NWQ Getaways: Winter 2024 Edition

A weekend’s journey is closer than you might think. Check out these fun destinations that are close to home but still feel so far away.

DeKalb County: It’s ‘Snow’ Much Fun to Play this Winter

By Pat Szpekowski

There’s no stopping the fun in DeKalb County, even in the prime of winter. Snowbird fun takes on a whole new meaning here when the celebration is all about snow, sledding and a whole lot more.

“We will once again have our annual Polar-Palooza Winter Festival hosted by the DeKalb Park District,” says Katherine McLaughlin, marketing director for the DeKalb County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It will take place on Saturday, Feb. 3 from noon to 3 p.m., and it’s brimming with a fun-filled variety of free outdoor festival features at Hopkins Park in DeKalb.”

There are so many things to do during this year’s family-friendly event. The kids will love to watch the sports demonstrations and sled dog demonstrations, and they’re sure to enjoy the dog “meet ‘n’ greets” with Free Spirit Siberian Husky Rescue.

The whole family can bundle up for a good old-fashioned winter hayride, which is followed by blazing bonfires, hot chocolate and melting s’mores.

Make time for some sledding and ice skating, weather permitting, during Polar-Palooza. Some activities have a limited supply of equipment available.

If you can’t make it out to the snow-filled Polar-Palooza, the excitement of outdoor adventures fills the abundance of forest preserves in DeKalb County. The Great Western Trail follows more than 17 miles of recreation path. This time of year, it’s a favorite for snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. It’s easy to rent snow gear like snowshoes, skis and ice skates through NIU Outdoor Adventures, which supplies many winter activities.

If you prefer being warm indoors, a trip for lively entertainment at the Historic Egyptian Theatre in Downtown DeKalb is for you. Before you even enjoy a performance, you’ll marvel at the breathtaking beauty of this venue, which opened in 1929. It hosts a wide variety of acts, including the Liverpool Legends on Feb. 16 and the very energetic Gaelic Storm and the High Kings, who together celebrate pre-Saint Patrick’s Day fun on March 8.

As you get closer to shaking your shamrocks and hoisting an ale, it’s time for the second of DeKalb’s 12 major annual festivals. “Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at Fatty’s Bar & Grill in DeKalb,” notes McLaughlin. “Take part in the 0.1K Run with a quick sprint around the parking lot. Yes, it’s the world’s shortest run/walk at only 328 feet.”

The leprechauns in DeKalb surely have a sense of humor. After your “strenuous” jaunt, enjoy delicious warmups, platters, sandwiches, wings and more. There’s a hearty beer menu list to satisfy any preference from light to dark.

With a full calendar of events in DeKalb County during the cold season, set your calendars to attend the 2024 Illinois Elementary School Association (IESA) State Wrestling Finals at Northern Illinois University’s Convocation Center in DeKalb on March 8-9. The event is hosted locally by the DeKalb Wrestling Club, and DeKalb County has been the site of the IESA State Wrestling Finals since 1999.

Make the winter season a fun and active one. Find more to explore at dekalbcvb.com.

Starved Rock Lodge: Walking in a Winter Wonderland

By Kathy Casstevens, marketing manager, Starved Rock Lodge

Celebrate the best of winter with a getaway to Starved Rock Lodge, near Oglesby. Enjoy a luxury stay for Valentine’s Day, wedding anniversaries or any time you want to raise a toast to life’s memorable moments.

Love is in the air and on the entertainment calendar at Starved Rock Lodge this winter. There are many tribute shows to enjoy this year, including “Dream Lover! Vintage Songs of Love.” Reservations are required for matinee shows. A hot lunch buffet is included.

Let Starved Rock Lodge do the driving when you book an overnight package for the Trolley Trio Progressive Dinner, held on Feb. 15, March 21 and April 25. Starved Rock Lodge has teamed up with August Hill and Camp Aramoni to create a fun and unforgettable event filled with wine, spirits and food tastings.

On this fun-filled ride, the Starved Rock Trolley takes guests to August Hill Winery for wine tasting and appetizers before heading to Camp Aramoni for a special dinner accompanied by cocktails. To end the evening, the trolley swings back to Starved Rock Lodge for a mini trio of desserts and after-dinner drinks in the main dining room. Overnight Packages include dinner for two, an overnight stay for two at the Lodge and breakfast the following morning. Reservations are required and guests must be 21 or older to attend.

During winter, majestic bald eagles come to Starved Rock Lodge to hunt for fish in the nearby Illinois River. Bald Eagle Trolley Tours run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in January and February. The tour begins with lunch, and then guests ride the trolley to the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center for eagle viewing and an educational program. Dress warmly and don’t forget to bring binoculars and a camera.

Speaking of eagles, Eagle Watch Weekend is a free, family-friendly two-day event on Jan. 27 and 28. New this year, experience an up-close-and-personal opportunity to interact with live birds and their handler. Attend a “Birds of Prey” Show, pick up tips from professional nature photographers, bring the children to hear stories and make an eagle-inspired craft.

Guided Winter Hikes are on the calendar every Saturday and Sunday this winter. Explore the scenic canyons and frozen waterfalls that make Starved Rock State Park a must-visit experience during the winter months. You might even see bald eagles in flight.

Animal lovers adore the Winter Wildlife Trolley Tours, which run on Saturdays and Sundays through January and March. This tour explores Buffalo Rock State Park, home of three resident bison. Then, the tour travels to the Illinois Waterway Visitors Center observation deck for some eagle watching. Trolley riders are treated to a narrated history while they marvel at legends of the park and its surrounding area. Guests also receive a sack lunch to enjoy on the ride.

