A weekend’s journey is closer than you might think. Check out these fun destinations that are close to home but feel far enough away.
Starved Rock Lodge: Save the Date for Fun 2022 Events
By Kathy Casstevens, marketing director, Starved Rock Lodge
Goodbye, 2021, and hello to a new year filled with adventure and fun. In this new year, there’s plenty to look forward to at Starved Rock Lodge and Starved Rock State Park near Oglesby.
Guided Winter Hikes depart from the Lodge every Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. You’ll see the winter wonderland of Starved Rock State Park, complete with frozen ice falls and, hopefully, bald eagles in flight overhead. The hike is about 3 miles round-trip. Hikers should dress appropriately and bring Yaktrax and trekking poles for extra traction. Reservations are required. Tickets are $15 per person.
Winter Wildlife Tours start Jan. 8 and run each Saturday and Sunday in the winter, except for Eagle Watch Weekend (more on that in a minute). These tours, which run from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., include a trolley ride to see the bison at nearby Buffalo State Park. You’ll also go to the Illinois Waterway Center observation deck to see if you can spot an eagle or two. Guests receive a sack lunch. Tickets are $25 per person.
Bald Eagle Tours are the highlight of winter here. These tours begin with lunch at 11 a.m. Ride the trolley to the Illinois Waterway Visitors Center for eagle viewing and an educational seminar. Advanced reservations are required. Tickets are $30 for adults and $25 for children 10 and under.
The Illinois Audubon Society returns for live presentations during this winter’s Eagle Watch Weekend. This event is a prime opportunity to watch for eagles around the park and the Illinois River on Jan. 29-30. Audubon Society’s shows are Saturday at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday shows are at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The trolley is also shuttling people between the Lodge and the Illinois Waterway Visitors Center, where the viewing is excellent. The cost is $3.00 for an all-day wristband. Tickets are limited and available online. Check out illinoisaudubon.org for more information.
The sled dog team from Free Spirit Siberian Rescue returns for live demos and indoor seminars on Sunday, Feb. 27. There will be huskies for you to meet and greet as well as info about the rescue and how to help, volunteer and adopt an animal. Admission is free and open to the public. Dog sled demonstrations are at 9:00 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. at the far corner of Starved Rock’s Visitor Center Parking lot.
During Sled Dog day, indoor seminars take place at Starved Rock Lodge at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Masks are required, and gloves or mittens are required if you wish to pet the dogs.
For an experience like no other, enjoy some live music with Midwest Dueling Pianos. This wildly entertaining music and comedy dueling piano show takes place at the Lodge Feb. 21 & 22 at 11:30 a.m. Tickets are $65 per person and buffet lunch is included.
There’s plenty of winter fun at Starved Rock, including an overnight stay in the lodge. Start planning your winter escape at starvedrocklodge.com.
DeKalb County: Outdoors or Indoors, Winter Fun Abounds
By Jim Taylor, multimedia editor
You don’t need to stay outside when you visit DeKalb County, but with its abundance of ice rinks, sled hills and hiking trails, along with its hundreds of acres of forest preserves, you just might be tempted.
“We just embrace winter here,” says Katherine McLaughlin, marketing specialist at DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “When it’s winter in northern Illinois, you have to be willing to go outside and have some fun.”
Visitors and residents alike are invited to try out a wide variety of outdoor winter events on Feb. 5, when the DeKalb Park District hosts its seventh annual Polar-Palooza, from noon to 3 p.m., in Hopkins Park. Admission is free.
“It’s a super fun event,” says McLaughlin. “It’s a unique experience and a great way to try all sorts of winter activities.”
Those activities include sledding, scavenger hunts, winter crafts, trail hikes, and sled dog and sports demonstrations. NIU Outdoor Adventures is on hand to supply snowshoes and other winter gear, and the NIU men’s hockey team takes to the ice as its members coach youngsters and hold a few scrimmages. Sledding enthusiasts will want to make the climb up the new sled hill in Hopkins Park, which is now the biggest sledding hill in the county. There are bonfires to warm you up and delicious treats like hot chocolate and s’mores to snack on.
Throughout the winter, the many parks of DeKalb County offer opportunities for hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. There are four large sled hills and three skating rinks open throughout the county (weather permitting), and NIU Outdoor Adventures offers equipment rentals to anyone who is looking for outdoor fun. Bird enthusiasts may want to check out Afton Forest Preserve, which is a “National Hot Spot” for birdwatching. Visitors who wish to come in from the cold should check out Blumen Gardens’ fourth annual Artist + Maker Market, on Jan. 29. The event features handcrafted goods like jewelry, art and home decor from local artists and makers along with live music.
The Sandwich Opera House offers up a number of concerts, including the Black Tie Jazz Trio on Jan. 28 and “Simply Patsy,” a tribute to Patsy Cline performed by Mary Pfeifer, on Feb. 12.
At the historic Egyptian Theatre in downtown DeKalb, Chicago’s famed Second City comes to town with its comedy revue “The Absolute Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life” on Feb. 12, at 7:30 p.m.
All this excitement is sure to make visitors thirsty. Luckily, Tangled Roots, an award-winning brewery from Ottawa, has opened a new location in downtown DeKalb. Keg and Kernel adds to an already impressive number of breweries, wineries and distilleries in the area. Visitors and residents alike can experience all of DeKalb County’s handcrafted beer, wines and spirts through Bold Spirits of DeKalb County, a passport program offered by the county’s visitor’s bureau.
