Chicago & Beyond
Lake County bridges the gap between Chicago’s Cook County and the Wisconsin border with family attractions and nature trails.
Daredevil roller coasters, such as the new 12-story Joker and superfast Goliath, draw families to Six Flags Great America in Gurnee. Besides the world’s fastest and steepest wooden coaster (Goliath), the park maintains 13 additional coasters and more than 30 milder rides. Next door, families share a raft as they whoosh down water slides or float Castaway Creek at Hurricane Harbor, Six Flags’ 20-acre water park.
Nearby KeyLime Cove, an indoor tropical-themed water resort, houses a wave pool, multiple twisty tube slides and a lazy river that winds through the park.
For an outdoor adventure, the nature trails at Glencoe’s Chicago Botanic Garden lead to more than 25 blooming gardens, including the Children’s Growing Garden.
Eleven miles west of Gurnee, gearheads appreciate the Volo Auto Museum, a sprawling complex housing one-of-a-kind autos, such as the Batmobile and tricked-out muscle cars, plus vintage arcade games, coin-operated kiddie rides, antique malls and a pizza parlor.
- A troupe of elegant white stallions shows off its ballet-like dressage moves at Tempel Farms in Old Mill Creek. To learn more about the daily care and training of the Lipizzans, go behind the scenes on a one-hour tour.
- Animal keepers answer questions and share interesting tidbits about some of the facility’s 85 reptiles and native animals at the Wildlife Discovery Center in Lake Forest.
- At Lambs farm in Libertyville, people with developmental disabilities maintain a petting zoo with farm animals, plus an on-site cafe. End the visit with a spin on the carousel.
- It’s retail therapy and more at Gurnee Mills, boasting more than 200 outlet stores and restaurants. At Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, native species—including some trophy fish from local anglers—attract mall shoppers at the giant aquarium inside. Kids play laser tag in the middle of the mall at Tilt Studio.
- Yesteryear comes alive in historic downtown Long Grove, where old-fashioned shops line cobblestone walkways. The village hosts popular family events that include the May Chocolate Fest and June Strawberry Fest.
- Locally raised ingredients—straight from the family farm—are on the menu at Beelow's Steakhouse in Lake Zurich and Highland Park. In nearby Libertyville, Mickey Finn's Brewery serves pub food with craft ales and lagers while diners enjoy live music.
- Head north to Gurnee’s The Chocolate Sanctuary for all things chocolate, including ribs covered in cocoa-infused barbecue sauce and cocoa-candied bacon. Lindenhurst’s Ad-Lib Geocafe uses locally sourced food for its menu, which changes seasonally.
- Illinois Beach State Park, with more than six miles of sparkling Lake Michigan shoreline for swimming, sunning and hiking, encompasses the breezy Illinois Beach Resort in Zion.
- Lincolnshire Marriott Resort includes a PGA golf course, tennis courts, two pools and the acclaimed Marriott Theatre.
- KeyLime Cove in Gurnee offers an indoor water park, arcade, spa and six restaurants to keep the family happy.
Great Rivers Country
Quaint shops hold treasures waiting to be discovered in the historic river town of Alton. Pair the trip with neighboring Grafton for a weekend of shopping and sipping. Alton’s Antique District includes working studios such as Alton Stained Glass Works and Mississippi Mud Pottery, where visitors watch artisans create one-of-a-kind pieces. The relatively new (open in 2015) Old Bakery Beer Company occupies a downtown 1800s building. The seasonal menu complements the organic beers, such as The Observer, which is also brewed for nearby Elijah P's. Named for local abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy, the brewpub serves burgers on house-made sesame buns.
Get ready for a ride to Grafton via the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, sandwiched between towering limestone cliff s and the meandering Mississippi River. Shopping treasures in Grafton’s Main Street stores include authentic Native American crafts at Pajarito and works by area artists at The White Pelican Art Gallery. The decks of Grafton Winery and Brewhaus and Tara Point Inn and Cottages boast river views that are especially spectacular at sunset.
- Lewis and Clark history fills the Alton/Grafton area. The Lewis and Clark State Historic Site tells the explorers’ story and features their life-size keelboat and soldier stories shared by interpreters at Camp River Dubois.
- The nearby 180-foot-tall Confluence Tower affords amazing views of the swirling Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
- For a birds-eye view of 200-foot barges navigating the lock-anddam system, head to the top of the National Great Rivers Museum.
- Cyclists pedal the 20-plus-mile Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail, which begins in Alton’s Piasa Park (near the cliffside Piasa Bird mural) and skirts the Mississippi River before ending in scenic Pere Marquette State Park.
- Thrill-seekers whiz through the woods on the Grafton Zipline, while bird watchers spy more than 300 species at the Audubon Center at Riverlands.
- Gentelin's on Broadway serves creative meals in a contemporary setting with incredible views of Alton’s Clark Bridge.
- Lentil tacos top the list of likes in the sunny courtyard at Alton’s State Street Market.
- Close by, Fast Eddies' Bon Air is a legendary roadhouse with bands, beer and cheap eats.
