NWQ Getaways: Summer 2023 Edition

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.

DeKalb County: The Ultimate Summer Getaway is Here

By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor

As the warm embrace of summer envelops the picturesque landscapes of DeKalb County, an array of unique experiences beckon visitors to embark on an unforgettable summer getaway.

“There’s a lot happening here in the summer,” says Katherine McLaughlin, marketing director for DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have 14 communities including Genoa, Sycamore, DeKalb and Sandwich that have beautiful downtown areas with plenty to do.”

Kicking things off, car enthusiasts will be delighted by the Turning Back Time Car Show, a grand spectacle that takes over downtown Sycamore on July 30. Witness the streets come alive as an impressive array of classic cars takes centerstage.

The 66th annual Sycamore Steam Show, held Aug. 10-13 at Taylor Marshall Farm, presents a unique opportunity to step back in time and explore vintage engines and locomotives on parade.
“The parade is neat because all of these locomotives go by and you have an announcer saying where they came from, how old each one is and little facts like how much coal they burn,” says McLaughlin. “It’s a fun experience different than anything else.”

If you’re a lover of art, history and culture, immerse yourself in the mesmerizing beauty of barn quilts during the DeKalb County Barn Quilt Tours on Aug. 12. Explore the charming Pierce Township area as you try to find all of the vibrant quilt patterns adorning area barns. Each tells a story of this land. For another historical adventure, visit the Glidden Homestead and delve into the fascinating legacy of Joseph Glidden, one of the inventors of barbed wire.

Nature enthusiasts find solace in the county’s abundant outdoor recreation. Start by traversing the scenic trails of Afton Forest Preserve, a sprawling 316-acre haven that offers grassy paths, picturesque overlooks and enchanting bridges. Along the Kishwaukee River, indulge in kayaking and canoeing, and soak in the beauty of nature at your own pace. Northern Illinois University Outdoor Adventures provides rentals on everything from kayaks and canoes to camping gear and bikes.

When it comes to culinary delights, DeKalb County boasts a vibrant food scene. Savor unique bites at the newly opened The Grove in DeKalb, a whiskey bar offering dishes like salmon flatbread and shrimp po’boys.

Bull Moose Bar and Grille in Sandwich sets diners in a truly special setting: a Pullman train car once occupied by President Theodore Roosevelt. The menu includes fresh potato skins, chicken pesto sandwiches and blackened tuna fillets.

What sets DeKalb County apart is the harmonious blend of open spaces and thriving downtown areas. Here, you can bask in the tranquility of nature while relishing the vibrancy of communities like Sycamore, DeKalb and Sandwich, with their charming downtown scenes and captivating local atmospheres.

“We’re a little more spread out, but at the same time, you’re only a few blocks away from shopping or one of 12 forest preserves, and you don’t have to drive very far to reach them,” says McLaughlin. “You can go hiking in the morning and on your way out you can grab a craft coffee from your local coffee brewer.”

Start planning your escape now at dekalbcountycvb.com.

Starved Rock Lodge: Say Yes to Summer Fun in the Woods

By Kathy Casstevens, marketing director, Starved Rock Lodge

Get ready for a summer of fun at Starved Rock Lodge, near Oglesby, Ill. Live music fills the air every Friday and on select Saturdays through Labor Day, providing the soundtrack for the sun-filled days ahead.

Historic Trolley Tours are the best way to see the beauty of Starved Rock Country. Learn about the rich history of this unique part of Illinois as you travel to the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, see the lock and dam, and tour the Starved Rock State Park Visitor Center. Tours run Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, with two tours on Sunday.

The Land & Water Cruise runs from June to September on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This tour begins with lunch in the Lodge’s restaurant followed by a narrated trolley tour. Learn about Starved Rock’s history and legends of the area. The trolley takes passengers to Starved Rock Lodge’s boat, Eagle 1, to see the east end of Starved Rock State Park by water.

To explore the park on foot, the Take a Hike & A Lunch guided hikes are offered each Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Hikers discover Starved Rock’s canyons, bluffs and seasonal waterfalls on this 3-mile round-trip guided hike. Listen as the guide tells stories of how Starved Rock got its name along with other legends of the area. Hikers break for lunch at the halfway point and enjoy a choice of turkey, ham or veggie wrap, snacks and bottled water.

