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It’s winter in Illinois, and you know what that means… bald eagle watching season is upon us! Spotting bald eagles in the wild during their annual return to Illinois is the highlight of the season for many locals and visitors alike. As the state home to the largest wintering population of bald eagles outside Alaska, you can imagine there are a wide variety of eagle watching hot spots, tours and events dedicated to this majestic bird. With thousands of these birds wintering along the Mighty Mississippi River on the western edge of the state December through March, visitors are sure to see at least one!

Starting at the very northwest corner of the state, head to Galena to experience a guided Bald Eagle Bus Tour. These four-hour tours are dedicated to helping visitors observe anywhere from 30 to 450 wintering bald eagles along the Upper Mississippi River. Even better is that  you will have several opportunities to schedule your tour, with availability on January 21, February 11 and 25.

Bald Eagle Bus Tours in Galena are an immersive and exciting nature experience.

Travel a bit southeast of Galena and you’ll come to Peoria in Central Illinois. Each year, hundreds of bald eagle winter here in the Illinois River Valley. The Forest Park Nature Center, Peoria Audubon Society and Wildlife Prairie Park celebrate the season with events and tours, including Bald Eagle Day on January 7 from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at Wildlife Prairie Park. Activities include a special bird scavenger hunt, crafting and plenty of tips for successfully spotting a bald eagle.

Visitors will see a live bald eagle demonstration at Bald Eagle Day at Wildlife Prairie Park in Peoria.

Continue your journey to the Great River Road and you’ll make your way to Alton, another eagle-watching hot spot. For true eagle enthusiast, stay at the Pere Marquette Lodge and Conference Center to be just steps away from the bird watching action. The Great Room is the perfect spot to pull up a chair and take in the beautiful view of the Illinois River; you might even catch a glimpse of an eagle on the banks. Bald Eagle Days throughout January and February at Pere Marquette State Park give visitors the chance to learn more about the life of the bald eagle with video and live presentations as well as a guided tour.

Alton is an eagle-watching hot spot.

For a full weekend of eagle watching activities, look no further than Starved Rock State Park’s Annual Eagle Watch Weekend from January 28-29. This two-day eagle extravaganza offers fun for the entire family, including interactive activities to help you learn more about these majestic creatures and their home in Starved Rock State Park. You will also get the chance to get up close with breathtaking eagles and raptors during special “Birds of Prey” shows, held throughout the day. Once you’ve brushed up on your eagle knowledge, it’s time to hit the trails! You can either hike up to the top of Starved Rock at your own pace or join in on a guided eagle viewing tour to get a look at these epic creatures in the wild.

View bald eagles in their natural habitat during Starved Rock State Park’s Eagle Watch Weekend. (Photo by Instagram user @mschuermann)

These are just a few of the dozens of locations, events and tours along Western Illinois that are perfect for eagle watching. For more information about where to find prime locations, explore Things to Do – Eagle Watching on EnjoyIllinois.com.

-Illinois Office of Tourism

Which historic town is located in the northwest corner of Illinois and has outstanding dining, drinks, shopping and hospitality? Galena! With an historic Main Street filled with charming B&Bs, shopping, and dining, Galena offers plenty to do for a weekend getaway. Because Galena is such a great Midwest getaway, we recently sent Chicago-based foodie and Instagrammer Samantha Roby (known on Instagram as @chicagofoodauthority) there to share her experience of tasting her way through the town and her view on the spectacular sites.

Throughout her weekend trip, Samantha captured incredible food pictures and experienced many Galena activities including spa services, wine tasting, cooking classes and more. Below you’ll find a brief look at Samantha’s itinerary, as well as hear her story through a Q&A session with the Illinois Office of Tourism team upon her return. Warning: the food pics below are sure to make your mouth water!