Make Starved Rock State Park your winter wonderland or to plan your spring break retreat go to starvedrocklodge.com.

Rock Falls: Where Eagles Soar and Artists Roar

This lovely city along the Rock River welcomes visitors to play, stay and explore throughout the year. Rock Falls never skips a beat when it comes to celebrating nature and its local arts, culture and music. It’s also the place to go if you want to watch eagles soar through the sky.

“Attend the Flock to the Rock ‘24 on Feb. 10 any time before 10 a.m. and you’ll get a close-up look of eagles as they fly around the Rock River and Lawrence Park in Rock Falls,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism & events for the City of Rock Falls Tourism Department. “It’s a rare and unforgettable sight.”

Northern Illinois Raptor Rehab & Education is on hand all weekend to showcase selected birds of prey, provide live demonstrations and give a talk. Visitors can also learn about the cultural impact eagles have had on the region.

“You can watch ice sculptor Robert Storm do live ice carvings,” says Jones, “and Rudy Vallejo will perform American Indian dances and talk about how the bald eagle represents the Native Americans.”

The fun comes with plenty of refreshments to enjoy, including bagels by Toast & Plate and hot drinks to warm you up.

Visitors of all ages are invited to tune up and enjoy the talented musical excitement surrounding this year’s 10th Annual Percussion Palooza, set for Feb. 25 at Rock Falls High School.

“This event brings 200-plus middle and high school students from schools up to 100 miles away,” says Jones. “It’s a great event that involves not only competition but also educational aspects with judges giving feedback to students on their performances. During this event, someone will be recognized with the prestigious Louie Bellson award.”

A Premier Showcase features formal exhibitions by a number of respected high school and regional percussion ensembles from the northern Illinois and eastern Iowa areas.

Percussion Palooza honors the musical spirit and legacy of Rock Falls’ native son, Louie Bellson. The famed percussionist performed with some of the greatest jazz musicians on the planet, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Bellson was a talented drummer and wrote more than 1,000 compositions and arrangements in a variety of musical styles. One of Bellson’s drum sets will be on display throughout Percussion Palooza.

Around this same time, Woodlawn Arts Academy in nearby Sterling presents the artwork of area K-12 students and their teachers. The event is free and open to the public during regular business hours from Feb. 23 through April 26.

“This exhibit is located in the halls and lounge at Woodlawn Arts Academy, a premier arts-based, educational institution of the Sauk Valley area,” says Jones.

Arrange your schedule and hear the right notes this winter season. Start planning now at visitrockfalls.com.

Ottawa: A Town that’s Always Ripe with Adventure

By Pat Szpekowski

Taking a trip to Ottawa is a special treat any time of the year. Spring, summer and fall are lush with sun-filled activities like boating, swimming, biking and hitting the greens. Winter, on the other hand, shows you an entirely different side to this community.

“Our winter scenery and activities are just as vibrant and tempting during the cold months,” says Donna Reynolds, executive director of the Ottawa Visitors Center. “For outdoor enthusiasts who prefer chilly temperatures, our area’s four state parks take high adventures to the next level. Then, after enjoying vigorous activities, stay in Ottawa to warm up overnight or for the weekend. We have a diverse culinary scene to fuel your desire for more.”

Ottawa is home to the nearby Starved Rock, Buffalo Rock, Matthiessen and Illini state parks. Each of these destinations offers spectacular bluffs, trails, and the miracles of snowy and frozen nature scenes that are ready for you to behold. Gather your family and friends, bundle up and get ready for the time of your life. Don’t miss out on breathtaking views you won’t see anywhere else in Illinois.
Just 90 miles from Chicago and the Rockford area, Starved Rock is a special place to explore. Who knew you could get up close and see towering frozen waterfalls that appear to be suspended in time? Or snow and ice-covered canyons that you’d only expect to see in picture postcards from the past?

Navigate carefully through the trails to see the frozen waterfalls. The LaSalle Canyon Waterfall is the shortest at about 20 feet. Wildcat Canyon, however, is home to the tallest, where Ottawa Canyon Waterfall puts on a full winter show. It’s a gift nature develops from the work of rolling streams and limestone. Check out all of the details and important information first at the Starved Rock Visitors Center, which is open all year.

The state parks also provide plenty of room to enjoy winter hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice climbing and more. Look for sightings of the mighty bald eagles that soar past the Illinois River and above Starved Rock.

“With special amenities and convenient locations, stay at the wide variety of hotels in Ottawa that are ready to keep you comfortable and warm,” adds Reynolds.

While you’re there, check out the active culinary scene in Ottawa. No matter what you are craving, the choices are endless. Ethnic delights are readily available. Bash Burger and Sushi House is just one example, as it offers signature drinks, ales and wine to complement a full menu that includes – at just a glimpse – sushi rolls, burgers, hot chicken sandwiches, creole mac and cheese, and much more. Pubs, lounges and wine bars offer their own special twists to tempt any appetite and bring comfort after a cold day exploring the canyons and frozen woods.

And while you’re in downtown Ottawa, spend some time shopping and supporting the locals. Their stores offer a delightful array of unique must-take-home gifts.

Who says there’s nothing to do in winter? Surely, they’ve never seen Ottawa. Visit pickusottawail.com to start planning.