Now that summer is here, it’s time to get a much-needed change of scenery. Our region is ripe with luxurious hotels, thriving state parks, bustling downtowns and hidden attractions that bring you face-to-face with the refreshing waterfront. Where do you want to begin?
The mighty Mississippi River is an attraction unto itself, but that’s not the only scenic backdrop in Illinois’ Driftless Area.
Stroll along the Galena River downtown and take in sweeping views of this hilly city, best seen from Grant Park. Visit Fever River Outfitters, on the river’s west bank, to rent a kayak or bike, then hit the water or nearby bike trails.
Set on the backwaters of the Mississippi, this luxurious bed-and-breakfast offers an easy pace of life. An in-house restaurant serves up seasonal cuisine and amazing views, especially at sunset. Dining reservations are open to the public.
Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa
Set on 6,800 acres around Galena Lake, this resort has a variety of amenities close to the water. Stay in the private villas or get a lodge room with a view. Rent a pontoon and spend the day boating or fishing, then catch a hot air balloon ride at sunset.
Get connected with the Mississippi River at the Port of Dubuque, where you’ll find a casino, overnight lodgings (with river views) and the kid-friendly National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium (pictured right). This Smithsonian-affiliated museum has live fish and a fun look at river history. While you’re in town, head to the Julien Dubuque Monument at Mines of Spain – easily the best vista in town.
The Riverboat TWILIGHT
Join captains Kevin and Carrie Stier for a one-day cruise downriver to Guttenberg, Iowa, and back. Rides on this replica Victorian-era steamboat include meals, stories and plenty of scenery. The boat also hosts sightseeing and two-day cruises that depart from the Quad Cities area.
Apple Canyon Lake
The beach and boat launches at this private lake are exclusive to property owners and their guests, but the public is always welcomed at the scenic 9-hole golf course and an on-site restaurant. The Cove’s patio is right at the water’s edge, and its family-friendly menu is well-suited for a day spent soaking up the sun.
The 18-hole golf course and clubhouse at Illinois’ largest private lake are both open to the public. Grab a bite to eat in the restaurant (views are complementary) or dine on the patio, where a firepit adds some warmth on a cool night.
The Rock River
From its start in Wisconsin to its confluence with the Mississippi River, this waterway is ripe with attractions.
Explore the shops and restaurants downtown, including Merrill & Houston’s Steak Joint, where the dining room and patio overlook a quiet stretch of river. Trek up the hill to Beloit College for fantastic views, then spend the night in the boutique Ironworks Hotel.
Nature at the Confluence
A scenic retreat just south of downtown Beloit, this new nature preserve offers two scenic trails through restored prairie and woodlands. Families can purchase a Custom Experience and get tailor-made activities in the park. Of course, because this nature area is located where the Rock River meets Turtle Creek, it’s a prime spot to launch a kayak.
Kayak in Beloit
Launch at the public parking lot just off Fourth Street and explore the Rock River. Or, for a quieter, more scenic route, explore Turtle Creek, which meets the river just past the state line. Another popular launch is at Schollmeyer Park on Beloit’s far northeast side. Just a few miles north of there you’ll find the high-arched Tiffany Bridge, a must-see photo op.
Stretching along the riverbanks north of downtown Rockford, this scenic area includes a recreation trail, the Nicholas Conservatory and lagoon, a lush rose garden filled with 2,000 rose plants, a 32-foot floral clock, and a favorite photo op at the orange Symbol statue.
The river paints a backdrop to the weekly City Market, which happens every Friday evening around Water Street. Catch local farmers, artisans and food vendors for an authentic taste of Rockford. Just upriver, Prairie Street Brewhouse is a popular spot for a dockside dinner, especially among the boaters who pull into the marina. Head across the river and check out the Indian burial mounds at Beattie Park.
OK, so it’s not on the river, but it’s still a fun place to get close to the water. Set inside Rock Cut State Park, this lake is prime for fishing and gentle boating. Grab a bite to eat and rent a boat at Rock Cut Concessions, or else head for the trails around this 3,092-acre park.
Route 2 Corridor
From Rockford, head south on Illinois Route 2 for a scenic look at the river landscape. This two-lane road bends with the river through charming small towns and green woodlands. In Byron, grab a craft beer on the riverside deck of Hairy Cow Brewing Co., and enjoy a wood-fired pizza to complement. Just across the river, the best vistas are found at Byron Forest Preserve, where you’ll also find several miles of prairieland hiking trails. Downriver in Oregon, the towering American Indian at Lowden State Park watches from a towering bluff. Castle Rock State Park is also worth a closer look, as its scenic overlooks reveal sweeping vistas.
Take a picture with a likeness of Dixon’s hometown hero when you visit the Ronald Reagan statue at Riverfront Park. Follow The Gipper’s gaze toward the city’s small-town retailers and some prime dining spots. If you’re so compelled, keep following the river down to the Quad Cities.
Glacial lakes and ancient rivers have been attracting Windy City travelers for generations.
Illinois Beach State Park
It’s impossible to escape the water at Illinois Beach State Park, in Zion. The state’s only remaining beach ridge shoreline covers 6.5 miles of sandy Lake Michigan frontage, and there are many ways to enjoy the scenery. Follow bike and hiking trails to discover some 600 plant species, or visit the marina and charter a kayak or fishing boat. A sizable campground, located within earshot of the beach, makes for a relaxing overnight accommodation. An on-site resort is temporarily closed.
This collection of 15 interconnected lakes is busy with boats all summer long. If you’re a boater, disembark from downtown McHenry and head north. There are plenty of places to grab a meal on or near the water. Go hiking or camping at Chain O’Lakes State Park, and go hunting for boater-friendy watering holes, like Oak Park Lounge in Johnsburg.