ITINERARY

 DAY 1

Lunch at Little Tokyo Japanese Restaurant

Little Tokyo is home to some of the freshest Japanese sushi in the Midwest. After opening in 2009, Little Tokyo quickly earned its reputation for the finest Japanese food in the Midwest, serving signature rolls made with the freshest yellowtail, salmon and tuna.  In addition to raw fish dishes, Little Tokyo has a wide variety of menu items, including Japanese steaks, Teriyaki and beef dishes to please every palate.

 Cooking Demonstration with The Breakfast Diva

Food Network winner Susan Steffan, better known as “The Breakfast Diva”, shares the secrets of her kitchen during her cooking classes and at her restaurant, Farmers Guest House. Her 80-minute interactive cooking show includes lots of audience participation, laughs, hints, cooking tips and stories from Susan’s Food Network experience. The class menu changes throughout the year to include seasonal ingredients so repeat visitors can always learn something new. After you’ve prepared the food alongside Susan, attendees get the chance to taste the delicious masterpieces they’ve created.

Weekend-long stay at The Goldmoor Inn

Previously a privately-owned estate, the magnificent Goldmoor Inn celebrates 30+ years of hospitality after its transformation. The inn offers guests everything from cabins to suites, and even cottages. During their stay, guests can expect to enjoy top-notch service, decadent dining and relaxing spa services in a romantic setting overlooking the Mississippi River.

DAY 2

Spa Session at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa

At Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa, visitors can enjoy a soothing, relaxing 50-minute spa session in a remote and quiet area. With more than 6,000 square feet of spa space and 10 signature treatments, you will feel at peace and rejuvenated after a professional masseuse works out your body’s most stressed-out spots.

In addition to relaxation packages, Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa offers other activities like golfing on the resort’s four championship golf courses, horseback riding, boating and access to Galena’s hot air balloon experience, Galena on the Fly. Lodging accommodations range from a golf-side villa to a beautifully decorated traditional inn room, perfect for a weekend getaway.

Tour of Galena Wine Cellars Vineyard & Winery

At Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery, you can experience Illinois wine and celebrate a 30-year tradition of family winemaking. Enjoy wine tasting, from a choice of 40 different varietals, while relaxing on the comfortable wrap-around deck of the charming farmhouse turned Tasting Room. During a tour and tasting, visitors learn how the 22 varieties of grapes grown in the rich soil go from humble vine to award-winning wine.

The vineyard is open year-round and offers lodging along with the tastings and tours. Galena Wine Cellars Vineyard also hosts special annual events such as the Wine Lover’s Weekend in March, Fall Harvest and Art Festival in September, and Nouveau Wine Weekend in November.

Tour Night of Luminaria and Living Windows

Each December, Galena lights up with nearly 5,000 candle-lit Luminaria scattered throughout the town. But that’s not all; shop windows along Main Street come to life with old-fashioned Christmas decorations and displays during Living Windows, adding to the holiday cheer. During the festivities, many local businesses also set up shop outdoors along Main Street so that visitors can browse while taking in the lights display.

DAY 3

Lunch at One Eleven Main

One Eleven Main brings farm-to-table dining to Galena. The restaurant works directly with local farmers and features locally-sourced ingredients in their tasty, one-of-a-kind dishes. With a wide variety of menu items for lunch and dinner, any foodie is sure to enjoy the delicious dishes One Eleven Main serves up.

Exploring Galena

To take a trip similar to Samantha’s, or to plan your own Galena getaway, check out our Trip Ideas.

Q&A

We chatted with Samantha after her trip, and here’s what she had to say about her Galena adventure.

Q: What were you most looking forward to before beginning the trip?

Samantha Roby: I have always heard wonderful things about Galena from friends that had visited, but never got around to making the trip for myself. As a Chicago resident, I have tried many of the amazing restaurants in the city but haven’t had the chance to experience the culinary offerings throughout the rest of the state. I was really excited to get the chance to not only try out new restaurants in Galena, but explore a part of the state that I had never visited.

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Looking for incredible farm to table dishes? One Eleven Main is the place to go!

Q: Was there anything that surprised you about the trip?

