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: Your Next Close-to-Home Adventure Awaits
By Kathy Casstevens, marketing manager, Starved Rock Lodge
There are many reasons to savor the flavors of fall at Starved Rock Lodge, near Oglesby, Ill. Inside the only hotel at Starved Rock State Park, visitors can find several restaurant options and some fun events to truly satisfy those fall cravings.
Overnight guests get free, priority parking close to dining, comfy rooms or a cabin in the woods, an indoor pool and 13 miles of hiking trails. Instagram-worthy photos of scenic sandstone canyons are around every turn, and the park takes on the hues of the season when the leaves turn from green to gold, red and brown.
The main dining room at Starved Rock serves up delicious, locally sourced prime rib that’s covered in a “secret spice” rub and smoked that day. It’s served Saturday night.
Trolley Tours are offered each weekend. Pair them with lunch and a river cruise or book a combo tour that includes a guided hike to see Council Overhang and Ottawa Canyon followed by a boat ride on the Illinois River. Fall Colors Trolley Tours and Autumn on the River Cruises are offered in October. Guided Hikes, with a backpack lunch, are offered year-round.
The historic Great Hall comes alive when the music of the Dusseldorfers fills the air at the Oktoberfest Dinner (Oct. 16) and Matinees (Oct. 24-25). The menu features German favorites from schnitzel to strudel with German wine and beer to wash it down.
Music lovers won’t want to miss The Chairman’s Board Tribute to the Stars Matinee on Oct. 17 and 18, starring Peter Oprisko. Tickets include a hot lunch buffet. The WWII Radio Show, featuring songs from the Andrews Sisters, is set for Nov. 14 and 15.
Because Starved Rock Lodge is conveniently located less than 90 minutes from the Chicago suburbs, Rockford and Bloomington, it’s the destination of choice for dream weddings, corporate team-building activities, family reunions and special occasions. The Lodge’s sales team specializes in working with each group to customize the menus and every detail to make special events full of wonderful, lasting memories.
Book early for the Lodge’s annual Thanksgiving Buffet. Reservations and pre-payment are required. Of course, just around the corner is the holiday season, when the Great Hall is all decked out. A special New Year’s Eve party closes out the year and welcomes all that winter has to offer.
Learn more about autumn events, special getaway packages and more at starvedrocklodge.com.
Rock Falls: Where City Life and Nature Meet
By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor
Situated on the Rock River between Rockford and the Quad Cities is the community of Rock Falls, a quaint, family-friendly city that always has something to offer.
Founded in 1867, the once heavily industrial city now provides residents and visitors alike a blend of city life and natural spaces, with the historic Hennepin Feeder Canal located 3 minutes from downtown.
“It’s where city life and nature meet,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events in Rock Falls. “We do have a lot of nature, so we expand on doing a lot of stuff around town like going out to the Hennepin Canal and the hiking trails.”
The Hennepin Feeder Canal begins at the Rock River and runs down near Sheffield, splitting off in two directions. Outdoor enthusiasts can follow the canal while hiking, biking, kayaking and fishing. Jones says kayakers use the canal until it freezes over, and some people can be found snowshoeing along the trail in the winter.
Nestled along the city’s riverfront is the RB&W (Run Bike and Walk Park) District Park. The park offers plenty of walking and biking opportunities and even has rental bikes. Additionally, the park contains 10 sculptures, with eight that change every September. An epicenter of live events, the park hosts gatherings including the annual Taste of Fiesta, a one-day event in September celebrating Mexican heritage, and Hometown Holidays, a November event featuring a Christmas Tree lighting, horse-drawn wagon rides and Santa Claus.
The city prides itself on having a handful of family-owned businesses that have stood the test of time. One city staple is the Candlelight Inn Restaurant, 2200 First Ave. Opened in 2004 but tracing its roots to the mid-1960s, this restaurant is famed for a local dish called Chicken George – fresh, hand-battered, deep-fried chicken tenders served with a house specialty vinegar and mayonnaise based-sauce. Candlelight Inn has three sister restaurants, including one across the river in Sterling that looks like a barn.
Twelve blocks from Candlelight Inn lies another family-owned restaurant that keeps visitors coming back for more: Angelo’s Pizzeria, 608 12th Ave. The family-owned pizzeria still offers guests the same diner-like feel it had when it first opened decades ago. In addition to specialties like the taco pizza or the mac ‘n cheese pizza, the restaurant serves up a sauce that’s so beloved in town that it’s jarred and sold outright.
Another family-owned staple is Arthur’s Garden Deli. The long-standing deli opened in 1977 and was voted the favorite place for lunch for 16 consecutive years. The deli serves everything from made-to-order sandwiches and loaded baked potatoes to fresh garden salads, frozen yogurt and more.
