mississippi with TWILIGHT
By Jon McGinty
If your summer travel plans include time for a brief getaway from the daily stress and grind, why not consider a comfortable cruise on the mighty Mississippi River?
Kevin and Carrie Stier of Scales Mound, Ill., own and operate an excursion boat called TWILIGHT, a 149-passenger replica of an 1880s Victorian-style side-wheeler steamboat – but with all of the modern conveniences.
The Stiers provide time-travel trips on the Upper Mississippi River: two-day excursions between Le Claire, Iowa, (north of the Quad Cities) and Dubuque; day-trips from Dubuque north to Guttenberg, Iowa, and back; and 1½ -hour sight-seeing cruises out of Le Claire on Saturdays. All three tours take place in a section of the river that lies within the upper Mississippi River National Fish & Wildlife Refuge.
“There are stretches of the river where there are no houses, bridges or towns,” says Kevin. “It takes people back to seeing the river the way Mark Twain might have seen it, to a simpler time. There is also no cellphone coverage in those areas, so it makes people stop playing with their phones, look outside and enjoy the river.”
The wildlife refuge also provides plenty of chances to see critters in their natural habitat, especially bald eagles. On a good day in the fall, the Stiers have spotted up to 80 of the magnificent birds soaring above the moving water.
With 40-plus years of experience on river boats, Kevin has acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of the history and folklore of the Mississippi, as well as facts about current commercial traffic on the “Mother of Waters.” He shares this with his passengers during the trips.
Both the one- and two-day trips pass through the Upper Mississippi lock and dam system, which maintains the water level for navigation between Minneapolis and St. Louis. Built mostly in the 1930s and 1940s, the system still operates efficiently and effectively to provide a nine-foot channel for river traffic.
The two-day excursion originates in Le Claire, where passengers begin their journey with an extended continental breakfast on board, the first of six meals served in the elegant dining room. They’ll later enjoy snacks and live entertainment there.
Upon arrival in Dubuque around 6:00 p.m., guests can walk or ride a shuttle to the nearby Grand Harbor Resort Hotel. The evening is open for exploring historic Dubuque, including the Diamond Jo Casino, located just across the street.
The second day includes a breakfast at the hotel, more activity in Dubuque, including a tour of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. The TWILIGHT departs around 11:00, and guests are served snacks, lunch, dinner and live entertainment on the return trip, as they arrive in Le Claire around 6:30 p.m.
The one-day trip starts in Dubuque and travels upriver to Guttenberg, Iowa, where docking depends on the river depth that day. This trip also includes two meals, snacks and entertainment, and returns to Dubuque the same evening.
Sightseeing trips on Saturdays sail upstream from Le Claire, and returns in about 1½ hours. No meals are included, but passengers are invited to bring along a sack lunch. Complimentary soft drinks are available, as well as a cash bar on the third deck.
The TWILIGHT season runs from the end of May to the end of October. Two-day excursions are $409 per person, double occupancy, and include six meals, snacks, entertainment, entrance to the Mississippi River Museum and overnight accommodations in Dubuque.
The one-day cruises are $169 for adults, $69 for children 14 and under, and include a continental breakfast, two snacks, a full lunch and entertainment. The sightseeing trips are $20 for adults, $12 for children. The Stiers can be contacted at (800) 331-1467 or at riverboattwilight.com.
Where to Find Spirits, Sledding and Snowy Fun
By Sara Myers, multimedia editor
Whether you’re exploring the outdoors or seeking the frights, there’s plenty to enjoy this season in DeKalb County.
The Egyptian Theater in downtown DeKalb is planning a return of live events this spring. Meanwhile, the 90-year-old theater is playing up its rich history and offering some spooky fun for visitors. Enter the BOO’ze & Spirits Tours and be regaled with stories of hauntings and horrors from the Egyptian’s past. Grab a drink at the concession stand and join a tour in the theater’s behind-the-scenes spaces.
“Their groups are limited to 25 people,” says Katherine McLaughlin, sales and marketing director at DeKalb County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “You have to bring your own flashlight, and although it’s not a guarantee, spirits are commonly spotted during the tour. They are usually in the balcony but I’ve heard speculations about one or two taking over the new bar.”
Russell Woods, located north of DeKalb in Genoa, is a popular spot for families and nature lovers to explore some wilderness. The 126-acre forest preserve has been open to the public since 1942 and features the Natural Resources Education Center which hosts numerous outdoor programs for children and adults. When class is out of session, it’s time to explore the rich landscape within.
When it’s time to think food, start off the day at Barb City Bagels, in downtown DeKalb, and enjoy a bagel baked from scratch. Try the hand-blended cream cheese and grab some fresh-roasted coffee. Hot sandwiches, like the bistro ham and cheese, are served up at lunch. Stop by Flamingo Restaurant and Ice Cream, also in DeKalb, for a heartier meal and some authentic Mexican food.
Prime sledding hills can be found in the cities of DeKalb, Sycamore, Genoa and Sandwich. Look for ice rinks in DeKalb and Sandwich. Ice skate rentals are available at DeKalb’s NIU Outdoor Adventures.
For more on DeKalb County, head to dekalbcountycvb.com.