 Samantha Roby: Yes, before I left I had an image of a quiet small town in my head. I knew that there were great restaurants and outdoor attractions, but there turned out to be so much more than I had expected.  As I made my way through the downtown, I could not believe just how much there was to explore. Main Street is bustling with a ton of cute shops and bakeries, like Sweetheart Bakery, as well as a wide variety of locally-owned restaurants and bars that were easy to drop into. One of my favorite places to visit was Galena Canning Company. I loved getting to sample all of the delicious jellies and sauces and talk with the owners about the family history behind their products.

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Your sweet tooth will thank you for stopping to try one of these doughy creations at Sweetheart Bakery.

Q: What is one “must visit” attraction in Galena?

Samantha Roby: Our visit to Galena Cellars Vineyard and Winery was definitely a high point of the trip. While the vineyards were closed off for the season, the tasting room and winery were open for us to explore. I have been on a number of wine tours before, but I have never been given such an in-depth look into the wine making process. During our tour, we were led into the fermentation room where we got to taste fresh fruits, such as strawberries and rhubarbs, and then watch as they were pressed to create delicious dessert wines. It was so interesting to see the different machinery in use as the process was happening.

It was clear that the Galena Cellars team has perfected the wine-making process and is committed to making sure their products are made with the freshest ingredients. This became even more evident as we moved into the tasting room to try some varietals for ourselves. Every single wine we tried had a perfectly unique flavor. Our plan was to purchase one bottle to enjoy once we got back to Chicago, but they were so good we ended up buying a whole case!

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Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery was named the 2016 Best Winery in Illinois by Yahoo .

Q: If you only had time for one meal in Galena, where would you recommend stopping?

Samantha Roby: While everywhere we ate was wonderful, I would definitely recommend Otto’s Place. We stopped there for brunch on Saturday and I can honestly say it was one of the best brunches I’ve had in a long time. We ordered the breakfast tacos, corn beef hash and a big side of ham, and everything was delicious. We couldn’t put our finger on exactly what seasoning they used, but my boyfriend and I have not stopped talking about it since we’ve gotten back. I make potatoes for myself at home but the hash there was truly incredible because of how well it was seasoned. We’re thinking about giving them a call to see if they sell any of their special seasonings for us to use at home!

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Take it from Samantha, Otto’s Place is a must visit brunch spot while in Galena!

Q: What would you say to someone who has never visited Galena?

Samantha Roby: What are you waiting for?! After visiting I could not believe that it took me as long as it did to take a trip out there. Galena truly has something for everyone to experience, no matter what your interests are. There are incredible restaurants and wineries, relaxing spas, unique shops, and tons of historical sites, all surrounded by the beautiful Galena Territory. To top it off, everyone you meet is incredibly friendly and ready to offer their recommendation on where you should visit around town.

If anything, I wish that my trip was longer so that I could experience even more of Galena’s great attractions. Now that I’ve visited Galena in the winter, I would love to go back in warmer weather so that I can ride the zip-line at Chestnut Mountain, take a trolley tour to learn more about Galena’s history and maybe even go for a hot air balloon ride. The options are endless!

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-Illinois Office of Tourism

 

Illinois is teeming with places to spend time with your family, and there’s also no shortage of history to learn about during pretty much any road trip around the state. We recently partnered with Chicago-based photographer and Instagramer Craig Hensel (@thecraighensel) and his family as they took a road trip around Central Illinois. Along the way, Craig caught some incredible photos as they learned more about Illinois Amish community, took part in some fall activities and learned a bit more about the history of Abraham Lincoln. Below you’ll find a brief look at Craig’s itinerary, as well as a Q&A session the Illinois Office of Tourism had with him upon his return.

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A map of Craig’s three-day, Central Illinois road trip.

ITINERARY

Day 1

The Great Pumpkin Patch, Arthur

The Great Pumpkin Patch has more than 300 varieties of pumpkins, squash and gourds from 30+ countries around the world; all grown on the farm at The 200 Acres. Amazing pumpkin towers, beautiful gardens and a petting zoo with goats, pigs, exotic chickens, rabbits, a llama and an alpaca, make this a great family spot.

