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.
Explore Ottawa: A Gateway to Paradise on the Illinois River
By Jim Taylor, multimedia editor
Located in the heart of LaSalle County, Ottawa has everything a day tripper needs to make memories that last a lifetime.
“There are so many things to do and see in Ottawa,” says Donna Reynolds, administrative assistant for the Ottawa Visitors Center. “I’ve lived in Ottawa my whole life, and I’m still finding new things to do and see.”
As the gateway to Starved Rock Country, Ottawa is a magnet for nature lovers who want to fuel up before exploring the great outdoors. Buffalo Rock State Park is a favorite of novice hikers, with easy trails to put beginners on the path to a lifelong love affair with nature. After surveying breathtaking views or finding the perfect photo opportunity near a sparkling waterfall, check out the park’s “Effigy Tumuli,” created by artist Michael Heize. These natural, poignant earthen mounds, molded to represent local fauna, include a snake, a turtle, a catfish, a frog and a water strider. They pay tribute to the natural world and American Indian groups that once lived here. While you’re there, be sure to pop by the grazing area of three American bison that call this park home.
“The bison at Buffalo Rock State Park are close to my heart,” says Reynolds. “My grandfather used to take care of the bison there when I was young.”
Located where the Illinois and Fox rivers meet, Ottawa is also a stop on the I & M Canal State Trail. This 15-mile stretch of recreation path snakes between LaSalle and Ottawa, and it offers glorious scenery as visitors bike or hike between sandstone bluffs and shimmering lakes where turtles, waterfowl, beavers and muskrat make their homes.
The trail turns into the Ottawa Riverwalk, where visitors can see the only remaining I & M tollhouse. Built in 1848 and furnished to reflect the era, the tollhouse takes visitors back to a time when the canal was a lifeline to the nation. Visitors can also work a model lock, to see how boats were raised and lowered, examine tools used by the toll collector and boat captains, and take a photo with a replica canal boat, parked just across the trail from the tollhouse.
Once you’ve finished exploring the great outdoors, it’s time to head indoors, for some refreshing local food & drink. Ottawa is bursting with local restaurants serving everything from tapas and woodfired pizza to farm-to-table fare. For a truly unique fusion experience, check out B.A.S.H Burger and Sushi house, where delicious American cuisine meets elegantly crafted sushi.
A wonderland of outdoor beauty and historic significance, with a touch of local flair, Ottawa is a must-see for any day-trip adventurer.
“Ottawa is an amazing place to visit any time of year,” says Reynolds. “Come in the spring and see our city in full bloom.”
To learn more about Ottawa, visit pickusottawail.com.
Starved Rock Lodge: How to Plan a Great Extended Weekend
By Kathy Casstevens, marketing manager, Starved Rock Lodge
Are you struggling with work week woes after a long winter? Starved Rock Lodge knows the remedy: an extended weekend getaway. Just imagine, instead of spending your Sunday dreading another work day, you’re instead starting an exciting stay at Starved Rock Lodge. Avoid the weekend crowds and carve time for yourself during the week.
Starved Rock Lodge is just outside Oglesby, Ill., less than 90 minutes from Chicago. The Lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and its Great Hall is the hub of activity. Guests love to sit by the two-sided fireplace and enjoy all of the amenities this gem has to offer, including overnight accommodations inside the Lodge or in cabins in the woods.
Sunday Brunch is available in the Main Dining Room from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served daily.
The main reason visitors come to Starved Rock is to hike the 13 miles of scenic trails that meander through glacier-cut canyons. Seasonal waterfalls pass through St. Louis, Wildcat and LaSalle canyons. Geological beauty is best seen at Council Overhang, which is just a few steps away from Ottawa and Kaskaskia Canyons.
Along your hike, watch out for a variety of wildlife, including wild turkeys and bald eagles, and bring your field guide to see if you can identify the many wildflowers that reside here.
It takes about 40 minutes to hike the west trails from the Lodge past Aurora, Kickapoo and Sac canyons on your way to St. Louis Canyon. For longer hikes, take the east trails to Wildcat Canyon (which features two scenic overlooks) or LaSalle Canyon referred to as the most scenic canyon in the park).
Waterfall & Canyon Tours run throughout the warm season. This tour includes a ride on the Starved Rock Trolley and a hot lunch from a special menu. Historic Trolley Tours run from March through December. Guided hikes are the best way to see the park and learn about its rich history. Reservations are necessary, so plan ahead.
In the summer months, the Eagle 1 River Cruises are the most popular outdoor activity. These leisurely boat rides travel along the Illinois River.
Outdoor dining on the Veranda is highly recommended. The panoramic view from the bluff is photo-worthy, and live music fills the air Friday nights. The adjacent, air-conditioned Back Door Lounge is a great place to cool off on a warm day.
Music lovers who would enjoy a walk down memory lane don’t want to miss the “Tribute to the Stars” matinee shows. Ticket price includes a hot lunch or dinner buffet and a show presented by talented vocalists who perform hits made famous by Patsy Cline, Elvis, Tom Jones, Dean Martin and many other favorites.
In addition to guaranteed, priority parking, Lodge guests can relax in the aquatic center, which includes a giant lap pool, shallow-depth children’s pool, two saunas and a hot tub.
And what’s the best thing about an extended weekend at Starved Rock? A short work week to follow. To learn more or make reservations, go to starvedrocklodge.com or call (815) 667-4211.
