Illinois is the heart of the Midwest and a place where adventures abound. From waterfall hikes to prairie safaris to Abe Lincoln pilgrimages, the diversity of what you can find here is unrivaled. And the great news: many of these experiences can be sampled in an easy weekend getaway. These are some of the best quick trips across the state.
Starved Rock State Park
LaSalle Falls, one of the many magical spots at Starved Rock State Park. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Sweeping sandstone formations, scenic bluffs, towering canyons, and gushing waterfalls — all less than two hours from Chicago. Starved Rock is one of the greatest outdoor treasures in the Midwest. This natural nirvana hugging the Illinois River is free to visit and boasts well-maintained trails year-round (plus bald eagles in winter!). Arrive early to have magical spots such as the Wildcat Canyon and LaSalle Canyon to yourself. To really savor its 2,600-plus acres, spend the night in the nearby towns of Utica or Ottawa. Or stay within the park at the Starved Rock Lodge; just be sure to book well in advance.
The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. (Photo: Shutterstock)
The state motto for Illinois is “Land of Lincoln,” but no town does the 16th U.S. president prouder than the state capital of Springfield. It’s where Abraham Lincoln practiced law and politics before heading to the White House. In summer, Civil War-era re-enactors (including Abe himself) descend on Lincoln sites across Springfield. But the charming, pedestrian-friendly downtown district is the centerpiece of most Lincoln pilgrimages, as it’s home to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. It’s no run-of-the-mill presidential museum: Innovative technology and storytelling bring to life tales of slavery, the Civil War, as well as Lincoln’s life and tumultuous presidency. It’s also home to an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Adorable old-timey shops and galleries line Main Street. (Photo: VisitGalena.org)
A throwback to a simpler time, Galena (population: 3,500) is a serene contrast to the modern-day rush and a popular romantic getaway. Tuck into a charming B&B before setting off to explore the art galleries and antique shops along its Main Street, where century-old buildings make you feel as though you’ve stepped into an old-time movie. More shopping awaits in local businesses tucked into the hills around town, with purveyors selling everything from organic blueberries to handmade furniture. Foodies could easily spend a day touring nearby wineries, such as the award-winning Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery and Massbach Ridge Winery, before enjoying dinner at one of Galena’s family-owned restaurants. Or relax with no set plans at all: Spend the day meandering the scenic roads and nature trails surrounding town. The landscape evokes the Irish countryside.
Illinois Amish Country
Tour the beautiful countryside of central Illinois and learn about the Amish culture with Amish Adventures. (Photo: Amish Adventures)
Horse-and-buggies mingle with automobiles on expansive country roads between Arcola, home to the largest Amish settlement in Illinois, and the neighboring town of Arthur. The nearly 20 square miles of Amish countryside make for scenic drives, a tranquil contrast to buzzing Chicago, just two-and-a-half hours away. For intimate access into Amish life, join a tour through Amish Adventures, which can arrange home-cooked meals in an Amish home and tours of a local buggy shop. Arcola is also famous for its broom making. In September, the Broom Corn Festival features a quirky downtown parade starring the “Lawn Rangers,” a precision lawn mower drill team.
Wildlife Prairie State Park
Wildlife Prairie Park is home to herds of elk, bison, and many rescue animals. (Photo: Don and Debbie Reed)
Yes, you can go on safari in Illinois! Herds of bison and elk roam some 90 acres of grassland at Wildlife Prairie Park, a not-for-profit reserve just outside of Peoria and less than three hours from Chicago. Tour the landscape and get a chance to feed Mike the Bison before exploring the rest of the park on foot. It’s unlike any big-city zoo, featuring a mix of animal sanctuaries that blend into the shaded landscape and house mostly rescue animals native to Illinois, such as otters, foxes, cougars, and bobcats. The park also features landmarks of pioneer life, such as an historic one-room schoolhouse and a log cabin. Kids will love the summertime pig races and overnighting in one of the park’s vintage train cabooses retrofitted into air-conditioned accommodations.
Thrillseekers will love the roller coasters at Six Flags Great America, especially X-Flight, the first wing coaster in America. (Photo: Jeremy Thompson/Flickr)
Gurnee is the Disneyland of Illinois. While driving less than an hour north from Chicago, the sight of the giant roller coasters off I-94 typically elicit squeals from kids in cars. (Adults, too.) The coasters belong to Six Flags Great America, home to Goliath, the world’s tallest, steepest, and fastest wooden roller coaster. Meanwhile, the water-obsessed will be interested in splashing around at Six Flags’ Hurricane Harbor. After hitting the parks, hit the largest outlet and value shopping destination in Illinois: Gurnee Mills, which boasts more than 200 stores. Where to spend the night? KeyLime Cove Indoor Waterpark Resort, for a fun and water-filled stay.
The Woodstock Opera House achieved Hollywood fame after being featured in “Groundhog Day.” (Photo: Shutterstock)
In Woodstock, you can walk in the footsteps of Bill Murray. His movie “Groundhog Day” helped to put this charming town on the map, as much of its filming took place here. Although that was more than 20 years ago, the movie continues to draw visitors to its historic town square, lined with cobblestone streets and shops tailor-made for a lazy afternoon stroll. Time a trip with the Woodstock Mozart Festival, the seasonal farmers’ market, or — of course — the annual Groundhog Day Festival in February.
Anderson Japanese Gardens, Rockford
Authentic Japanese gardens in Rockford. (Photo: Anderson Japanese Gardens/Facebook)
Find your zen in Rockford. An authentic Japanese garden designed by renowned master designer Hoichi Kurisu transports visitors to another world. It’s like stepping into a watercolor painting. Stroll a landscape of stone, water, plants, bridges, and pagodas, to the harmony of trickling waterfalls and chirping birds. If you can’t time a visit with the Japanese Summer Festival (Aug. 22-23), then consider joining a session of Tai Chi or Bujikan (a system of martial arts), or tea ceremonies that are offered regularly in spring and summer.
For more information about traveling in Illinois, visit enjoyillinois.com.