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.
Elkhorn, Wis.: Embrace the Best of a Wisconsin Winter
By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor
There’s no shortage of excitement in Elkhorn, Wis. In fact, this time of year residents and visitors alike trade in their shorts and hiking shoes for snow pants and boots.
“People are no longer boating but they’re ice fishing,” says Kate Abbe, marketing director for the Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce and an Elkhorn resident for over three decades. “We still see the same amount of people. We just see less of them because they’re bundled up in all the winter gear as we enjoy Wisconsin winter. There’s still lots to do under the beautiful blanket of white snow.”
Located 40 miles southwest of Milwaukee at the center of Walworth County, Elkhorn takes on a different look in the cold winter months. Around the city’s historic square you can find comfort food like a flaky all-white-meat pot pie loaded with veggies and potatoes at Someplace Else Restaurant.
Nearby, the Friends on the Square coffee and retail shop serves up everything from cappuccinos and chai tea lattes to grilled cheese paninis.
Away from the town center, those who want to get their thrills in Elkhorn’s natural settings might be wise to start their journey at the White River Trail southeast of Elkhorn. It’s not the only place to find snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking, walking and ice fishing.
Closer to town, Elkhorn has several large hills at Sunset Park that are perfect for sledding.
“They’re really big,” says Abbe. “Kids love to roll down them in the summer, and then they like to sled down them in the winter.”
For a full-fledged skiing experience, venture to the north side of Elkhorn and Alpine Valley Resort. This all-season ski resort features a golf course, an 8-mile mountain bike trail, three terrain parks and alpine skiing seven days a week. The longest downhill run stretches 3,000 feet. The resort hosts a multitude of events throughout the year – both inside the lodge and on the hills.
Before you leave Elkhorn, be sure to stop by the Evergreen Golf Club and try out the new golf simulators. High-speed optical sensors and software ensure you can keep up with your golf game in anticipation of the coming season.
Aside from its close-knit culture and friendliness, it’s the long list of rich activities that makes Elkhorn a wonderful winter retreat.
“It’s snowmobiling, it’s ice fishing, it’s ice skating, it’s sledding – it’s all of those great things, plus a whole lot more,” says Abbe. “You can even enjoy the indoors with hot cocoa and comfort food.”
Plan an adventure of your own today at visitelkhorn.com.
Wabash County, Ind.: A Weekend Getaway Full of Surprises
By Pat Szpekowski
Are you looking for a new getaway location that hits all of the benchmarks of a great place to visit? Perhaps you like an area filled with historical and eclectic adventures that friendly, talented and creative people call home? Then Wabash County, Ind., is a must-see destination.
“Our area is steeped in tradition and proud of its culture,” says Christine Flohr, executive director of tourism for Visit Wabash County. “We offer a robust downtown for shopping and a booming area filled with enthusiastic entrepreneurs, world-class performances and outdoor experiences.”
Did you know the City of Wabash was the first electrically lighted city in the world in 1880? Since then, this part of northeast Indiana has continually sparked economic growth and fun. There are many engaging activities to enjoy all year long.
When’s the last time you rode on a trolley? The Trolley No. 85 Tour rolls all year and hits all of the spots you need to see. Coming soon, join a historic home tour, airport trolley tour or handmade in Wabash County tour, to name a few.
You know a city is special when the community preserves something distinctive from the past and accommodates it for the future. The historic Eagles Theatre is such a place. A $16 million restoration by the Honeywell Foundation brought the four-story building back to life. It houses a movie theater on the ground floor, a media arts program for high school students on the second floor, meeting rooms and balcony seats on the third floor, and a grand ballroom on the fourth floor, where local artists have re-created the grandeur of the ceiling artwork.
“Everyone’s perseverance to transform the Eagles Theatre and the hard work by the Honeywell Foundation was recognized with the prestigious Cook Cup award by Indiana Landmarks in 2022 for the highest standards of restoration,” says Flohr.
About a block away from the Eagles Theatre, you can find top-rated performances at the Honeywell Arts and Entertainment Center. The grandeur of the facility makes it a destination for weddings and celebrations of all kinds.
Meanwhile, outdoor adventures abound along the 7-mile Wabash River Trail. Breathe in the fresh air and traverse the trails to get in your steps and enjoy nature at its best.