The most popular combination of a river cruise and hike is the Visit a Canyon & A Boat Ride experience, which runs from June to September on Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Guests board the trolley with a guide and head to the entrance of one of Starved Rock’s most scenic canyons. Following the hike, relax on the picturesque Illinois River. A snack, bottle of water and souvenir drawstring backpack are included with this experience.

Up for a water adventure? The Waterfowl Cruise, running June to October on Saturdays and Sundays, takes you to Lone Point Shelter to enjoy an hour-long boat ride where you will see the waterfowl of the Illinois River.

New this season is the Sunset Cruise aboard the Sainte Genevieve sternwheeler on select Thursdays from June to September. Enjoy a relaxing late-day cruise down the beautiful Illinois River.

If you’d like to do something special with the kids before they go back to school, treat them to the Lodge’s Summer Sendoff on Aug. 13. This fun-filled event includes games, crafts, face painting and a balloon artist. A sack lunch of either a peanut butter and jelly or a ham and cheese sandwich is included.

For more information or to book a getaway, visit starvedrocklodge.com.

Elkhorn, Wis.: Small-Town Charm Meets Summer Fun

By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor

Looking for a summer getaway that offers outdoor activities and a small-town vibe? Look no further than Elkhorn, Wis. Known for its hospitality, quaint downtown, farm connections and unfettered access to nature, Elkhorn is a day tripper’s dream.

Many a weekend adventure begins at Apple Barn Orchard & Winery, one of the area’s top attractions. Visitors can pick fresh strawberries in the summer and apples in the fall while also shopping for souvenirs and enjoying a wine tasting.

For beer lovers, Duesterbeck’s Brewing Co. is a must-see experience. The brewery and tap room, located in a rebuilt model of a barn from the late 1800s, offers refreshing brews and live music. The outdoor pavilion is an ideal spot to take in a beautiful sunset, says Kate Abbe, marketing director for the Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce and an Elkhorn resident for more than three decades.

For all things shopping, check out the latest trends or get a custom fit at J. Roberts Menswear, located a stone’s throw from Veterans Park in downtown Elkhorn. For a dining experience with a topiary twist, Planthropology offers fresh-brewed coffees and lunch items while doubling as a plant store where you can find and pot a new house plant.

Just north of Elkhorn, Alpine Valley Resort offers more than 8 miles of unique mountain biking trails that wind through lush forests and meadows. The resort also has a robust golf course, disc golf and plenty of summer events for the family to enjoy. Next door, the Alpine Valley Music Theatre hosts big-name performers in an outdoor amphitheater. This year’s lineup includes the likes of Willie Nelson and Robert Plant.

For those who want to bask in the beauty of the natural world, Kettle Moraine State Forest features more than 22,000 acres of forested hills, lakes and prairies. The White River Trail is also a hiking haven, Abbe says.

“The White River State Trail has a 12-mile section between Elkhorn and Burlington where you can walk, bike or ride a horse,” she says.

Meanwhile, Elkhorn hosts a variety of summer events. Elkhorn Truck and Shuck, on July 29, brings people together to roast locally sourced sweet corn and enjoy food truck fun. DAS Fest USA is a German festival that runs Aug. 4-6 and offers great beer, German bands and Dachshund races.

Finally, be sure to check out Saturdays on the Square, a farmers market that runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It offers a variety of fresh produce and local artisan crafts.

Whatever you decide to do, a visit to Elkhorn will prove the “Christmas Card Town” has plenty to do in the summer.

“We still have that small, hometown feel but with the ability to have a lot of big-fun experiences, be it outdoor fun or events,” says Abbe. “Being in Elkhorn gives you access to all that Walworth County has to offer. It puts everything at your fingertips, from eating all of the food and shopping all of the shops to hiking, biking, fishing and everything in between.”

Chart your adventure by heading over to visitelkhorn.com.

Ottawa, Ill.: Yours to Discover

By Jim Taylor, managing editor

In the heart of LaSalle County, nestled along the banks of the Illinois River, Ottawa, is a day tripper’s paradise just waiting to be explored.

“Ottawa is a great place to visit all year round,” says Donna Reynolds, tourism operation manager at the Ottawa Visitors Center. “But it’s really special to visit us in the summer, where there is so much to do, both indoors and outdoors,” says Reynolds.

