The Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford is known for Jane, its juvenile T-rex.
For more information
Rockford: Interstate 90 and U.S. 20; gorockford.com; (800) 521-0849
Starved Rock State Park: Illinois 178 and 71; starvedrockstatepark.org; (815) 667-4211
North Utica: utica-il.com; (815) 667-4111
Ottawa: U.S. 6 and Illinois 71; experienceottawa.com; (815) 434-2737
St. Charles: Illinois 64 and 31; visitstcharles.com; (800) 777-4373
Sometimes you just need to get out of town. But in today’s economic climate it may not be feasible to go far. Thankfully, Chicagoans and suburbanites don’t need to travel far to feel like they’ve escaped from it all. There’s a plethora of destinations good for day trips or weekend getaways just outside our collective backdoor.
We’ve picked three family-friendly spots that won’t necessarily empty the gas tank or the wallet: Rockford (84 miles/1.5 hours from downtown Chicago), St. Charles/Geneva (39 miles/one hour) and Starved Rock (95 miles/1.75 hours). All offer plenty for families to discover and enjoy.
With a population ofmore than 150,000, Rockford is considerably smaller than Chicago but actually is the state’s third-biggest city. As such, it offers plenty of entertainment and cultural attractions.
“What you’ll find when you come to Rockford is that all of sites and attractions have free parking and we have great restaurants,” said Bridgett French, marketing manager for the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “And our sites and attractions have something to offer for the entire family.”
Her list of must-sees for families: the Discovery Center Museum (named one of the nation’s 12 best children’s museums by Forbes magazine), the Burpee Museum of Natural History and the Rockford Art Museum, all part of the city’s Riverfront Museum Park; the new Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens; the world-famous Anderson Japanese Gardens; the Forest City Queen Riverboat (a sightseeing boat that cruises the Rock River, summer); Trolley Car 36 tours from Riverview Park (summer); Magic Waters Waterpark (in nearby Cherryvale, opens June 2), and the nationally recognized Ski Broncs Waterski Shows (free, opens May 25 in nearby Loves Park).
The Burpee Museum is celebrating its 70th year. And just like the Field Museum is known for its T-rex Sue, the Burpee is known for Jane, its juvenile T-rex.
Alan Brown, director of the Burpee, calls Jane “the star of our show. … [She’s] one of the most famous dinosaurs in the country and one of the most complete dinosaurs ever found.” And she’ll soon be joined by Homer, a juvenile triceratops.
There also are several places of note to stop at when you’re on your way to or from Rockford. Among them:
Summerfield Farm and Zoo: An intimate zoo with wolves, cougars, horses, monkeys, reindeer, wallabies and more. It’s the perfect size for tots to enjoy without being overwhelmed. About 50 percent of the residents are rescued animals. Entertaining educational sessions starring the animals are offered twice a day. Open weekends through Nov. 4 starting April 28 (Belvidere; summerfieldfarmandzoo.com; 815-547-4832).
Illinois Railway Museum: Billed as America’s largest railway museum, this is a must for train fans. See steam trains, diesel trains, electric trains, trolley buses and more. Open year-round, but operating hours vary so check first (Union; irm.org; 815-923-4000).
Just an hour west of Chicago, charming St. Charles on the banks of the Fox River can be reached by Metra (the Union Pacific/West Line takes you into Geneva, two miles from St. Charles).
“I think St. Charles is a perfect destination for a staycation or a weekend getaway, even a day trip, because it’s far enough from the city but yet close enough,” said Jenny O’Brien, marketing manager for the St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And we’re such a unique suburb … I like to say we’re not your typical cookie-cutter Chicago suburb.”
With multiple trails bisecting it, St. Charles is a mecca for biking. The Fox River Trail follows the river and intersects the Illinois Prairie Path and Fermilab Trail. Don’t feel like hauling bikes? No problem. Several bike shops rent them.
O’Brien’s suggestions for families include a visit to Pottawatomie Park at 8 North Ave. along the Fox River Trail. It offers a public swimming pool, miniature golf, picnic areas, seasonal canoe/pedal boat rentals, playgrounds and paddlewheel boat cruises.
St. Charles also boasts Otter Cove water park (opens May 26 with affordable $13 nonresident fees good for a full day). Adjacent to Otter Cove is the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center nature center with interactive floor-to-ceiling murals, live animal displays and a wetland exhibit. The indoor entertainment center Under the Big Top recently opened and offers go-karts, laser tag, batting cages, carnival games and an arcade. Learn about the history of the area by visiting the Primrose Farm, a 1930s living history farm.
And if you’re a baseball fan don’t forget the Kane County Cougars, the Class A team that calls Geneva home. Enjoy America’s favorite pastime at a fraction of the cost of major league games (tickets range from $8 to $14). Also in Geneva: the Fabayan Villa Museum and Japanese Garden (the villa was remodeled by Frank Lloyd Wright) and the Fabyan Windmill (an 1850s working windmill, opens May 15).
STARVED ROCK STATE PARK/NORTH UTICA
Known for its hiking trails, Starved Rock State Park is one of nature’s gems. And it’s popular. Last year 2.18 million people visited. The visitors’ center is a good place to start. It offers interactive displays, videos about the park, a 400-gallon fish tank stocked with denizens of the Illinois River, free hiking maps and more.
“La Salle County is becoming a destination and the primary attraction within it is Starved Rock State Park,” said Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek, marketing director at Starved Rock Lodge and tourism coalition chairman for La Salle County. “A trip here is not complete without a visit to the top of Starved Rock so your children can say they’ve done it. It’s one of those rites of passage you just have to experience.”
Within the park, visitors will find 18 canyons and numerous waterfalls; it’s home to more than 225 species of birds and wildflowers, so bird-watching (bald eagles winter in the park) and wild flower identification make fun family activities. The park offers tours dedicated to these activities, so check the website.
Trolley tours, paddleboat cruises on the Illinois River and canal boat rides (at the nearby Illinois & Michigan Canal and State Trail) offer other ways to enjoy the area if hiking isn’t your thing.
Poised at the edge of Starved Rock, North Utica may be tiny (population 1,000) but it offers rural charm and some surprising amenities. Highlights include Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort, which houses an indoor amusement park open to the public (the resort’s waterpark is for guests only), the Illinois River Winery and Starved Rock Vineyards (one of Illinois’ largest), and the Country Cupboard Ice Cream Shoppe and Cafe (generous scoops of to-die-for flavors).
Also worth checking out are nearby Matthiessen and Buffalo Rock state parks and the historic town of Ottawa, site of an Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debate and hometown of the Boy Scouts of America founder W.D. Boyce.
Jennifer Burklow is a local free-lance writer.