“Wow! You’ve seen more of Illinois than most of us who live here ever have!” exclaimed my new buddy, Mike. While we were having a quintessential Chicago experience — waiting out an enormous delay at O’Hare airport — I’d told him all about the road trip I’d just taken exploring various regions of Illinois.
The intent of the road trip was to discover amazing things to do in Illinois outside of Chicago, and we had accomplished this mission with gusto. I’ll eventually post about most of these attractions individually, but for starters here are a few highlights of the varieties of awesomeness you can experience in Illinois:
Having grown up on a farm, I forget what a novelty it is for most people to visit one and spend time in the countryside. Admittedly, the stereotype of Illinois is that it’s nothing but farmland outside of Chicago. Even though that’s not true, would it really be such a bad thing?
There is a huge variety of agricultural attractions in Illinois. There’s the typical agritourism of corn mazes and The Great Pumpkin Patch that are perennially popular with families. At the Visitor Center in Arthur you can arrange to visit an Amish or Mennonite farm and learn about their way of life first-hand. If you’re fascinated by industrial agriculture, many conventional farmers will show you around their farms and let you see their big, expensive machinery. Arrangements of this kind can often be made through the local visitor centre of the area you plan to visit.
Some farms, such as Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery in Champaign, offer regular tours of their farm on a pre-arranged or drop-in basis and have events throughout the year. In the case of Prairie Fruits, they host farm-to-table dinners in their garden every few weeks. Guest chefs prepare a gourmet meal from local produce, and the tickets for these culinary experiences are in high demand and extremely hard to come by.
Thankfully, farm-to-table cuisine is incredibly popular in Illinois and there are lots of restaurants serving locally-sourced meals every day, such as the Firefly Grill in Effingham or Big Grove Tavern in Champaign. Farmers markets and roadside farm stands are also abundant in Illinois and offer oodles of treats for the wandering locavore.
We tend to think of the farm-to-table movement as a big-city phenomenon, but it stands to reason that the folks out in the countryside have an even greater connection to, and sense of pride in, their local farmers and the food that they produce!
My preconceptions of Illinois certainly didn’t include wine-tasting holidays. I’m not exactly a oenophile, but Illinois was not somewhere from whence I knew that wine came. Well, it does. There are over 100 wineries and 450 vineyards in Illinois. We visited two of them in Southern Illinois.
At Blue Sky Vineyard in Makanda they grow many of the varietals of grapes used in their wines, of which there is a broad range. Their specialty is sweeter wines, and I loved that we weren’t looked down upon for preferring many of the sweeter ones. In general I find wine-tasting can be a very intimidating experience, but in Illinois the absence of any sort of snobbery was most refreshing and allowed us to be comfortable and actually learn about wine.
We had a similar experience at Grafton Winery, where they also have a bistro with a fantastic waterside view and a patio that’s perfect for whiling away an afternoon or evening in Grafton. For those who prefer beer, there’s a brewpub on the premises. As we know, I’m not one of those people.
Those midwestern prairies are great for growing corn and raising livestock but, unbeknownst to many, there’s a whole region of Southern Illinois with a totally different topography. Due to the eccentricities of glaciation, the glaciers that flattened large swathes of the midwest were never present in Southern Illinois, and thanks to this, the unglaciated area is a playground for adventure seekers and outdoorsy types.
We stopped for a lovely hike in Giant City State Park (five minutes into which my camera battery died. Oops!), just one of several state parks in the region, which is also popular with rock-climbers and water sports enthusiasts. Besides the natural beauty and interesting terrain, one of the reasons that Southern Illinois has long been a draw for these sorts of escapes is the presence of gorgeous lodges built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Rather than pitching a tent after the exertion of a day’s adventuring, you can stay in the comfort of a rustically luxurious lodge or cabin and enjoy a hot meal, such as the famous fried chicken dinner at Giant City Lodge or Pere Marquette Lodge.
My favourite activity was the Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour where I had a blast trying ziplining for the first time. The zipline course is on private property next to Shawnee National Forest and therefore shares the same terrain and environment. The operators have gone to great lengths to minimize the impact of the canopy tour on the forest and the patented infrastructure was designed so that it can be readily removed from the trees and the forest restored to its natural state if ever the time comes. They have a combination deal going with Blue Sky Vineyard that lets you combine ziplining with wine-tasting at a special price, and it’s recommended that you zip before you sip, as opposed to vice versa.
Since this was a road trip, obviously that’s something that you can do in Illinois. There are many scenic byways to enjoy and they truly are scenic (unlike some destinations where so-called scenic routes are only mildly more interesting than the interstate.) The piece-de-resistance for road-trippers, however, is the world-famous Route 66, which starts in Chicago.
Some of the attractions along Route 66 have gradually died out or been destroyed in recent decades, but one place that has zealously embraced its Route 66 heritage is the town of Pontiac. Not only is it home to the Illinois Route 66 Museum and Hall of Fame, it also boasts scores of murals, and the school-bus-turned-road-yacht that was the home of Bob Waldmire, a notable counterculture figure who drew one of the most recognizable maps of Route 66. You constantly see beautifully preserved or restored classic cars cruising the streets of Pontiac, and if that’s your thing then the Pontiac-Oakland Museum is a must-visit attraction.
One of the reasons I found our road trip in Illinois so enjoyable is that, unlike elsewhere, many towns still have a viable, vibrant downtown with independent businesses, many of which are a huge part of the town’s heritage. It’s delightful to go down Main Street USA and browse local shops and establishments, many of which are family businesses that have been passed down over several generations, like Flesor’s Candy Kitchen in Tuscola.
We uncovered so much history on this trip. It’s difficult to describe it all concisely. There’s a huge range that has something to appeal to just about everyone. Architecture geeks can go nuts. There are Frank Lloyd Wright buildings here and there all over the place, with the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield being an especially impressive example. Not to mention structures and feats of engineering of all sort of other periods and styles.
Lovers of kitsch and vintage advertising have surprises awaiting them around many a corner, with muffler men, nifty retro signage, and roadside attractions lurking in unexpected places.
Besides being named the most haunted town in America and having a statue of the World’s Tallest Man, Alton is home to nearby Camp Dubois. This is the site of the encampment where Lewis & Clark mustered their expedition team and made preparations for their long and arduous voyage exploring and mapping the western frontier lands of the United States. Since the area was investigated by archaeologists and historians, replicas of the buildings have been erected and crops planted to simulate the camp’s environment and educate visitors in what is now known as the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site.
Then there are the museums. Don’t get me started about the museums. We’d be here for a very long time.
So what do you think? Did we accomplish our mission to uncover awesomeness in every corner of Illinois? Mike was impressed, anyway.
Acknowledgements and Disclosure: I was hosted on this trip by EnjoyIllinois. Thanks to our guide Jose Botello for taking the ziplining photo. Huge thanks to Steven Glynias of Fleishman Hillard for doing all the driving and ensuring we had a continuous supply of Wi-Fi, fun facts, and Chex Mix.