For outdoor fun, Ottawa should be on every hiker’s, biker’s and nature lover’s list. Located just minutes from four state parks and a beautiful forest preserve, Ottawa truly is nature’s playground located “in the middle of everywhere.”

Dayton Bluffs Forest Preserve, located less than 4 miles from Ottawa, is a captivating retreat for exploration and natural beauty filled with stunning landscapes, diverse wildlife and plenty of opportunities for fun.

“Dayton Bluffs is a beautiful hike no matter what time of year,” says Reynolds. “The preserve is a labor of love by the wonderful volunteers who work diligently to thin out vegetation and make the area truly preserved for all to enjoy.”

Spanning 253 acres of virtually untouched land, Dayton Bluffs offers a breathtaking cornucopia of woodlands, prairies and bluffs that overlook the Fox River. As visitors explore the nature trails, they can lose themselves without getting lost. Dayton Bluffs’ diverse topography is suitable for hikers of many abilities, and it’s enticing to photographers trying to capture a memory of the beauty. Picnic areas dot the landscape, so families can commune with nature while refueling for the day. Reynolds also points out that there are several new amenities at Dayton Bluffs, including a newly built observation deck.  

Outdoor explorers may also want to head to the Ottawa Riverwalk, which meanders its way along the Fox and Illinois rivers, through a few of Ottawa’s 21 parks and along the I&M Canal. A 15-mile walking path along the canal reveals stunning scenery of sandstone bluffs and shimmering lakes.

“If hiking is your thing, you’ll love Ottawa,” says Reynolds. “A walk along the I&M Canal, which turns 175 years old this year, or the riverwalk is good for the soul.”

All of this exploring is sure to work up an appetite. Luckily, downtown Ottawa is bursting with locally owned eateries that serve delicious cuisine from around the world.

Reynolds counts Inigia Pizzeria Napoletana and Woody’s Steakhouse as two of her favorites.
“From the house-made burrata to the Mais or Mexican Corn pizza, to the deconstructed lemon olive oil cake, I’m in heaven,” she says of Inigia Pizzeria Napoletana. “A steak Diane and a chocolate martini from Woody’s Steakhouse also make me happy.”

Start planning your escape now at pickusottawail.com.

Lee County: A Wonderful-Lee Fun Summer Retreat

By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor

Lee County unveils a treasure trove of captivating attractions and experiences that make it an ideal destination for a summer getaway. With its rich historical tapestry, vibrant festivals, breathtaking natural landscapes and delectable culinary scene, Lee County promises a memorable vacation – or weekend outing – for visitors of all ages.

“I’ve lived in Lee County almost all my life,” says Diane Nicholson, executive director of Lee County Tourism Council. “When you’ve lived here and been in this job as long as I have, everything seems fun to do.”

History enthusiasts are often enthralled by a visit to the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home, in Dixon. This fully restored house offers a glimpse into the life of the former president during his childhood in the 1920s. Knowledgeable volunteer docents provide informative tours, and there’s a virtual tour for those with mobility constraints.

Lee County hosts an array of festivals that infuse an extra dose of charm into any visit. The Franklin Grove Harvest Festival, held Aug. 5-6 and featuring the Living History Antique Equipment Association show, presents demonstrations of vintage farming techniques. The Big Rig Show, held at Chaplin Creek Village on Aug. 5, showcases semi-trucks while supporting the Shriners Hospitals for Children Transportation Fund.

Meanwhile, Amboy Depot Days on Aug. 24-27 captivates visitors with a lively atmosphere encompassing craft and vendor shows, live entertainment and the renowned Depot Days Car Show – one of the Midwest’s largest.

“They have all types of cars,” says Nicholson. “They do motorcycles and even have a category for trucks. It’s been going on for more than 30 years.”

If you’re an outdoorsy person, Lee County has much to offer. Lowell Park in Dixon is a sprawling city park with picturesque winding roads that lead to stunning overlooks and picnic areas by the river. For horseback riders, Franklin Creek State Natural Area provides dedicated equestrian trails and a camping area maintained by the Rock River Trail & Horseman Association.