Located in Arthur,  a town of 2,200 residents, the Great Pumpkin Patch sits  in the heart of Illinois Amish Country, with more than 1,000 Amish families living in the countryside. Established in 1865 by a handful of families, today more than 4,500 Amish live in the town and surrounding rural townships.

Aikman Wildlife Adventure, Arcola

Located between Arthur and Arcola, Aikman Wildlife Adventure is a drive-through park where you can get up close and personal with animals you’ve only seen on television or behind fencing at a zoo. Visitors have the opportunity to see and take pictures of animals walking around directly outside their vehicles while  driving the one-mile long path through the park. Aikman’s also features a separate walk-through adventure with kangaroos, cavies, wallabies and lemurs, and a large petting zoo area.

DAY 2

Marcoot Jersey Creamery, Greenville

Marcoot Jersey Creamery, a proud maker in the Illinois Made program, is a seventh-generation, family-owned farm that specializes in the handcrafted production of artisan and farmstead cheeses. At the creamery, visitors can take a tour and meet the cows, experience the milking parlor, and sample and purchase a variety of cheeses, ice creams and more.

DAY 3

Abraham Lincoln Sites, Springfield

History comes alive around every corner in Springfield, home to more Lincoln sites than anywhere else in the nation. Visitors can explore everything from the historic Old State Capitol to Lincoln’s home, tomb and  his must-see presidential museum.

To take a trip similar to Craig’s, or to plan an entirely new trip, check out our Trip Ideas.

Q&A

Here’s what Craig had to say about his favorite memories of the trip and some of the information he and his family learned along the way.

Q: What were you most looking forward to before beginning the trip?

Craig Hensel: I was most looking forward to my time on the trip with my family and exploring Illinois. As far as a place I was particularly excited to see, that had to be Arthur and the Amish community. That was really unique to me, and I enjoyed watching my kids experience things they’d never seen before.

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Craig’s daughter running towards a tower of pumpkins at The Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur. (Photo by Craig Hensel)

Q: Was there anything that surprised you about the trip?

Craig Hensel: One thing that really surprised me in Springfield was when we went into this shop that had antiques from Lincoln’s days; like an old muzzleloader. I didn’t expect that to be in the town, and I was impressed that the shop had such old stuff.

The other thing that surprised me was our visit to Marcoot Jersey Creamery. Marcoot’s story is incredible – now run by the family’s seventh generation. You don’t see family businesses handed down from generation to generation like that very much anymore, so it was a really special experience for our family.

The big surprise was when we were driving home, we stopped at Lincoln’s New Salem site in Petersburg, and that blew our minds. We felt like we were walking back in time.

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Unique angle inside the Old State Capitol State Historic Site in Springfield. (Photo by Craig Hensel)

Q: After you got back to Chicago, had anything changed in your expectations of the trip?

Craig Hensel: I expected to see the rural towns, but I didn’t expect to see the diversity in the communities, like the Amish County in Arthur. What blew my mind was seeing the Lincoln sites through the historic lens. It was very impressive to learn so much about our state’s history. I felt a deeper understanding of what Illinois is and who we are.

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Craig’s wife, Jenah, was resting on Lincoln’s cabin at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. (Photo by Craig Hensel)

Q: Is there one specific memory or experience from the trip that’s going to stick with you?

Craig Hensel: The Lincoln museum was a big one for sure. The era of pioneer history is very attractive. Lincoln’s New Salem Site was probably the most memorable. We had time to walk through the woods and decompress as a family before heading back to the big city. Another good memory is from Marcoot Creamery. My daughter loves animals, and so here’s my kid in the middle of this little barn with about 25 calves that were just born. That visual memory of my kids is awesome. Also, when my daughter was picking up farm dogs and watching three or four dogs surrounding her. Those little memories in my mind are what will stick.

