Tucked into the corner of Northwest Illinois is a special area called Galena Country. Unlike much of the Prairie State, this captivating location is lush with rolling hills and loaded with incredible outdoor adventure opportunities. Only a few hours’ drive from Chicago, St. Louis, Des Moines, and Kansas City, this traveler’s favorite is the second most visited leisure destination in Illinois — but you still might not have heard of it.
It’s that kind of authentically simple, but also warm and engaging, “hidden gem” sort of place.
Dripping with history, Galena Country — comprised of 11 unique towns and cities — is known for its well preserved, 19th century charm, picturesque landscape and welcoming atmosphere. Stepping onto Galena’s Main Street is like walking onto a movie set. Looking much like it did when President Grant strolled here, the buildings are now home to more than 125 independently owned businesses. No wonder it has been nicknamed the “Helluva Half Mile”.
Thanks to the varied terrain, outdoor recreation has become a forefront for activities in the area. From zip-lining and kayaking to cycling and challenging races, it’s easy for visitors to unplug and create a choose-your-own adventure. Here are a few favorite outdoor experiences, paired with awesome places to unwind afterward.
Not Just for the Birds
Interested in a hike for every skill level? The Valley of Eden Bird Sanctuary in Stockton, Illinois, is the newest hiking property open in Galena Country and features more than 6 miles of trails. The site is a protected habitat for more than 100 different bird species, so bring your binoculars and camera. Stockton is a lovely town to explore, with a fun history of its own. Voyage around for great selfie ops, as the walls here are decorated with vivid murals. Polish off the hike with a mouth-watering meal at JJ & Freddie’s and a treat from Sweet Alice’s.
The Scenic Route
Starting right in town, The Galena River Trail is a favorite for running, hiking, biking and cross-country skiing. With 8.8 miles (one way) of awe-inspiring landscape, the hard-packed, finely crushed rock trail showcases views of the Galena and Mississippi rivers. The trail officially ends at the intersection with South River Road at Aiken; however, users can continue on the lightly traveled South River Road to reach the base of Chestnut Mountain Resort. A shelter and bike pump are available at the base of the ski slope, and the resort offers free chair lift rides for cyclists wishing to indulge in a meal with a view at the Sunset Grille or The Summit Sports Bar. Don’t miss the thrills of the Soaring Eagle Zip Line or a rush down the mountain on the Alpine Slide.
Once boasting as many as 15 steamboats at one time, the Galena River was the busiest port between St. Paul and St. Louis. Stop in to Fever River Outfitters on Main Street to rent a kayak, paddleboard or canoe and explore the town via water. Many of the extraordinary homes perched on the hillside in Galena were once owned by steamboat captains and successful entrepreneurs. Back on land, a tour of President Ulysses S. Grant’s Home is a must-do, along with a stop at one of the local watering holes to converse with locals. Flavorful craft brews can be found at the Galena Brewing Company. Dive bar enthusiasts should head to the local VFW, home to many great stories, or The Gold Room, where no one leaves hungry.
The Heroes for History Challenge is a competitive 5k run/walk that includes Galena’s iconic Green Street stairs. The event commemorates the 9/11 terrorist attacks and honors the brave, selfless men and women in uniform. Competitors make a total of seven laps up the stairs, along neighboring streets and back up again. Participants shouldn’t be surprised to be accompanied by firefighters dressed in full gear, as many do this to pay homage to those who climbed the stairs of the World Trade Center. Net proceeds are split between the Historical Society and the Galena-based first responder agencies. This is a great way to get steps in while giving back!
Take your vacation to new heights with Long Hollow Canopy Tours in Elizabeth, Illinois. Surrounded by the pristine forest of Tapley Woods, thrill-seekers zip line from tree to tree at speeds of up to 40 mph and heights up to 75 feet. This exciting venture includes crossing a sky bridge and a quick jump to ground level. Guests are safely harnessed and guided through the 2 ½ hour tour. Bring friends, this is an incredible group experience! Later, grab a pizza and cold one at Jug’s Main Street Tap and a coffee at E-town.
Author: Rose Noble
Images: Courtesy of Galena Country Tourism