When it comes to accommodations, Lee County leaves no stone unturned. People who enjoy camping are delighted by the abundance of options, with five campgrounds within a 10-mile radius of the Amboy/Sublette area. Woodhaven Lakes, in Sublette, is a private recreational camp resort community with amenities on-site and themed weekend events that make for a truly fun-filled experience.

Lee County’s culinary scene is a delight for foodies. The Lincoln Way Café in Franklin Grove is renowned for its homemade soups and rolls – especially mouthwatering pies that often sell out. Kristie’s Sweet Treats in Ashton has a hot pink walk-up window that serves delectable ice cream specialties like caramel salted pretzels and chocolate sundae crunch.

“If you want to try something new, Kristie’s deep-fried funnel cake peaches are out of this world,” says Nicholson. “I went there with some friends and two of us split one and we almost couldn’t finish half.”

For those who enjoy shopping, Lee County boasts several standout options. Uncommon Reign in Amboy offers a diverse range of boutique items, while Lea B’s Creations Furniture in Ashton specializes in repurposed furniture and home decor. Amboy Sporting Goods is a local store stocked with hunting, fishing and archery gear, including rare items like trapping and muzzle-loading gear.
However, the true essence of Lee County lies in its people. Known for their warm and welcoming nature, the locals have a genuine knack for making visitors feel right at home.

“You stop someone on the street and they’ll probably have a 10-minute conversation with you,” says Nicholson. “They take an interest in life and everything going on around them, and when that’s all you know, you don’t think there’s something unusual about it. That’s just how people operate here.”

Start planning your getaway now at leecountyfun.com.

Rock Falls, Ill.: Summer’s Hidden Gem is Just Downstream

By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor

It may not have the glitz, glamour and towering skyscrapers of a big city, but that’s one of many reasons people love their summer getaways to Rock Falls, Ill., and its slice of the Rock River Valley. Family-owned eateries, natural settings, family attractions and a multitude of events are only part of what make this a city worth visiting.

“It’s truly a hidden treasure in the middle of nowhere between the Quad Cities and Rockford,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events in Rock Falls. “There’s lots of lodging, food and all kinds of events all summer.”

For those looking for a destination with summer entertainment, Rock Falls doesn’t disappoint.
Festivities kick off with Eats ‘N’ Beats at RB&W District Park, a food truck festival featuring live bands and plenty of eclectic eats on July 29 and Aug. 11.

“It’s similar to a Food Truck Friday, but we changed the name because we have one on a Saturday,” says Jones.

For a deeper sampling of the local cuisine, Jones recommends fine dining at The Industrial, near the banks of the Rock River. The upscale menu features delicious delicacies like bruschetta with prosciutto, locally raised wagyu and nut-crusted halibut. A few blocks over, Touch of Thai 2 offers a more relaxed dining experience with authentic Thai dishes that combine Old World recipes with fresh ingredients. Menu offerings include crispy tofu, pho beef noodle soup and spicy basil fried rice.

Overnight lodging in Rock Falls is a breeze, with options located right next to RB&W District Park. For a more casual stay, Jones suggests Crystal Lake RV Park, where campers can remain comfy inside their RVs and take a dip in the nearby Crystal Lake. The neighboring town of Sterling, Ill., also offers camping along the Rock River at various locations such as Ruffit Park and Crow Valley campgrounds.

While you’re down by the river, be sure to check out the sculptures on display at RB&W District Park. Some of these intriguing masses of metal depart on Sept. 2 to make room for eight new, temporary statues.

About that same time, the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall pays a visit to Rock Falls. This monument to our nation’s heroes is a touring, 3/5 scale replica of the memorial in Washington, D.C. Its visit from Aug. 31 to Sept. 4 includes an escort and opening ceremony with a closing ceremony on Sept. 3.

Recreation is never far from mind in Rock Falls. The historic Hennepin Feeder Canal features kayaking, fishing, hiking and biking along its waters, and starting this year visitors will also find kayak rentals.

“It comes with everything: the kayak, the life jacket, the paddles and the dolly to take the kayak from the cages down to the launch,” Jones says. “You can also rent a bike at RB&W District Park and ride down the Hennepin, so if you come to Rock Falls and you don’t have a bike or kayak, we’ve got you covered.”

To start planning your weekend escape, check out visitrockfalls.com.