Once the holidays are behind us and cold weather settles in, it is easy to become a bit stir-crazy as we crave fresh air and outdoor activity. However, we don’t have to hibernate for the rest of the season. There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors in Illinois. Whether you prefer to watch majestic eagles soar overhead, the thrill of waterfall ice climbing, or family sledding and ice skating, winter activities may be closer than you realize.
Starved Rock State Park
There is something to be said about the serenity of winter. If outside early, there is a certain amount of tranquility that comes from being in nature in the crisp morning air. Starved Rock State Park in Oglesby offers the peaceful moments you may be craving.
If observing bald eagles or partaking in a winter hike is up your alley, then Starved Rock is just what you need. Skirting the Illinois River, the park contains 13 miles of trails and seven active waterfalls, depending on rainfall. Overlooks can be found at Sac and Wildcat canyons, along with Lover’s Leap, Eagle Cliff and Starved Rock.
Winter beauty at its best can be found on guided 3-mile hikes December through March, which begin at the lodge. Hikes run from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and are $18; reservations are required. Spot bald eagles soaring high above and view majestic frozen waterfalls, some reaching 80 feet tall. Be sure to bring winter hiking gear, such as poles or picks, and don’t forget your camera and binoculars. Please note, the canyons are glacier-cut, so you must be able to handle steps. Yaktrax ice cleats are suggested and available for purchase at the lodge.
For the thrill-seeker, scaling ice falls is an option. Climbers must sign in at the reservation desk, show proof of climbing certification and climb at their own risk.
The park also offers bald eagle trolley tours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during January and February. The trolley leaves at 11 a.m. and returns at 2:30 p.m. Stop at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center to enjoy eagle viewing and an education program. Lunch is included. Adult tickets are $34 and $29 for children 10 and under. Eagle Watch Weekend is Jan. 27-28.
After a chilly day of hiking, gather by the large stone fireplace in the rustic, 1930s log-built Starved Rock Lodge, set among the tall pines of the park.
Lengthen your stay by making reservations to stay at the lodge, or consider renting one of the authentic log cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the ’30s.
Several food options are available on the grounds, including the rustic Main Dining Room and the Back Door Lounge — both serve up plenty of comfort food. After dinner, the kids can splash in the indoor pool.
All activities can be booked by calling 815-220-7386 or online at starvedrocklodge.com. For overnight accommodations, go online or call 815-667-4211.
Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa
The rolling green hills of northwestern Illinois contain spectacular overlooks of valleys and farms, but as summer turns to fall and winter follows, the landscape changes. Eagle Ridge Resort in Galena, well-known for its verdant green golf courses in warmer weather, transforms as Old Man Winter takes hold.
The General Golf Course is modified to host a variety of family-friendly cold-weather activities at its Nordic Center in the Highlands Complex. Toboggans, snowshoes and ice skates are available for rent, but you are welcome to bring your own.
Grab your winter gear and whoosh down the toboggan run located on the 10th hole of the golf course. Enjoy the winter chill while sliding from the tee area down the fairway and experience amazing views of the valley below.
According to Colin Sanderson, director of sales and marketing at Eagle Ridge, it’s a steep hill and “we see all kinds of sleds going down that hill, and I think that the moms and dads love it more than the kids.”
If ice skating interests you more, a 40-by-80-foot ice rink can be found in the parking lot. A large bonfire helps take the chill off frosty fingers and toes after sledding and skating. Concessions are available with the popular hot chocolate and hot dogs. And for those who prefer being indoors, the golf simulator is popular.
“It’s not uncommon to see a dad or mom on the golf simulator while the other parent is out watching the kids sled,” says Sanderson.
If you prefer to work harder, strap on snowshoes and enjoy seven miles of groomed trails or bring your own cross-country skis and follow the golf courses.
Sanderson says heated igloos are also available for rent for 45-60 minutes. Rental includes beverages and light hors d’oeuvres, comfortable chairs, couches and music to enjoy while warming up and watching the outdoor activity.