After all of your walks and tours, get ready to enjoy the hottest eateries in the town of Lagro. The Canal Creamery offers lunch selections and gourmet waffle cones made fresh daily. Choose from 12 delicious flavors of ice cream that rotate seasonally. The town is also home to 950 Speakeasy Bistro along the banks of the Wabash River, where you’ll find inspired cocktails and tasty subs, pizzas and salads. You’ll enjoy the atmosphere of the solid wood floors and bar or the outdoor patio deck with amazing sunset views.
“Wabash County is filled with amazing boutiques, antiques, bookstores and make-and-take studios,” says Flohr. “We welcome you to visit us and hope that we will become that special place that you’ll visit for years to come.”
Find out more at visitwabashcounty.com.
Ottawa, Ill.: Yours to Discover
By Jim Taylor, managing editor
There’s a reason why Ottawa, is known for being “in the middle of everywhere.” Natural beauty, history, shopping, dining and accommodations are all on display at this destination in the heart of Starved Rock Country.
Nestled at the meeting point of the Illinois and Fox rivers, Ottawa is an oasis for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers can venture out to explore during the day while enjoying first-class accommodations and dining experiences at night.
“We have three state parks that are within less than a 10-minute drive,” says Donna Reynolds, tourism and operations manager at the Ottawa Visitors Center. “We also have a wildlife preserve that is great for hiking and cross-country skiing.”
While every nearby state park offers its own unique experiences, Buffalo Rock State Park, just 3 miles out of town, is a particular favorite amongst locals and regular visitors. With 298 acres to explore, this park, once an island unto itself in the Illinois River, is now a promontory on the river’s north bank that offers stunning views for anyone wishing to take a photograph or spend a moment in quiet contemplation. You can even pay a visit to the park’s permanent residents.
“Buffalo Rock has three bison that live at the park year-round,” says Reynolds. “Their names are Cocoa, Pebbles and Hope. Be sure to stop by and say hello.”
Buffalo Rock State Park is also an access point for the I&M Canal State Trail. Named for the former Illinois and Michigan Canal that established Ottawa as a major transportation center, the I&M Canal State Trail is 15 miles of scenic natural views and fascinating local history. While exploring the trail, be sure to check out the Ottawa Toll House, the last of its kind on the former canal. A peek through its windows offers a glimpse into a time when rope beds were considered the peak of comfort; when the I&M Canal connected the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico; and when luminaries like Abraham Lincoln made regular business trips to Ottawa.
“The I&M Canal goes right through the heart of the city,” says Reynolds. “It’s a great way to get outside and explore everything Ottawa has to offer.”
Speaking of Lincoln, Ottawa is where he and his political opponent, Stephen Douglas, held their first of seven historic senatorial debates. A trip up the Ottawa Riverwalk to Washington Square Park will take you to the site of the debate, where statues of these political rivals are frozen in mid-debate. Thousands of spectators congregated here to see the spectacle. Some stood on the steps of William Reddick’s mansion. This mogul, merchant, sheriff, senator and philanthropist left a huge portion of his land to the city following his death. History buffs can book a tour of his mansion and learn more about his contributions to Ottawa.
After taking in the natural scenery and local history, visitors will want to explore the local shopping and culinary scene. Ottawa’s shops and restaurants offer an abundance for shoppers and diners, punching well above their weight for a city of Ottawa’s size.
“We have many unique boutiques, like Déjà vu, Heartland by Hand, and our newest shop, RPS Toys,” says Reynolds. “After a day of shopping, grab dinner at Ingia Pizzeria, Burger and Sushi House, or the Beach House.”
Ottawa has always been a city “in the middle of everywhere.” Now is an ideal time to visit and discover for yourself just how completely it embodies that phrase.
To learn more, or to start planning an adventure, check out pickusottawail.com.
Starved Rock Lodge: Hurry Up, Spring! We’re Waiting for You
By Kathy Casstevens, marketing director, Starved Rock Lodge
A getaway that’s close to home but worlds away, Starved Rock Lodge and State Park are a one-tank destination located less than 90 minutes from the Chicago suburbs, Rockford, Peoria and Bloomington.