“It’s exciting to expand our Bold Spirits options in the area,” says McLaughlin about the new Tangled Roots location. “We’re happy to offer another stop on, as well as offer another great restaurant downtown.”
DeKalb County always has much to offer to the outdoor enthusiast, no matter what the season, and winter is no exception.
To start planning your own your winter getaway, visit dekalbcountycvb.com.
Explore Rock Falls: The River Town Where Eagles Soar
By Jim Taylor, multimedia editor
Rock Falls is a family-friendly getaway throughout the year, but during the winter months it’s particularly special. In addition to being a haven for outdoors enthusiasts, Rock Falls also welcomes a large number of bald eagles.
“We’re fortunate to have about 100 eagles that come to our area in the winter,” says Melinda Jones, Director of Tourism & Events for the City of Rock Falls. “They’ll be staying with us from early December through early March.”
Rock Falls’ vicinity to the Sterling and Sinnissippi dams makes it an ideal feeding spot for fish-eating raptors like the bald eagle. Because the water of the Rock River doesn’t freeze here in the winter, eagles have plenty of space to dive and catch fish, even during the coldest days.
“It’s really cool to see,” says Jones. “The eagles will swoop right over your head.”
To accommodate the growing number of eagle watchers, Rock Falls has recently completed the Rock Falls Birding Trail. This car-friendly driving route begins at the Hennepin Feeder Canal in Rock Falls and follows Second Street to Lawrence Park, where the eagles feed. Prominent signage along the trail reminds drivers of the importance of eagle etiquette.
“If the eagles are scared, they won’t return,” explains Jones. “It’s fine to take photographs and observe them from your car, but loud noises will scare them off.”
In addition to birdwatching, the Hennepin Canal offers multiple trails for winter hiking, ice fishing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Rock Falls’ Art in the Park Sculpture Walk is open year-round, offering 10 original works of art at RB&W Park. Nine of the sculptures are changed each year, making a visit to the Sculpture Walk a fresh experience each winter.
“The sculptures are beautiful when they’re covered in frost and ice,” says Jones. “Last year, I was freezing, but I took so many pictures.”
Rock Falls is the hometown of legendary jazz drummer and composer Louie Bellson. To honor this distinction, the city holds an annual percussion event called “Percussion Palooza.” Now in its eighth year, the competition features solo and ensemble percussion acts in a variety of levels, including middle school, high school and post-secondary. This year, the event is scheduled for Feb. 12, at noon.
In conjunction with its twin city, Sterling, Rock Falls hosts a year-round farmers market. The Twin City Farmers Market is open on Saturdays from 8 a.m. until noon. Located inside the historic Twin City Produce Co. building, the market features locally grown and produced meats, fruits and vegetables, baked goods, jams, jellies, honey and artisanal items, among other things.
With its well-earned moniker as the place “where city life and nature meet,” Rock Falls is the perfect destination for adventurers looking for fun. The city is happy to welcome visitors, both human and eagle alike.
To start planning your winter getaway, visit visitrockfalls.com.
Visit Ottawa: Where History Meets Modern Living
By Jim Taylor, multimedia editor
No matter where you go in Ottawa, you’ll be surrounded by history.
Situated where the Illinois River and Fox River meet 80 miles southwest of Chicago, the city is often described by its leaders as being “in the middle of everywhere.” This is true, both in the sense of its proximity to a variety of natural and cultural destinations, as well as its place in America’s storied past. Its closeness to two major rivers, as well as the Illinois and Michigan Canal, established Ottawa as a transportation hub, shaping the city into the historical Illinois touchstone it is today.
“We are so rich in history,” says Donna Reynolds, administrative assistant with the Ottawa Visitors Bureau. “I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’m still finding things I didn’t know.”
Pedestrians can pick up a copy of the Old Town Heritage Tour book at the visitor’s center, in downtown Ottawa, and take a walking tour around the city’s most well-known historic landmarks. Washington Square, site of the first debate between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, is one of the first stops. Directly north of Washington Square sits the Reddick Mansion, former home of William Reddick, a mogul, merchant, sheriff, senator and philanthropist who left a major portion of his land to Ottawa after his death. History buffs can tour the mansion and stand on its steps.
The City of Ottawa commissioned 10 murals depicting historic events from the city’s past. These include the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and famous former residents like Union General W.H.L Wallace and Bob McGrath of “Sesame Street.” Tours of the murals can be arranged through the Ottawa Visitors’ Center.
One of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America, W.D Boyce, made his home in Ottawa and is buried in the Ottawa Avenue Cemetery. Visitors can learn more about Boyce and his contributions to Scouting at the Ottawa Historical & Scouting Museum.
As much as Ottawa is steeped in history, there are plenty of places where history and the modern world collide. The city boasts 15 parks, with everything from baseball diamonds and bike trails to hiking trails, disc golf and boat launches. The Buffalo Rock State Park features an enclosure with three majestic bison in their natural habitat. A short drive north takes visitors to the Dayton Bluffs Preserve. While most of this new preserve’s amenities are still being built, the area boasts hundreds of acres of open prairie, lush woodlands and sacred American Indian burial mounds, all located along the Fox River.
All of these activities are sure to work up an appetite. Luckily, Ottawa’s restaurant scene is up to the task. There are several locally owned dining spots covering the gambit from sushi to farm-to-table to fine dining and everything in between.
“We have a plethora of every cuisine you can think of,” says Reynolds.
Since the city’s incorporation in 1853, Ottawa has always found itself “in the middle of everywhere.” And these days, it’s still right where you want to be.
For more information, see pickusottawail.com.