Rock Falls’ downtown is filled with many other quaint eateries and pubs including Whiskey Barrel Bar & Grill, which serves everything from Chicago-style hot dogs to corned beef tacos, and Corner Tap, a local bar with friendly bartenders, big televisions and an event space for musicians. Along these blocks visitors can also find quaint local boutiques and specialty stores that still reflect the city’s small-town vibes.
“People here say there’s nothing to do, but really there is,” says Jones. “This summer we had an air show at the airport, music concerts, boat races, ski shows. We’ve always got something going on.”
For more information, go to visitrockfalls.com.
DeKalb County: A Big Place with a Small-Town Vibe
By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor
There are 14 major communities within DeKalb County, and each has its own unique vibe. What you’ll find they all have in common is a familiar hometown feel with numerous amenities for fun.
“DeKalb County is very quaint,” says Katherine McLaughlin, marketing specialist at the DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s bigger than a lot of other small counties, but you still get the small-town vibe.”
The county is an oasis for outdoor enthusiasts, with natural attractions abounding, but one of the top destinations is Shabbona Lake State Park, in Shabbona, a natural area featuring 1,550 acres of rolling prairie, a man-made fishing lake and affordable boat, canoe, kayak and paddle board rentals.
The state park has plenty of camping, hiking and biking trails, as well. Rentals can be made at Pokanoka’s Dockside Cafe, which offers visitors farm-to-fork dishes with ingredients sourced from a local farm owned by the people who operate the cafe.
The city of DeKalb is rich in entertainment, particularly at Northern Illinois University (NIU), where people from around the world converge for education, cultural programming and athletic events. Huskies football is big in the autumn months on campus and at the local bars.
“NIU is such a big part of our community with their STEAM program and different sporting events,” says McLaughlin. “The stadium gets packed, and it’s great watching the athletes be such an inspiration, especially to the kids in our community.”
Another source of entertainment is the Egyptian Theatre, in DeKalb. In October, the arts venue hosts BOO’ze & Spirits, a guided tour that combines alcoholic beverages and ghost tours through public and backstage areas.
“They have some spirits in their theater because the theater is about 100 years old,” says McLaughlin. “They are friendly spirits. You can grab a drink at the bar and get a tour of the theater. You usually will run into at least one of the spirits that is always there.”
If you’re looking for additional fall fun, many of the county’s orchards remain open until late November. Jonamac Orchard, near Malta, features a cider house and offers open bonfire pits and a small amphitheater with live music. In October, the orchard hosts a haunted corn maze that’s packed nearly every weekend.
Nearly 14 miles south of Jonamac is Honey Hill Orchard, near Waterman. Homegrown pumpkins and hayrides around the farm are a big attraction at Honey Hill.
Every community in DeKalb County is full of charming shops, antique stores and boutiques, offering visitors those “one-of-a-kind places” to do some early Christmas shopping. One unique shop located in Sycamore is Sub 70 Golf, which specializes in making top-notch quality golf clubs. This retailer also offers fittings and lessons.
Unique dining abounds around DeKalb County, with some of the most variety found within the city of DeKalb. If you’re visiting on game day, McLaughlin recommends Fatty’s Pub & Grille, where NIU fans can enjoy pre- and post-game drinks, American cuisine, trivia, games and more. Its signature dish is the Cajun fried potato salad, served with deep-fried potato pieces tossed in a Cajun mayo dressing.
For a more romantic setting, McLaughlin recommends Prairie State Winery, in Genoa. The winery offers fireside dinners with farm-to-fork food such as brown sugar ham sliders and Italian shredded pork sandwiches with a menu that complements its bevy of locally made wines.
Before hitting the open road, be sure to check into the visitors bureau website for more ideas and a listing of upcoming special events.
“If you’re planning on coming here, we have a bunch of itineraries on our website already built out for you to find some fun stuff to do,” McLaughlin says. “You can plan out your day in advance, and it makes things a little easier.”
For more information, visit dekalbcountycvb.com.
Ottawa: Take a Walk through Autumns Past
By Pat Szpekowski
Rustling leaves crunching on the ground. A rainbow of vibrant colors uplifting the trees. Sparkling waters gleaming proud. That’s only the beginning of the wonders of fall’s natural beauty found in Ottawa.
Exploring this quaint but vibrant area is a treat any time of the year, but the fall season brings out the best of sights, sounds, experiences and ghoulish delights.
“Our fall colors are truly amazing to see,” says Donna Reynolds, tourism operations manager for the Ottawa Visitors Center. “I also highly recommend spending time outdoors hiking, biking and boating, too. Visitors to Ottawa just can’t get enough of the beauty and amenities of Buffalo Rock State Park and the Dayton Bluffs Preserve.”
The iconic 298-acre Buffalo Rock State Park is a site to behold and certainly a place of esteem to place on one’s bucket list of parks to visit. It’s located on a bluff that once was an island in the Illinois River. Now standing on the north bank, this high point provides two observation decks enabling magnificent, sweeping views of the Illinois River.
