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August 21, 2017


Seven Natural Wonders of Northwest Illinois

From hiking to kayaking to gazing at the stars, plenty of natural wonders surround the town of Galena in northwest Illinois.

Quincy Koetz

Seven Natural Wonders of Northwest Illinois

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Nature, history, and luxury all seem to coalesce whenever we're in Galena. Long renowned for its status as a rural retreat for Chicagoland travelers, the small town continues to retain its quaint charm and history.

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Nature, history, and luxury all seem to coalesce whenever we're in Galena. 

Long renowned for its status as a rural retreat for Chicagoland travelers, the small town continues to retain its quaint charm and history. My wife, Dee, and I just can’t seem to go more than a few months without visiting.

When it comes to travel, we’re the odd couple—I’m very outdoorsy and spontaneous while Dee has far more sophisticated tastes. Lucky for us, Galena has an exceptionally unique combination of culture and bucolic countryside that continues to inspire our visits. There are hundreds of natural wonders in this part of the state, tucked away in the river country of Northwestern Illinois, but seven stand out as the most majestic.

The Galena River

No trip to Galena is complete without spending some time on its river. The mostly mild but occasionally wild tributary bisects the town and creates a scene reminiscent of the Irish countryside. Walking, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding are the most popular ways to explore the river. You can easily rent all your gear from Fever River Outfitters.

I had no experience with stand-up paddle boarding before, so we rented a pair for the afternoon to try them out on familiar waters. We paddled up the river with ease—there was no noticeable current that day—and soon found ourselves drifting through a lush forest. What a rejuvenating experience!

Many bed and breakfasts and hotels are close to the Galena River and downtown. On one of our trips, we stayed at the Queen Anne Guest House, which is a five-minute walk from the river and a 15-minute walk from downtown. One of the joys of a bed and breakfast is meeting other travelers. We ate breakfast with couples from Des Moines, Milwaukee, and even Argentina. It's good to know Galena's reputation carries all the way to the hills of Buenos Aires. Speaking of which…

Horseshoe Mound Preserve

Standing at 1,063 feet in altitude and 400 feet above the Mississippi River and Galena, the view from Horseshoe Mound is simply one of the best views in the Midwest. Almost any car can handle the short drive up a dirt road, after which, on a cloudless day, you'll be treated to a 50-mile panorama featuring three states. In our many years of visits, we've driven here simply to take in the view, but several new short hiking trails and interpretive sites have sprung up that illuminate the natural history of the area. The trails are steep, but you can hike the entire park within an hour.

Another reason we've made several treks to Horseshoe Mound: the land takes on a new, distinctive character depending on the time of day or season. Fall colors illuminate the valleys with a brilliance that reminds me of my former home in New England. In spring and summer, wildflowers bloom all along the hills—an explosion of color to rival the sunrises and sunsets. Whenever you decide to go, don’t forget your camera.

Horseshoe Mound Preserve is close to Irish Cottage Boutique Hotel, another place we’ve stayed many times. Delicious breakfasts and the Irish Dancers add to the sense of enchantment—though as long as you're in the Irish spirit, don't miss out on the local whiskey crafted at Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. (an Illinois Made maker) just down the road.

Apple River Canyon State Park

Farther off the beaten path—but accessible to anyone traveling to Galena—is Apple River Canyon State Park. I often refer to it as the Grand Canyon of Illinois, though it should be noted that Southern Illinois already lays claim to the Little Grand Canyon. Regardless, Apple River's 200-foot-deep chasm carved by the confluence of three rivers is a sight not to be missed. It's beloved by both serious anglers and solitude seekers alike, and many of my favorite vistas are on the Primrose Nature Trail and the River Route Nature Trail, both of which are roughly 1.5 miles in total length. 

Located 40 miles from Galena, Apple River Canyon State Park is closer to the towns Stockton and Elizabeth—two other gems of Northwest Illinois. Both towns have abundant opportunities for antiquing, and Elizabeth's annual Midwest Garlic Fest draws many culinary travelers with live entertainment, beer, wine, and plenty of garlic-themed dishes. 

Mississippi Palisades State Park

Just outside of Jo Daviess County, about 40 minutes from Galena, Mississippi Palisades State Park is home to some of the Midwest's most photogenic landscapes. We've spent hours simply sitting on a bench taking in the views. The half-dozen overlooks with sweeping views of the Mississippi River are so pretty you'll be tempted to pull out your easel and pastels—but you can also make a full day's hike between the towering bluffs. Rock climbers will also appreciate the several developed routes, making the Palisades perhaps the closest outdoor climbing destination for Chicago residents.

With plenty of spots for boating, canoeing, and fishing, Savanna, Illinois could very well be the hub of watersports on the upper Mississippi, but it's also an excellent road biking destination. One of Illinois' best outdoor adventures is biking the Great River Trail, which runs 62 miles from Savanna to the Quad Cities. Biking along the riverfront on the idyllic, secluded trail, you’ll feel like Huckleberry Finn on two wheels.

Casper Bluff Land and Water Reserve

Although Casper Bluff is just 10 minutes from downtown, we were surprised it took us so long to stumble upon this remarkable preserve. Of course, there are the fantastic vistas of the Mississippi River, but the significance of the place is its preservation of the Effigy Mounds, a sacred Native American monument that's existed for more than 1,000 years. Interpretive signs and brochures highlight the unique role this site plays in understanding the First Peoples of the Upper Mississippi River Valley.

Just off the road is Chestnut Mountain Resort, the premier winter sports destination for Northern Illinois. No need to wait until February to visit, though—the resort is no less active in the summer thanks to a zipline and an alpine slide.

Winston Tunnel Hiking Trail

Our all-time favorite hike in Northern Illinois is the one to Winston Tunnel State Nature Area. Originally a railroad tunnel in operation for 84 years, Winston Tunnel was abandoned in the early '70s after officials found it too costly and difficult to maintain. Nature was happy to take over. The rails and spikes have given way to grass and trees, making for a fantastic hiking trail along the railroad bed. When we visited in mid-summer, the creeping foliage swallowed up the tracks creating an almost mystical experience. 

This is a two-mile hike over some steep terrain that takes about 2 hours. Add extra time for pictures!

Galena Itself

Though we love our vibrant life in Chicago, there aren’t many opportunities for stargazing in the big city. Galena is miles away from any source of light pollution, and the starry nights of the town are something I’ve wished I could photograph, if only I wasn't too busy living in the moment.

For my money, few places can rival Galena when it comes to stargazing—especially in the winter. When it snows, the town and hills feel transported in time. At night, we felt like we could see every star in the universe.

Galena is both a destination and a posh basecamp for our continued exploration of Northern Illinois. The folks at the Welcome Center in the Old Market House are always willing to give us fresh ideas and novel places to see on the map. It’s clear that the residents of Northern Illinois clearly cherish the environment and love to showcase it to any traveler.


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