Throughout Illinois, state parks draw outdoorsy types who like to hike, bike and ski their way through natural wonders. Wayne Fitzgerald State Park is almost entirely surrounded by Rend Lake, one of the largest outdoor playgrounds in Southern Illinois. Get a room inside the park to enjoy the hiking, fishing and boating on site, then venture out to surrounding communities with even more surprises in store.
At the lodge
Visitors to Rend Lake find plenty of lodging options, many right on the shores of the lake. Rend Lake Resort features a restaurant and lounge, tennis courts, a spa, a marina with boat launches and 21 miles of paved biking trails. Cabins and “boatels” along the shore add offbeat options, and camping is a popular choice through October.
Play a round at Rend Lake Golf Course, featuring 27 holes that bring the eastern shore of the lake into play. The course is open year-round, with discounts November–March. Pheasant Hollow Winery offers a fun way to spend an afternoon. Located in a rustic log cabin in the woods near Rend Lake, the winery hosts blues and arts festivals in the fall.
Just south of the park in Benton, history buffs enjoy two rare finds. The Franklin County Jail Museum tells the “gang era” story during Prohibition, and the Franklin County Garage & Auto Museum preserves the area’s first Ford dealership. Just north of the lake in Mt. Vernon, Rare Chop House attracts the foodie scene with its global wine list and hefty ribeyes.
Hidden away in the Rock River Valley a couple hours from Chicago, discover this oasis of old-growth pine forest. Hiking trails lead you into the midst of beautiful autumn tranquility. In the winter, the trails transform into a cross-country skier’s paradise when snow gracefully covers the white pines. Dashing through the snow on skis is the best way to explore these woodlands in the colder months.
At the lodge
After the sun goes down, White Pines Inn presents numerous December showings of Scrooge, a hilarious take on the Charles Dickens classic, at its White Pines Dinner Theatre. Running for almost 30 years, the show sells out every Christmas season. The talented players also put on a mix of comedies and musicals throughout the year.
Steps through time
History buffs will discover significant sites nearby. Ronald Reagan was born and raised in Northwest Illinois from rather humble beginnings. Most of his childhood was spent in Dixon, where his boyhood home can be toured. With 1920s furnishings, it retains its Midwestern charm. The Ronald Reagan Trail continues on with other nearby sites, including his small second-story apartment birthplace in Tampico and his college in Eureka.
Dixon day trip
While in Dixon, check out the bustling downtown with shopping and foodie treasures. Books on First is a popular bookseller and coffeehouse that provides a gathering place to see local musicians play. Friendly company and spirits flow abundantly at the Crystal Cork Wine Shoppe. For genuine Italian fare made with ingredients sourced from nearby farms, the Basil Tree Ristorante hits the spot.
The Shawnee National Forest is the crown jewel of conservation in the state. Straddling the land between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the rugged and mysterious terrain surprises many visitors. In the park, brilliant strokes of reds, purples, yellows and oranges attract fall foliage seekers. In the surrounding area, visitors enjoy horseback rides at Giant City Stables, ziplines at Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour and corn mazes at local farms.
At the lodge
In the heart of Giant City State Park, stay the night in one of its quaint prairie cabins. The rustic structures date back to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, but have been updated with all the modern conveniences. Guests rave about the family-style, all-you-can-eat fried chicken dinner served at Giant City Lodge.
Makanda to Carbondale
On the hunt for local art? The Makanda Boardwalk is home to eclectic galleries and artist studios that are open to visitors. Check out the fanciful metal statues and fountains at Rainmaker. Or stop by Allan Stuck Studio, specializing in carved gemstone jewelry that’s a hit with Hollywood celebrities. In nearby Carbondale, browse the works of more than 75 artisans at Nest Arts and visit the 6Pence shop at hipster Cristaudo’s Cafe to pick up locally made jewelry and ceramics.
Trails aren’t just for hiking around Giant City State Park. The lush environs of downstate Illinois have spawned popular agri-tours along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail and the Shawnee Hills Orchard Trail. Plan for an extended weekend to truly appreciate the bounty of the region during harvest season. Another popular getaway in the area, Walker’s Bluff in Carterville attracts foodies to its destination dining room and wine lovers to its tasting room and wine cave.
Lake Michigan’s majesty is the centerpiece of Illinois Beach State Park just an hour north of Chicago, yet this quiet stretch of shoreline feels a hundred miles away from the city. Beachcombers love idling about the park’s six miles of Lake Michigan waterfront. Playing in the waves, flying a kite or just listening to the sounds of the lake are only a few of the simple pleasures here.
At the lodge
The Illinois Beach Resort is the place to stay in the park. Outdoor adventures can easily be accessed from the resort. Overlooking the shoreline, the hotel is greeted by glorious sunrises that get the day off to a great start.
Though most visit for the beach, venturing into the woods and sand dunes allows for uninterrupted solitude. Hopping on an old-fashioned beach cruiser is an exhilarating way to enjoy a slow ride through the park’s paved and gravel trails. The North Unit opens up for cross-country skiing in the wintertime. The Shanty, a popular restaurant near the park in Wadsworth, has all the fresh seafood and steaks visitors need to cap off a day’s adventures.
Back to civilization
In nearby communities, visit several major attractions. Gurnee Mills is one of the largest outlet malls in Illinois, with 200 stores that span the spectrum of shopping. It’s located near Six Flags Great America, the biggest theme park in the state. The historic Genesee Theatre in Waukegan is the hub of culture and entertainment in the area, where top musical artists and nationally known comedians perform throughout the year.
Perched above the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, Pere Marquette State Park draws both adventurous and laid-back travelers. The park’s scenic drive has numerous overlooks allowing for quiet reflection and appreciation of nature. The road between Grafton and Alton is arguably the most picturesque stretch in the Midwest, with astonishing views of the Mississippi River framed alongside towering bluffs that loom 200 feet above the road.
At the lodge
The storybook Pere Marquette Lodge has spacious accommodations along with cozy cottages that make the perfect base camp for exploration of great rivers country. Spend some time warming up by the massive stone fireplace of the Great Room and playing on the life-size chess set.
Grafton to Alton
Nearby in Grafton, try a delectable dish and drink at Grafton Winery & Brewhaus. At Aerie’s Riverview Winery, have a leisurely dinner on the patio overlooking the Mississippi or race down the two-mile-long zip line. Americana treasures are everywhere in Alton’s Antique District, which is the epicenter of vintage shopping. For an authentic, roadhouse-style burger and beer joint, head to Fast Eddie’s Bon Air, where there’s live music every evening.
Winter landscapes are gorgeous in the Alton–Grafton area, especially at the height of bald eagle season. Pere Marquette State Park offers guided tours through the area. The eagles have even inspired an annual Bald Eagle Festival at the park, which includes birds of prey shows and live music.