This summer, get ready to travel beyond the outer rim of suburbia and into the wilds of the Midwest, where you will find a number of great choices for active getaways six hours or less from downtown Chicago.
Anyone who has driven across the vast sea of fields in Illinois may find it hard to imagine a local active getaway outside of tipping cows or detasseling corn, but other areas of the state have a varied topography that offer opportunities for exploration and physical activity to keep you in shape, with beautiful scenery as well.
STARVED ROCK STATE PARK
The official website starvedrockstatepark.org boasts that the park has been voted the number one attraction in Illinois, making it the tourism crown jewel of the state. International visitors to Illinois find their way here, and it is common to hear several different languages as you hike the busy trails.
Hiking: The park has over 12 miles of paved hiking trails from easy to moderate, but it may be the heavy foot traffic that gives you the biggest workout. Count on several wooden stairways to keep you in shape as you trek to 18 different canyons, 14 of which feature waterfalls. Bring footwear with good traction; it can be slippery in spots.
Canoe/Kayak: Starved Rock Adventures offers canoe rentals right in the park from May to October so you can paddle up the Illinois River, water levels and weather permitting. Or you may prefer to paddle the nearby Fox River, or take the “challenge” rafting on the mighty Vermillion River, which is as close as you can get to white water in Illinois.
Starved Rock Adventures Reservations: 815-434-9200
Vermillion River Rafting Reservations: 815-667-5242 or vermillionriverrafting.com
Starved Rock Lodge: starvedrocklodge.com 815-667-4211
Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort: grizzlyjacksresort.com 866-399-3866
Willows Hotel, Utica: thewillowshotel.net 815-667-3400
HEARTLAND SPA, LAKE GENEVA, WI
Located in the Bella Vista Suites of Lake Geneva, the Heartland Spa offers a variety of yoga classes, African dance and aqua classes as well as “Pound Fit,” a full body cardio, conditioning and strength training workout in which you “become the music.” Help yourself of one of several all-inclusive packages from a two-nighter to the seven night Pamper & Thrive! 7-Night Boot Camp. “There’s nobody else like us in the Midwest,” owner Harold Lebovic says. He emphasizes that the spa is not only “a true natural health destination,” but also “one of the most affordable choices for wellness spas anywhere. Being this close to Chicago and other cities means less time traveling—you typically have an extra two days to work out.” Heartland Spa also has plans to take advantage of the 21-mile scenic public trail that circles Lake Geneva, passing by the town’s many famous mansions. Information on the trail can be found at walktalkgawk.com.
BIKING IN WISCONSIN
The League of American Bicyclists ranks Wisconsin among the top 10 biking states in the nation. The state is home to literally hundreds of miles of trails, from paved routes to dirt and gravel trails, and is credited for being the first state to establish a rails-to-trails project, the Elroy-Sparta Trail that was converted in 1965.
Elroy-Sparta Trail: This trail is one of the most popular trails in the country. It’s mostly crushed limestone, and traverses through three tunnels (one is nearly three-quarters of a mile and completely dark, headlamp recommended) and five towns, each with a charm of its own. Traveling eastward from Sparta to Elroy is the uphill direction, for those who want to add a slightly perceptible workout to their journey. Riders 16 years or older must purchase a daily or annual pass to use the trail; hikers and snowmobilers can use the trail for free.
The Elroy-Sparta Trail is part of the 101 State Trail System that starts with the 400 Trail in Reedsburg, continues westward with the Elroy-Sparta Trail, then the LaCrosse River Trail, and finally stretches to the Mississippi River on the Great River Trail.
Accommodations: All the info you need can be found at elroy-sparta-trail.com. For bike rentals, click on “Shuttles.” Links to all four trails can be found at bike4trails.com.
CAMBA: Chequamegon (pronounced, “shuh-WAH-mah-gon”) Area Mountain Bike Association refers to the CAMBA Trail System as the “Single Track Capital” of the Midwest, and its mileage certainly helps that claim: over 300 miles of trails offer “striking beauty and peaceful solitude.” CAMBA stretches across Bayfield and Sawyer counties, with southern Bayfield County’s glacial moraines providing plenty of ideal mountain biking action.
All the information you need can be found on the CAMBA website, including a large selection of lodging and camping choices in the Cable, Hayward, and Ashland areas. cambatrails.org.
WISCONSIN BIKING GUIDE: If the Elroy-Sparta Trail or the CAMBA do not quench your cycling fix, you have nearly endless number of choices with the Wisconsin Biking Guide. bit.ly/WIBikeGuide
WISCONSIN PADDLE SPORTS
The Wisconsin River, located just northwest of Madison, provides paddling opportunities through shallow waters in a mostly undeveloped area, with shoreline and island opportunities for camping and fishing. Local outfitter Wisconsin River Outings offers a wide range of choices, ranging from a half-day paddle to more than four days on the river, with opportunities to make it wild or mild depending on your preference.
Wild: Sauk City, Sauk Prairie Area- Sauk City is where the party starts. It gets busy in this section and has a reputation for its “Spring Break” atmosphere, complete with nude beach along the way. Here you can park and paddle right away. A bus will pick you up in the afternoon at the end of your trip and take you back up river to your car.
Mild: Boscobel, Driftless Area: This is the heart of fly fishing country, so it stands to reason this will be the quieter paddling choice. You can pick your own sand bar for camping, water levels permitting. Wisconsin River Outings will shuttle you to the start of your paddle so that you will arrive at your vehicle at the finish.
Wisconsin River Outings
Paddling enthusiasts can head to the Peshtigo River in northeast Wisconsin, known especially for the Roaring Rapids, a four-mile stretch of class IV and V rapids. Beginners need not fear—other segments along the water are less daunting, but still provide challenge and scenery. Local outfitters can provide beginners and experts alike with canoe and kayak rentals, shuttle service, guided rafting trips and camping options.