The Lodge, located near Oglesby, provides free parking for hotel guests, which means you’ll be steps away from trails that lead to amazing places like Council Overhang, Lover’s Leap and Eagle Cliff. Beautiful waterfalls come to life and the forest blossoms in late April.
A relaxing getaway paired with comfort food and short hikes to photo-worthy locations are just a few reasons to book a trip to Starved Rock Lodge. The time between the last snowfall and the first warm day of spring is special because it allows you to reconnect with nature and take in the quiet beauty of this great destination before it turns into a lush wonderland where waterfalls and wildflowers surround you.
Music Tribute Shows are the perfect way to spend an afternoon surrounded by the historic ambiance of the Great Hall. A buffet lunch is included with all matinee performances, which range from Dueling Pianos to an ABBA Salute and Patsy Cline tribute show.
The Lodge is also accepting reservations for its Easter and Mother’s Day buffets. Smoked prime rib is available every Saturday night in the main dining room along with a full menu. Brunch opens at 10:30 a.m. every Sunday.
Head to French, Ottawa, Wildcat, LaSalle and Kaskaskia Canyons in the park for the best photos year-round. Hundreds of wildflowers bloom at Starved Rock between March and October. Please don’t pick the flowers, but do pick up a “Wildflowers of the Midwest” guidebook in our gift shop and learn all about them.
Guided hikes are offered on weekends. Waterfall & Canyon Tours run in April and May. Whether you’re traveling solo or in a group, the trolley is the best way to learn about the rich history of Starved Rock and the surrounding area.
An indoor pool means you can let your imagination run free as you spend time swimming. Toddlers love the shallow-depth, gated pool that’s only 1 foot deep. Best of all, everyone in your group can have fun together all in the same place.
From the serenity of the Great Hall to the panoramic view from the east end of the Veranda, you’ll find places to reconnect with nature. Quality family time awaits. It’s all about creating lasting memories with your family or friends.
Start planning at starvedrocklodge.com.
Rock Falls: Some Delightful Dining and Diversions
By Pat Szpekowski
A trip to Rock Falls and its surrounding area provides a multitude of dining surprises, diversions and outdoor recreation possibilities. Whether you’re driving west on Interstate 88 from Chicago and the ‘burbs or south from the Rockford area, take a breather and make a stop in Rock Falls. It will be well worth your time to grab a bite to eat or visit the welcoming sights.
“There’s something here for everyone to enjoy all year long,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events for the City of Rock Falls
Speaking of all year, the Twin City Farmers Market takes place every single Saturday morning in nearby Sterling. Yes, indeed: a farmers market indoors, in the winter months. This popular, year-round market is located in the historic Twin City Produce Co. building in downtown Sterling. Inside, you’ll find more than 20 year-round vendors and even more seasonal vendors that offer a wide variety of fresh must-haves.
If you’re looking for locally raised meat, including beef, pork, free-range chicken and eggs, it’s here. Not to mention, you’ll find plenty of baked goods, homegrown produce, organic herbs, honey, jams, sauces, locally made soaps and candles, and other necessities including gift items and treats.
During the summer months, additional vendors sell their wares at the outdoor Sterling Marketplace. It’s a great place to learn about the local agricultural scene and support local farmers. The Twin City Farmers Market began in 2005 as a project of the Northwest Illinois Ag Coalition.
Speaking of good eats, several area dining establishments have been a big hit with their diversified and down-home menus. The Candlelight Inn Restaurant touts itself as the “Home of The Original Chicken George,” and it’s a Sauk Valley favorite. The secret recipe for the “Chicken George” began 55 years ago, and now more than 250,000 pounds of this chicken delight is served every year. This chicken is so special that if you eat at the restaurant and have never tried Chicken George, you can ask for a complimentary sample.
Just across the river in Rock Falls, you’ll find a wide variety of restaurants that tempt with their American, Italian, Thai and Mexican flavors.
“The new Maks American and Indian Bar & Grill, located in the Rock Falls Days Inn, has already made its mark on our community,” Jones says. “The menu includes many delicious All-American favorites like burgers, chicken, wraps and salads, but customers are raving about the authentic Indian specialties, such as Naan bread, Tandoori chicken and Indian lamb.”