On its way from Wisconsin through the Chain O’Lakes and into the Illinois River, this waterway is a defining feature for many Chicago suburbs. Bring a picnic to the McHenry Riverwalk; find fresh seafood at Port Edward’s restaurant in Algonquin; grab a meal to-go in Elgin and relax at Festival Park (pictured at bottom); catch a paddlewheel cruise (pictured right), go fishing at the dam, or walk alongside the riverbanks in downtown St. Charles; rent a kayak at Geneva Cycle Shop in downtown Geneva, then stay the night and enjoy a fine dining experience at Herrington Inn & Spa. Batavia’s Riverwalk is a serene escape; Aurora’s skyline glows in the evening.
The waterfront along Bangs Lake is prime real estate, and it’s well enjoyed while dining out. Lindy’s Landing and Docks Bar & Grill put you right on the waterfront. Other favorites, like Slyce Coal Fired Pizza and a burger joint named Bulldogs, are a block away from the water. Dip your toes at the park district’s beach house and Phil’s Beach, both nearby.
South of I-80
Follow the Illinois River south from suburban Chicago for a different view of the Prairie State.
Located at the confluence of the Fox and Illinois rivers, history and family fun converge here, too. The Dayton Bluffs Preserve overlooks the Fox River and has more than 200 acres of under-restoration prairie and woodlands. Hidden along the trails are ravines, American Indian burial mounds and a pioneer cemetery. Find a bison herd at Buffalo Rock State Park, and find a variety of shopping and dining options downtown.
Starved Rock State Park
Easily the state’s most-visited park, this place is like nowhere else in Illinois. Eighteen canyons beckon the curious. Starved Rock Lodge welcomes overnight guests, and its Veranda (now open and serving diners) has the best views of sunset. Call the Lodge about weekly guided hikes and trolley tours. Take a quick detour to downtown Utica to find a winery, a tap house, and outdoor dining on the main street.
The riverfront is a prime attraction downtown. Catch scenic views and several dining options along Water Street, then take the kids to the Peoria Riverfront Museum, which combines sports, art, history and more into a family-friendly attraction. Visit Saturday mornings and take in the sights, sounds and smells of the RiverFront Market. The kids will also love a Chiefs minor-league baseball game, the Peoria Zoo and Wildlife Prairie Park – where you can stay the night in a real train caboose.
This waterway between the Rock and Illinois rivers is a step back in time, to when canals were a prime means of commerce. Today, the first American canal built from concrete is a 155-mile destination for hikers, bikers and boaters. Start the journey at the Sheffield visitors center, then proceed toward the Quad Cities or the feeder path into Rock Falls and the Rock River. If you plan to boat the canal, be ready to portage, as the locks no longer operate.
This route from LaSalle/Peru to Chicago played an important role in the region’s 19th-century growth. Today, it’s an active playground with recreation trails, a replica canal boat tour, kayaking, fishing and much more.
Lake Geneva Area
Whether you’re in Lake Geneva, Walworth, Fontana, Williams Bay or Delavan, it’s all about the water.
Downtown Lake Geneva
Visitors can just as easily spend the day sitting on the public beach or traversing the neighborhood’s kitschy shops and restaurants. Several hotels are within a block of the shoreline.
The Geneva Inn
These luxurious accommodations are located right on the shore, and they soak up fantastic views all day. Cozy rooms enjoy picturesque views, and so does the Grandview Restaurant, a fine dining setting that’s open to the public. On-site boat slips only add to the ambience.
Located on the west side of the lake, this area is primed for sunrise views. The Abbey Resort’s luxurious accommodations and Waterfront restaurant overlook a sizable harbor and its brightly colored sailboats. The local beach is a quick walk away. Check out the Fontana Paddle Co. for boat rentals.
Lake Geneva Cruise Lines
From Williams Bay, hop aboard a cruise boat and explore the beautiful scenery and amazing homesteads planted along the lakeshore. The most popular is the U.S. Mailboat Tour. Back on land, make a reservation at Pier 290 and enjoy fine dining with a view.
Lake Shore Path
Get an even closer view of the lake and its history by following the nearly 26-mile public walkway that hugs the shoreline. Wear sturdy shoes and pass through hilly, narrow and wooded areas. Each property owner maintains their part of the path differently, so terrain will vary along the way. And the views? They’re priceless.
On a quick detour north, take in the scenery along Delavan Lake. Village Supper Club honors a true Wisconsin tradition and boasts wide-open views of the waterfront. Lake Lawn Resort occupies 2 miles of lakefront and features plenty of amenities and accommodations. Delavan Lake Resort is an all-suites hotel that’s also located on the water.
Other Wisconsin Notables
Because there are just too many adventures waiting in the Badger State.
Door County: Enjoy a fish boil dinner, grab some ice cream at Wilson’s and, just around the block, climb the stairs to watch the sun set over Peninsula State Park. Waterside accommodations abound, and because you’re on a peninsula, you’re never far from the water.
Port Washington: This community 20 minutes north of Milwaukee has plenty of locally owned retailers, a marina, two beaches and prime accommodations right on the water. Dine at The Beacon Restaurant, inside The Harborview (a hotel just off the marina) or grab some carry-out at Dockside Deli and make a picnic.
Madison: With five lakes, a Big Ten University and a state capitol, this thriving city has no shortage of fun. The city has more than 200 miles of biking and hiking trails, and there are at least a dozen options for dining right on the water. Stay overnight at The Edgewater and get a prime view of Lake Mendota.
Green Lake: The state’s deepest natural inland lake can be enjoyed in many ways. There are seven public boat launches, and it’s easy to find kayak rentals, too. Enjoy waterfront dining at Norton’s, a local landmark for 70 years. The city’s famed Heidel House Resort is scheduled to reopen this summer after a big facelift.