From top to bottom, the prairie state of Illinois stretches a grand 385 miles and comprises rolling hills, rivers, lakes, big cities and small villages, farmland and flowers, amusement parks and tasty treats, more than enough to capture your big ol’ gay heart in a Chicago minute.
For your pleasure, we pulled together a few Chicago getaways that will put you in the mood for an adventure–or six.
1. Hiking in Starved Rock & Matthiessen State Park
Let’s face it–cities can be exhausting. Less than 100 miles southwest of Chicago, you’ll find two parks of unparalleled beauty and pristine nature just five miles from each other that are both perfect for hiking and backpacking, and just general relaxation. Starved Rock State Park in Oglesby features 18 sandstone canyons and waterfalls along its 15 miles of trails. Hikes range from less than an hour to Starved Rock and back to the parking lot to 4-mile treks in Ottawa and Kaskaskia canyons. There’s also Lover’s Leap and the Starved Rock Lock and Dam, where you will enjoy the Belle of the Rock paddle boarding.
Matthiessen State Park features five miles of hiking trails with leisurely destinations that include canyons and spectacular rock formations. The charming village of Utica is close by, so pick up takeout lunch at Joy and Ed’s and find a spot along the trail for a picnic with a view of a canyon or waterfall. After a long hike, enjoy rich Irish food without guilt and split a pitcher of dark beer at Utica’s Duffy’s Tavern. Rent a cottage at Lander’s House and rise early to go antiquing at Clark’s Run Antiques and then wine tasting at August Hill Winery.
To top off your wilderness adventure with some whitewater, rent a canoe or kayak and enter the Starved Rock boat ramp on the west end along the Vermillion River. Guided rafting tours of three to four hours are also available.
2. Gay in Galena
This charming town a few hours west of Chicago on the way to the Mississippi River makes you want to be or fall in love. With quaint inns and B&Bs, world-class resorts with top golf courses and indulgent spas, Galena beckons — and it is super gay-friendly so let your love shine. Feel free walking down historic Main Street holding hands with your better half on your way to Galena Brewing Company or Blaum Brothers Distilling Co., the farm-to-table One Eleven Main restaurant or shopping at any number of quaint shops. (Tip: If you like fudge, you will get your fill in this town.)
Check out (or into) Aldrich Guest House, owned by Douglas and Robert, the couple pictured above, or the Inn at Irish Hollow for the B&B experience. Once you are settled and rested, adventures abound. There’s ballooning by Galena On The Fly and horseback and authentic stagecoach rides as well as boating, fishing and even golfing.
You may want to extend your getaway down the Great River Road along the Mississippi for more amazing adventures. The Great River Road starts in Galena and finishes in Southern Illinois, often described as one of the best and most scenic drives in America.
3. Hiking, Biking and Wine Tasting in Carbondale
You can definitely find your country gay crowd at bars like the Burgundy Room and Club Traz, but you’re going to Carbondale to get outside. This southern Illinois college town is a haven for nature lovers with access to state and national parks like Shawnee National Forest (pictured, above) and Little Grand Canyon. Here you’ll find rolling hills with miles of trails for hiking and biking, rugged bluffs for rock climbing and dense forests for high-speed ziplining.
A must-see is Jackson Falls, located near the town of Ozark in the Hidden Springs Ranger District in Shawnee National Forest. But you can also hit the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail and visit 11 wineries and tasting rooms including Blue Sky Vineyards, Pomona Winery, and StarView Vineyards to taste riesling, cabernet franc, and other sun-ripened local grapes. Garden of Gods and Rim Rock Trail are also hidden treasures not to be missed.
4. Explore the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail
When it comes to home decor, we like to think we have the market cornered. But before we started taking multiple weekend trips to Ikea, remember that Frank Lloyd Wright set the pace for modern architectural design from his home base in Oak Park, just outside Chicago. While many of Wright’s homes stand in that leafy suburb, you can follow the official Frank Lloyd Wright Trail throughout Illinois. Gaze upon his beautiful creations during your own trip down the annals of architecture history. You can drive north toward Rockford or south toward Springfield and catch 13 homes while hitting quaint towns for antiquing, farmers markets and corner cafes along the way. This newly developed trail also recommends restaurants, breweries, and coffee houses, including Prairie School in Chicago, Brickstone Brewery in Kankakee and Rockford Roasting Company in Rockford.
5. Tour de Lincoln
We’ll never know for sure if Abraham Lincoln was a gay (he was married to a Mary after all), but we do know the profound impact he left on our nation. Illinois is the Land of Lincoln and Springfield is where the great emancipator spent much of his early life. Head to Springfield, the state capital, to tour significant sites in Lincoln’s life such as the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Old State Capitol State Historic Site, where he argued many cases, and Oak Ridge Cemetery, his final resting place.
6. Romantic Countryside
Even before the whole nation went gaga for gay marriage, Illinois was one of the earliest proponents of civil unions and adopters of same-sex marriage. Today the state has a number of stunning venues in which to say, “I Do,” as you gaze lovingly into your lover’s eyes as mom weeps in joy. One spot, the Mansion and Allerton Park in Monticello, Ill., just outside Champaign, offers a breathtaking and dreamlike venue to mark your wedding day. The property comprises a number of places to host your nuptials including the formal gardens, grand gallery, a two-story Dutch hay barn and the jaw-dropping century-old, Georgian-style mansion.
Get ready to throw a stunner your friends and family will never forget.