A Visit to Lee County: This Destination Feels ‘Just Far Enough’

In this land where natural wonders abound and outdoor adventures await behind every corner, it’s easy to feel like you’re even farther from the hustle and bustle of home than you really are.

The visitors center at Nachusa Grasslands includes interpretive signage that introduces the wild landscape and free-roaming bison herd that reside within this impressive 4,100-acre nature preserve in Lee County.

With the intriguing motto of “A getaway doesn’t have to be far away,” the people of Lee County recognize their slice of Illinois is full of memorable adventures.

This stop along the Rock River may be best known for its biggest city, Dixon, Ill., but there’s much to be found in every corner of Lee County, from Amboy, Ashton and Franklin Grove to Paw Paw, Sublette and beyond.

“Once you arrive here to your destination, that’s when you’ll experience the ‘fun-expected,’” says Diane Nicholson, executive director of the Lee County Tourism Council.

Best of all, some of the most surprising destinations involve a good dose of fresh air and green space – which come in abundance here.

“We hope that our visitors will experience the re-energizing effects of exploring the great outdoors,” Nicholson says. “Lee County is filled with a variety of campgrounds, an abundance of nature, history and outdoor adventures.”

In fact, Lee County has more campsites per capita than anywhere else in the country with approximately 7,000 campsites, says Nicholson.

That’s a lot of space to spread out, cook out, and gaze up at the twinkling night sky. Choose from five campgrounds within a 10-mile radius and decide whether you want to fish, swim, hike or relax – or do a little bit of it all.

The Green River Oaks Resort just might be one of Illinois’ most beautiful resorts, tucked into 130 acres overflowing with majestic oaks and pines. The Mendota Hills Campgrounds offers large lakefront and wooded sites. The Pine View Campground sits on 36 acres providing family-style camping with one pond for swimming and another for fishing. O’Connell’s RV Campground in Amboy is convenient and inviting for family and friends. Woodhaven Lakes, a private recreational camping resort, offers the opportunity to own a campsite.

If you enjoy being surrounded by nature but prefer indoor lodging, there are several delightful options – and none of them looks like an ordinary hotel. The six-bedroom Woodcote Cottage, located in Lowell Park in Dixon, is operated by the Dixon Park District and has a fully stocked kitchen with appliances, dishes, flatware, pots and pans, and more. It’s a perfect place for a family get-together or reunion. Swap stories and catch up in the large great room and living room where there are two large stone fireplaces and expansive windows. Use the outside campfire site to grill out and create memories.

Outside the town of Franklin Grove is Li’l House on the Prairie, a charming cottage on the edge of a 1,000-acre south bison pasture at Nachusa Grasslands. There’s no promise the herd of nearly 100 free-ranging bison can be viewed from your window, but you never know.

Also of note are rentals at Mill Spring Cottage and Franklin Creek Cabin, where the woods and amenities abound. Both are located on the edge of Franklin Creek State Natural Area.

For the coziest experience of them all, spend a night at Lincoln Way: A Destination Inn, an upscale bed-and-breakfast situated in a historic house and a small-town setting.

Of course, if you’re going to spend the night you have to make the most of the daytime, too, and it’s hard to resist the wonders that envelop Lee County’s natural spaces. Thousands of acres of dedicated wilderness are packed with distinctive landscapes and trails perfectly suited for hiking or biking. Maybe you’ll even try horseback riding, bring your binoculars to discover the bison or take up birding to see eagles, hawks and other birds in action.

The 4,100-acre Nachusa Grasslands preserve, home of the roaming bison, is managed by the Nature Conservancy, a global environmental organization. This preserve is marked by grand views, as it’s one of the largest and most biologically diverse grasslands in Illinois – not to mention home to the bison herd. This expansive landscape is being restored so visitors can truly enjoy the large remnant prairie, woodlands and wetlands. An outdoor visitor center, filled with informational interpretive panels, is open daily from dawn to dusk.

The Illinois Audubon Society purchased the Amboy Marsh Nature Preserve in 2012 to ensure permanent protection of this rare and fragile portion of the Green River Lowlands section of the Grand Prairie Division. Located in southeastern Lee County, this 302-acre wetland is interspersed with black oak and savannas, sedge meadows and dry sand prairie. Its magnificent characteristics and vibrant colors change with the seasons, always amid an abundance of water that seeps from the side of the sand dunes.

The Illinois Audubon Society also owns 395 acres of the former Green Wing Environmental Laboratory, once owned by Augustana College. The parcel, located within 2 miles of Amboy Marsh, was dedicated as the Gremel Wildlife Sanctuary in 2017. Funding for the acquisition and ongoing stewardship of Gremel Wildlife Sanctuary is provided by longtime Illinois Audubon Society member Russell Gremel and the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. Trails are open from dawn to dusk.

Another treasured location is the Franklin Creek State Natural Area in Franklin Grove, located just east of Dixon. Hiking and seasonal cross-country skiing and snowmobile trails, along with equestrian trails, meander through this 1,015-acre park as Franklin Creek freely flows throughout. This area was beloved by the late John Husar, a well-known sports writer and columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

“Husar and his wife, Louise, purchased property adjacent to the Franklin Creek State Natural Area and sadly, he passed away before his retirement cabin was complete,” says Nicholson. “He will always be remembered here with the John Husar Hiking Trail and handicap-accessible John Husar Fishing Pier.”

For an entirely different take on the natural landscape, how about playing a round of disc golf? It’s anybody’s game and the Dixon Park District has two courses: a nine-hole option at Lowell Park and an 18-hole setup at Page Park. It’s a fun sport for any age as players throw a disc at a target, hoping to hit it with as few throws as possible.

For all of the active pursuits Lee County has to offer, it also boasts a summer festival lineup that’s “just far enough” to enjoy a leisurely weekend soaking up small-town America.

Do you enjoy an event that’s different, entertaining and perhaps educational, too?

Dixon Petunia Festival, which runs June 30-July 4 this year, offers music, food and games in downtown Dixon. Don’t miss the explosion of pink petunias planted along more than 2 miles of Galena Avenue throughout the summer. This stretch of colorful landscaping has earned Dixon the honor and recognition as Illinois’ official “Petunia City.” It’s a sight to behold.

Amboy Depot Days on Aug. 24-27 is not just a fun festival. It’s also a feast for the eyes with hundreds of unique cars, trucks and motorcycles on display along the streets of downtown Amboy. The event goes hand-in-hand with the Amboy Depot Museum, a fun trip through local and railroad history at the former depot and division headquarters of the Illinois Central Railroad.

For more information on festivals, recreational excitement, family activities, overnight stays and more, start exploring at leecountyfun.com.

“We welcome everyone to visit our beautiful Lee County,” says Nicholson. “Enjoy the rich abundance of nature here, our fun festivals, and learn about significant local history at our museums. Lee County is truly a getaway destination that isn’t far away.”