The Nordic Center’s most popular annual event is the 3-day Winter Carnival, which occurs Friday to Sunday every Presidents Day weekend (Feb. 16-18, 2024). Additional activities are available all weekend long, including a fire and ice show involving hot air balloons and night glows. The Sasquatch Shuffle is a 5K walk/run on snowshoes and includes participants in Bigfoot costumes.
The weekend is always a sellout, so don’t hesitate to make reservations if interested. The lodge has 80 rooms, and an additional 200-plus rental homes, ranging in size from one-bedroom condos to eight-bedroom homes, are available. All reservations are made through the Eagle Ridge website at eagleridge.com. Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa is located at 444 Eagle Ridge Drive, Galena; call 800-892-2269 for reservations.
Historic downtown Galena is a few short miles to the west and offers a variety of unique shops and restaurants.
Great River Eagle Days
Occurring the last weekend of January each year, the Standing Bear Council, Quincy, honors Native American traditions of celebrating the American Bald Eagle at its Great River Eagle Days and Native American Intertribal Pow Wow. Held at the Oakley Lindsay Civic Center, 300 Civic Center Plaza, Quincy, the event includes a variety of activities for all ages. The 2024 event happens Jan. 27-28 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and 12 and under are free.
At Lock and Dam 21, on the Mississippi River, rangers will be available with scopes to view the eagles in their natural habitat.
Immerse yourself in Native American culture while watching the highly anticipated Gray Cloud Singers, along with two world-champion hoop dancers and flute players. A full-size tipi will be set up indoors, as well as Native American arts and crafts vendors. Birds of prey from the Treehouse Wildlife Rehab Center will be available for up-close education about the birds. Be sure to try the ever-popular Native American fry bread and fry bread tacos, along with other items for purchase.
The traditional Blessing of the Eagles Ceremony will occur on Sunday, Jan. 28.
Eagle viewing in Illinois
Other than Alaska, Illinois has the second-largest state population of wintering eagles. Thousands of majestic bald eagles winter near the Illinois and Mississippi rivers in 27 counties of Illinois.
Drawn by the turbulent waters below the locks and dams, eagles feast upon the fish that are churned up by the waters and roost in the bluffs overlooking the river. While eagles can be spotted between mid-December and March, the best time is during January and February. As the temperatures rise, the eagles fly north to nest.
Many locks and dams along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers hold special eagle-watching events in January. Go to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website and search for a location in your area.
Pere Marquette State Park Bald Eagle Days, Grafton — Overlooking the Illinois River and offering miles of trails for winter hiking, you can drive up the park’s scenic bluffs and observe eagles for yourself. Informational programs are available from January to March and begin at the park’s visitor center (13112 Visitor Center Lane, Grafton) at 8:30 a.m. Reservations are required. For information or reservations, call 618-786-3323.
Alton-Audubon Eagle Ice Festival — Eagle watching kicks off with a free family-friendly festival that celebrates eagles and features ice-themed activities, including up-close looks at bald eagles, ice putt-putt golf and ice sculptors creating their masterpieces.
Other winter activities
Matthiessen State Park, Oglesby
Glide along 6 miles of cross-country skiing trails. Ski rental is available on weekends.
Morton Arboretum, Lisle
Whether you want a short hike or a long trek, Morton Arboretum contains 16 miles of looped trails among 1,700 acres of trees and an evergreen forest. After 4 inches of snow, rent snowshoes or cross-country skis and traverse 3.5 miles of groomed trails.
Chestnut Mountain, Galena
With slopes for all levels of skiers and snowboarders, Chestnut Mountain has a 475-foot vertical drop with 19 runs from beginner to expert. With plenty of lifts, you’ll have no trouble getting up for your next run. Snowboarders can enjoy their own playground with 25 rails and its own lift. Equipment rental is available. Go to chestnutmountain.com for more information.
Shawnee National Forest, Little Grand Canyon Trail, Harrisburg
Strap on your ice cleats or spikes for a 3-mile hike. Steep stairs carved into the rock will give you a workout as you wander through sandstone overhangs and snow-covered sycamores.
Starved Rock featured photo courtesy of Kathy Casstevens