- In Grafton, it’s all about views of the river during dinner. Share catfish fritters on the deck of The Loading Dock overlooking the Mississippi. An array of oysters (such as gulf and bluepoint) is expected at Grafton Oyster Bar, but don’t overlook the Cajun and Creole dishes.
- Overlooking the panoramic confluence of the rivers sits Grafton’s scenic Aerie's Resort, which offers cozy lodging as well as award-winning sips at on-site Aerie's Winery.
- Alton’s Beall Mansion is an opulent bed-and-breakfast offering in-room massages and a 24-hour chocolate buffet to spoil guests.
Land of Lincoln
Follow in Abraham Lincoln’s footsteps in Springfield, where he lived for 24 years before setting off to become the 16th president of the United States. A great place to begin is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library, where lifelike vignettes tell Abe’s story, from his humble beginnings in a log cabin to his assassination. Two special effects-driven theaters, plus artifacts such as Lincoln’s signature stovepipe hat, delight history fans. Nearby, a guided tour of the Lincoln Home national Historic Site, offers a glimpse into daily life for the family. Downtown is the striking Old State Capitol, site of many career triumphs, including Lincoln’s famed “House Divided” speech on slavery. Pay respects at the Lincoln Tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery, where visitors rub the well-worn nose of the bronze Lincoln bust for luck.
- Find visitor info in the refurbished historic Union Station. Then pose for a selfie with Abe, whose statue sits on a bench outside this downtown building.
- A costumed guide tells spooky tales and points out Lincoln sites in downtown Springfield during the nighttime Lincoln's Ghost Walk.
- The natural history of Illinois, from the dinosaur era to frontier times and up to present day, is wonderfully illustrated at the Illinois State Museum. The downstairs Play Museum features a dino dig and fun games.
- Just blocks away sits the beautifully preserved Dana Thomas House built by esteemed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The mansion has retained its gorgeous Wright-designed art glass and furniture.
- In Washington Park, listen to summer concerts at the Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon, one of the world’s largest carillons.
- Drivers on Route 66 stop at the Cozy Dog Drive In for a taste of the self-proclaimed original dog on a stick. An upscale version of Springfield’s own horseshoe sandwich (an open-face hamburger served on thick bread, smothered with French fries drenched in cheese sauce) is on the lunch menu at Maldaner's.
- Located close to the Lincoln Home, Obed and Isaac's Microbrewery & Eatery makes the popular Mother Road pale ale.
- Traditional southern Italian dishes are the specialty at Saputo's, a retro downtown supper club.
- American Harvest Eatery encourages sustainability and uses fresh ingredients such as butternut squash from local farms.
- New Berlin’s Danenberger Family Vineyards has a cozy four-season tasting room for sampling its wines.
- The President Abraham Lincoln Springfield, A Doubletree by Hilton Hotel, puts guests in the heart of downtown historic sites.
- The contemporary boutique State House Inn is near the Old State Capitol.
- The Inn at 835 offers vintage charm, with rooms named for flowers favored by the high-society florist who founded the inn in the early 1900s.
Trails to Adventure
The scenic southern Illinois burg of Makanda nestles in the lush Shawnee National Forest. Outdoor enthusiasts make tracks to Giant City State Park, which gets its name from the steep, carved sandstone cliffs that resemble city streets fit for a giant. Hikers explore miles of trails or gather their gear and tackle rock-climbing and rappelling on the massive bluffs. Giant City Stables leads guided horseback tours along wooded paths. The outdoor excitement continues with thrilling ziplines through dense forest trees on the Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tours. The clear and calm waters of Little Grassy Lake, part of the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, are ideal for a day of fishing and boating. For a calmer detour, the quirky Makanda Boardwalk showcases the works of local artisans, including metalwork and gemstone jewelry.
- Sample the flavors of southern Illinois grapes at 12 vineyards and wineries on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail. Blue Sky Vineyard, inspired by a Tuscan villa, is known for its picturesque grounds with outdoor terraces overlooking a lake. At Cobden’s Owl Creek Vineyard, the hard ciders are nearly as popular as the wines and are best enjoyed on the shady upstairs deck.
- White Crane Canoe Rentals in Ullin gives two-hour guided tours, by canoe or kayak, of the Cache River, Illinois’ hidden bayou. Spot little blue herons, black vultures and other wildlife in the wetlands and forests of the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge.
- For a fine dining experience, Tom's Place in DeSoto offers a six-course menu of seasonal items chosen by proprietor and chef Lasse Sorensen.
- Yellow Moon Cafe in charming Cobden is another local favorite. Ingredients are sourced from area farmers, so the menu changes weekly, with favorite items like baked peach salad and Asian sea bass. Bands play in Yellow Moon’s intimate listening room.
- Cobden’s rustic The Blue Boar Restaurant and Bar serves Cajun cuisine (think étouffée) along with baby back ribs from local caterer The Great Boars of Fire.
- At Rocky Comfort Cabins, an offbeat lodging option is the hobbit-style Cove, a grassroof earthen shelter with round windows and sun tunnels that flood the cabin with light.
- Giant City Lodge offers vintage cabins nestled in the woods with modern conveniences. The stunning Makanda Inn and Cottages, an eco-friendly retreat located on 18 forest acres, is constructed with all-natural building materials.