MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest


Gawking in Lake Geneva

On a mansion-lined footpath, walking is a spectator sport.

There are thousands of lakes in the north woods, but the most famous one is a stone's throw from Illinois.

Lake Geneva has been the favorite retreat of Chicago folks for 150 years, and everybody who was anybody had a place there: the Wrigleys, Maytags and Schwinns, but also cartoonists, actors, brewers and bottle-cap makers.

Geneva will seem citified to people who vacation on woodland lakes. There's a good reason to go there, though: It's entertaining to gawk at extreme wealth, and there's no better place to do it than Lake Geneva.

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On the Rock River in Illinois

From the town of Oregon, visitors follow in Black Hawk's footsteps.

In the northwest Illinois town of Oregon, a 48-foot concrete figure gazes over a river valley, arms folded.

Over the years, it's been home to many ambitious men. Abraham Lincoln joined the militia here. John Deere forged the first steel plow. Ronald Reagan got his first lifeguard job.

The man who inspired the gigantic blufftop statue also had an ambition: to keep this beautiful valley for his own people.

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Ghosts of Galena

This sweet town in northwest Illinois is packed with history . . . and mystery.

In the northwest corner of Illinois, there's no more cheerful place than Galena.

Today, it's known for its shops and giggling bands of women on a girlfriend getaway.  But in the 1850s, it was the busiest port between St. Louis and St. Paul, and rows of elegant homes were built with lead-mining fortunes.

Eventually, demand for lead waned, and the river connecting Galena to the Mississippi filled with silt. The town went into a deep sleep until the 1960s, by which point it had become a virtual museum.

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Towns of the Fox River

An hour west of Chicago, a scenic bicycle trail makes sightseeing easy.

For centuries, people have beaten a path along the Fox River: Pottawatomie Indians, pioneer entrepreneurs, escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, city-bound commuters . . . and now, bicyclists.

Thanks to a network of abandoned electric railways, this part of northeast Illinois is a hotbed of bicycle trails.

They're all popular, but the 40-mile Fox River Trail past St. Charles, Geneva and Batavia includes an astonishing amount of scenery and attractions: a Dutch windmill, Japanese gardens and a lighthouse plus many forest preserves, gazebos and wildlife sightings, mainly herons and egrets lurking on the shallow river.

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Galena getaway

In northwest Illinois, this historic village is a favorite destination.

In the grand scheme of things, Galena, Ill., was destined to be a flash in the pan.

The flash came from the shiny lead sulfide upon which the town's fortunes were built in the 1830s, '40s and '50s; galena is the Latin word for the ore.

It made many people rich, and in the 1850s, Galena, three miles from the Mississippi, was the busiest port between St. Paul and St. Louis.

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Marvels of Starved Rock

In northern Illinois, a state park draws crowds to its forest canyons and riverside cliffs.

Like many places, Starved Rock State Park has a name whose origin is lost in the mists of time.

Supposedly, the Potawatomi and Ottawa trapped a band of Illini on a 125-foot butte along the Illinois River. However, anyone who’s actually climbed up Starved Rock — and millions of tourists have — can see that no one could defend it long enough to starve.

“It’s like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox,’’ says Kathy Higdon of the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center across the river. “It’s a legend, like the Lover’s Leaps we've got all over the place.’’

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10 great getaways from Chicago

Take a break to lounge on beaches, gawk at river canyons and go on brewery tours.

There's an endless number of fun things to do in Chicago, which is why tourists flock to it from around the world. To paraphrase the English wit Samuel Johnson, "When a man is tired of Chicago, he is tired of life.''

And yet, everyone needs to get out of town once in a while.

The traditional playground of Wisconsin lies to the north, and the beaches of  Michigan to the east. To the west, aim for destinations on rivers: the Fox, the Illinois, the Rock.

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Wright in Oak Park

After more than 125 years, the architect's first works still seem stunningly original.

Around Frank Lloyd Wright's old stomping grounds in Oak Park, Ill., 2014 was a big year.

Of course, every year is a big year at the architect's first home and studio, which draws crowds of people from around the world even when it's not celebrating its 125th anniversary.

People come to Oak Park for the sensational stories as well as the architecture. Wright was notoriously ill-behaved, breaking promises and scoffing at rules. He was a genius, and he knew it.

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Outdoors in Galena

In an Illinois shopping town, tourists discover life beyond Main Street.

So you've done Galena — the shopping, the wine-tasting, the trolley tours, the historic houses.

What now?

This mining town in northwest Illinois boomed, went bust and came back as a boutique town for urban weekenders. Now, it's returning to nature.

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Black Hawk on the Apple River

Near Galena, a fort interprets a Sauk leader who has gripped imaginations since 1832.

Just 15 minutes from the tourist playground of Galena, a young woman scrubs a cast-iron pot with a corncob.

Another woman sews the ticking for a straw mattress. Over an open fire, a man carefully pours molten lead into a mold, which he opens to reveal a shiny new musket ball.

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