Buffalo Rock State Park is a perfect place to hike, and it serves as a favorite picnic area shaded by mature oak, hickory and walnut trees. There’s a playground area for kids and adults alike. Picnic tables and cooking grills are provided.
Buffalo Rock State Park is steeped in rich history, too. The area was the home of the Illinois tribes when Jesuit missionary priest Father Jacques Marquette and French explorer Louis Joliett made their trip up the Illinois River in 1673. Three American bison call Buffalo Rock home, too. You can find them near the playground baseball diamond.
Meandering through the Dayton Bluffs Preserve is like walking through a presentation of the area’s rich history. Its 100-acre open prairie is in the midst of restoration, and the magnificent 150 woodland acres include rugged ravines, glistening water cascades, the beautiful Fox River, sacred American Indian burial mounds, and the local Daniels family pioneer cemetery. Leashed pets are always welcome to accompany the explorations.
Of course, any trip to Ottawa includes a top-rated wine and dine experience, too.
“Come and enjoy,” says Reynolds, “as we have so many choices from unique casual and fine dining establishments to pubs and lounges that serve outstanding tasty local brews and wines.”
October brings several keynote events enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. Smoketober Fest takes place on Saturday, Oct. 8. It’s a big backyard barbecue competition and pig roast held at the Jordan Block in downtown Ottawa. Backyard chefs compete and awards are presented for best ribs, chicken and pork. Attendees can purchase tickets to enjoy a meal of pulled pork, baked beans, coleslaw and cornbread.
The “Haunted Tour” presented by Tom Aussem and Awesome Ottawa Tours is a wildly popular annual event. A tour named “Tunnels, Barrels & Glass: Interesting Ways to Murder Haunted Tour” introduces visitors to some of Ottawa’s creepy buildings, haunted sightings and network of vast tunnels underground. Sign up for tickets at awesomeottawatours.com.
To learn more about Ottawa, visit pickusottawail.com.
Elkhorn, Wis.: Fall Festivities in a Postcard-Perfect Town
By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor
Forty-five miles southwest of Milwaukee, in the heart of Walworth County, lies the community of Elkhorn, Wis., a smaller town that’s rich with fall activities for visitors of all ages. The city’s motto, “Living in Harmony,” is truly displayed through its close-knit culture.
“The sense of community that exists between the city, the school district and our business community, there’s just such strength in that,” says Kate Abbe, marketing director for the Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce and an Elkhorn resident for over three decades. “When great things happen, we celebrate that together, and when there is a tragedy or things that require us to band together and to lean into that strength as one large community, we see that happen over and over again.”
This fall, the community’s pride is on full display.
Apple Barn Orchard & Winery has been a family-owned and -operated business since 1848. It offers apple picking daily during September and October, with pumpkin picking happening on weekends only starting in late September. Additionally, the orchard and winery offer fresh, delicious delicacies like crisp apple cider and apple cider doughnuts. Food vendors and live music run every Saturday and Sunday through the end of October.
Nearby is Hansen Preserve, a 77-acre scenic area nestled along Sugar Creek. The main trail runs roughly a half-mile along the creek, where there’s also access for kayaking and canoeing. The landscape is dotted with wetland shrubbery, sedge meadow and an oak savanna.
Southeast of Elkhorn is the White River Trail, complete with scenic views and 12 miles of crushed limestone trail. Hiking, biking and horseback riding are just a few ways people can enjoy the paths.
“There is plenty to do if you are not afraid to go off the beaten path,” says Abbe.
Meanwhile, back in civilization, Elkhorn’s downtown square is a hub of activity, with quaint shops and a wide selection of long-standing homegrown dining establishments.
Warm up with a three-cheese grilled panini at Friends on the Square, a coffee shop that doubles as an event space for bridal showers and weddings.
One block over you’ll find Elk Restaurant, a family-owned staple in the community since 1971. The inside of this diner transports visitors to a time when wooden booths were the standard and the menu was dominated by dishes like steak and eggs, roasted turkey club sandwiches and homemade chili.
“They have a lot of history,” says Abbe. “I can picture myself eating french fries there after school got out in middle school.”
Whether it’s a flakey, all-white meat pot pie from Some Place Else Restaurant or a 12-inch butter-crust deep dish pizza from Mamma T’s Italian Eatery, there is no shortage of other good eats to be found throughout Elkhorn.
Despite the leaves changing color and falling off the trees, it’s never too late to stop by Elkhorn’s 27-hole Evergreen Golf Club, equipped with a full restaurant and bar. Every Friday, the club hosts Fish FRYday, an all-you-can-eat, family-style fish fry. Even better, the club typically invites golfers out during the cold winter months.
“I’ve had people who love to be able to say they golf 12 months out of the year in Wisconsin,” Abbe says.
For more information, check out visitelkhorn.com.