DeKalb County: Check Out the Adventure Next Door
By Jim Taylor, multimedia editor
As the days grow longer and the weather warms, an action-packed day is just a short drive away. Located about 60 miles west of Chicago, the communities of DeKalb County are full of adventures just waiting to be discovered.
Fishing enthusiasts will want to pack up their gear and head to Mason Park-Larson Lake for the annual Fishing Derby on June 4. Awards will be handed out in youth and adult categories for biggest fish, smallest fish and most fish caught. Anglers who miss the derby shouldn’t fret. Larson Lake is a well-known and loved fishing area throughout the county, as is nearby Shabbona Lake, which is now open for the season.
“Shabbona Lake is a very popular fishing spot throughout the state of Illinois,” says Katherine McLaughlin, marketing coordinator at Experience DeKalb County. “There are a variety of outdoor activities to do there, including boat rentals. It’s the perfect place for a getaway.”
Known as the “Muskie Capitol of Illinois,” Shabbona Lake is a great spot for more than just fishing. Kayak and canoe rentals are available, but there’s plenty to enjoy on land, too. There are more than 8 miles of scenic trails for hiking, and hungry visitors can visit Pokanoka’s, a restaurant that overlooks the lake. Families wishing to extend their stay can take advantage of cabin rentals and camping facilities at Shabbona Lake State Park.
More family fun can be had at Genoa Days, held in the city of Genoa, June 8-11. Genoa’s downtown is converted into a carnival with food booths, midway rides and a petting zoo. On Saturday, June 11, a parade hosted by Genoa-Kingston Fire and Rescue celebrates all things Genoa. This summer, the city also welcomes a brand-new disc golf course at David Carroll Memorial Park.
“We’re really excited about the new disc golf course,” says McLaughlin. “With the new course, and our existing ones, we’re looking forward to holding tournaments in the future.”
Music lovers will want to head to the city of DeKalb to enjoy the smorgasbord of free concerts throughout the late spring and summer. The DeKalb Municipal Band returns to the Hopkins Park Band Shell for its 168th season, playing Tuesday evenings at 7:30 p.m. Formed in 1854 by a group of musicians returning from an unsuccessful attempt at the California Gold Rush, the DeKalb Municipal Band is the longest continuously playing band in Illinois history.
Meanwhile, DeKalb’s Ellwood House Museum resumes its Music at the Mansion concert series in June, continuing every Wednesday evening throughout the summer. The series is free to the public and features a variety of musical acts performing from the palatial patio of the mansion, the former residence of Isaac Ellwood, one of the inventors of barbed wire. The pre-show starts at 6:30 p.m., with the hourlong concerts starting at 7 p.m.
No matter what visitors decide to do, there is plenty of adventure to be had in DeKalb County.
“DeKalb County has so many activities to enjoy in the open air,” says McLaughlin. “It’s the perfect place to get away, take a deep breath, and have some fun.”
For more on DeKalb County, visit dekalbcountycvb.com.
Enjoy Rock Falls: A Not-So-Hidden Gem Just off the Beaten Path
By Jim Taylor, multimedia editor
Nestled in the heart of northwest Illinois, Rock Falls offers plenty of scenic beauty and small-town charm with just enough big-city beat to feel at home.
Speaking of beats, Rock Falls plans to honor one of its most famous citizens, Louie Bellson, on June 18. The Bellson Music Fest promises a celebration of the legendary jazz drummer and composer who’s best known for pioneering the double bass drum.
“This is our way of honoring Louie Bellson’s legacy,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events for the City of Rock Falls. “We’re excited to celebrate his life and his music.”
The festival, held at RB&W District Riverfront Park, kicks off with a presentation at noon, followed by big band and swing performances by Josh Duffee and his Orchestra, Pippi Ardennia & Daniel Leahy, the Joel Paterson Trio and the Rock River Jazz Band.
Music lovers will also want to head to RB&W Park for Jammin’ on the Rock, kicking off on June 2 and continuing the first Thursday of every month until Aug. 4. The event, which runs from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., features local bands along with food trucks, to keep visitors fed, both body and soul.
“Jammin’ on the Rock is a great way to check out the local music scene,” says Jones. “It’s been growing each year.”
Summer Splash, hosted by the Rock Falls Chamber of Commerce, is a perfect way to cool down. Held at RB&W Park on June 24 and 25, this family-friendly festival features live music, kids’ activities, a wild game cookout and live music.
RB&W Park is also home to the Art in the Park Sculpture Walk. Visitors can roam through this outdoor art gallery to see 10 original sculptures, eight of which sits in the park for a single year before being replaced with new works in September. The Sculpture Walk’s one permanent piece, Nemesis, is always on hand for photos.
Visitors who happen to visit the park on Fridays may want to check out Food Truck Fridays, which is the second Friday of June, July and August
“Come on down for food and live music,” says Jones.
Hikers and cyclists will want to head to Hennepin Feeder Canal, a year-round multi-use trail designed for jogging, biking or strolling along a historic canal. Visitors who forgot their bikes don’t need to fret. Bike rentals are available at RB&W Park. Kayaking is also a popular pastime on the Hennepin.
No matter what time of year it is, Rock Falls is always worth a trip for family fun and adventure.
“We’re right on the Rock River, and there’s lots of boating and fishing here,” says Jones. “We can’t wait to welcome our visitors. We know you’ll be happy you came.”
For more information, go to visitrockfalls.com.