Need to work off your tasty meal? Check out the RB&W District in Rock Falls and meander through the picturesque RB&W Park along the Rock River. The Sculpture Walk currently has 10 original sculptures on display. They’re created by both local and non-local artists, each of whom is chosen very carefully. Their creative works remain in the park for one year to be enjoyed and admired.
Another prized outdoor attraction is the Hennepin Feeder Canal and Trail. Part of the Hennepin Canal State Park, this landmark is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and spans five Illinois counties (Rock Island, Bureau, Henry, Lee and Whiteside). Outdoor fitness enthusiasts flock to the area to enjoy 104.5 miles of hiking, biking and walking adventures with local wildlife habitat and natural features. Take time for fishing and kayaking, too.
Those who live in the Rock Falls area take great pride in their hometown’s stunning natural views, beautiful riverfront and cultural heritage.
Find out what adventure awaits you at visitrockfalls.com.
DeKalb County: Ways to Welcome Spring, Soothe the Soul
By Melanie Kalmar
After another long and blustery winter, there’s no better place to venture outside and explore nature than DeKalb County.
“We have tons of forest preserves,” says Katherine McLaughlin, marketing director of the DeKalb County CVB. “Our biggest one is Afton Forest Preserve. It has close to 400 acres of hiking, a big overlook, a small pond with lily pads, a natural playground for kids with tree stumps and logs surrounded by rubber chips, and dark-sky places where you can see the stars.”
Down the road from Afton is Merrit Forest Preserve, where there’s a glorious 1.9-mile hiking loop, surrounded by wildflowers, that takes about 40 minutes to walk. Nearby is Wilkinson-Renwick Marsh. With 3.5 acres of restored prairie, it’s ideal for bird watching and taking in the sights and sounds of nature.
Disc golf, also known as frisbee golf, is a free, popular activity that has plenty of traction in the area. You can find courses in the cities of Sycamore, Kirkland and DeKalb, but the River Run Disc Golf Course in Genoa, located in a wooded area along the river, is exceptionally beautiful.
Once the sun goes down, make a night of it and seek out some nightlife attractions. Among the top destinations is a live performance at the Egyptian Theatre in downtown DeKalb.
“Every weekend they have something fun, new and exciting going on,” McLaughlin says. “It’s a large variety.”
If you’re seeking an eclectic atmosphere, visit historic Sandwich Opera House, a theater built in an old jail – the bathrooms are actual cells – with seats for about 250 people.
“It’s cool to be inside that piece of history and see some great live entertainment,” McLaughlin says.
Located on the second floor of Sandwich City Hall, the opera house was built in 1878 and, just like the Egyptian Theatre, hosts a mix of live entertainment including bands and psychic mediums. The opera house’s dinner and show packages are a hit.
While you’re in the area, McLaughlin suggests stopping at Bull Moose Bar and Grill for its trophy burgers with homemade potato chips, unique sandwiches and scrumptious appetizers. Incorporated in the building’s design is an 1893 Pullman Palace Dining Car that was used by President Theodore Roosevelt during his 1912 Bull Moose Party presidential campaign. Imagine life back then, on the campaign trail, as you enjoy a meal and take in the view.
A fun overnight escape for couples is the Genoa Guest House, a family-owned bed-and-breakfast featuring fully remodeled guest rooms and an outstanding breakfast menu. Your hosts, Mary and Roger Keys, serve a variety of comfort foods such as apple cinnamon French toast and baked egg cups with bacon. Relax in front of the fireplace with a steaming hot mug of coffee and a good book or bike along the scenic trails at David Carroll Memorial Park. Continue on to Russell Woods Forest Preserve, known for its diverse flora and fantastic fishing.
Within walking distance of Genoa Guest House is Prairie State Winery and Prairie State Distilling, home of award-winning wines and exclusive gin and brandy. The pair of vibrant establishments offer wine tastings daily, live music most weekends, and inventive soups, salads, sandwiches and entrees.
While you’re in town, be sure to make time for a sporting event or competition at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. The Division I school has led many athletes to the big leagues.
Don’t wait until the snow melts and the flowers bloom to plan your trip.
Go and do it now at dekalbcountycvb.com.