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An awesome close-up shot of a zebra at Aikman Wildlife Adventure in Arcola. (Photo by Craig Hensel)

Q: Any last advice for other Chicagoans looking to explore downstate?

Craig Hensel: I think people are missing out if people don’t take time to take a three-hour trip. There’s a National Park right in Springfield!

Going downstate, don’t be afraid to take the back roads. Don’t be afraid to follow the brown highway signs. The food and the hospitality are amazing, and anytime you can, take advantage of the farm-to-table dining. If you haven’t already, make a stop in Springfield to visit the Abraham Lincoln sites, and see for yourself what it was like to live back in the 1800s. Experience local restaurants and mom and pop restaurants, which probably have the best food in the Midwest. Try to drive Route 66 if you can and go through the small, historic towns.

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A beautiful rural road near the Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur. (Photo by Craig Hensel)

– Illinois Office of Tourism

After an anxious wait this season, the colors of autumn have finally arrived in Illinois. State parks and regional forests are brimming with vibrant yellow, orange and fiery red leaves. This week we asked you to show us your best photos of the fall colors and you delivered! Check out a few of our favorite captures below. Be sure to follow us on Instagram for upcoming weekly challenges. Share your best photos with us by tagging #EnjoyIllinois and your photo could be featured.

For more unique Illinois destinations, events and attractions check out EnjoyIllinois.com.

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This picturesque scene at Humboldt Park was captured by @carolineefarrow.

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@svmueljvcobs found the perfect nook of Wildcat Canyon in Starved Rock State Park to capture this shot.

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Even on a cloudy day fall colors pop. Thanks @charmcq for the photo.

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This trail at the Morton Arboretum looks so inviting. Thanks to @Kristenryanphotography for the photo!

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We think photographer @crgshprg was right when he described these fallen leaves in Wilmette as “falling stars!”

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We can’t help but wonder what awaited photographer @lifeinbloomphotos at the end of the Moraine View State Park Trail. Looks magical!

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Simply looking up is a magical experience in Thatcher Woods. Thanks for the photo @Haliten.

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The red autumn leaves look lovely at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield. Photo by @mymidwesthome.

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@ldarling43 took an awesome shot of the sugar maple leaves in Danville.

-Illinois Office of Tourism

Everyone needs a little “spook” in their lives and October is the perfect time to fill that void. Here in Illinois we pride ourselves on the rich, yet eerie, history that lurks throughout the state. This year we’ve put together a list of some of the must-experience, creepy destinations around. From Alton to Polo, Illinois has something spooky to offer for every member of the family.

Haunted Decatur Ghost Tour

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A haunted stop on the tour. Scared yet? Photo courtesy of @Troy_A_Taylor

Decatur, Illinois is known to be one of America’s most haunted towns and Troy Taylor’s Haunted Decatur is the best way to get the full frightening you seek. These tours are not just a collection of ghost stories, but a true history of how the city became so haunted, including local sites of unsolved murders, strange crimes, gambling parlors and vice districts. Whether you decide to take in a haunted tour by foot or bus, you’ll be sure to get a firsthand look at the city’s vast haunted history.

McPike Mansion Haunted Tours

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Visitors take a tour of the famously haunted mansion.

The McPike Mansion in Alton hasn’t been occupied since the 1950’s and yet curious events continue to stir on the premises. Unexplained balls of light and shadows of those unseen have made their way into many a photographer’s photos, making it a popular destination for paranormal enthusiasts from around the world. Tours run weekend evenings throughout the month of October, where you can explore the mansion and its grounds for the chance to experience a moment with the spirit of Henry Guest McPike and his family for yourself.

Torment at Twelve Hundred

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Relax, they’re just actors. We think…

The Torment at Twelve Hundred team takes their work of scaring the pants off you very seriously, which is probably why they were named one of the top 10 haunts in Illinois by USA Today. Each year, Torment presents a new chapter in its ongoing twisted horror story, sending you on a walking path through dark winding tunnels, outdoor wooded trails, highly detailed mills, hospitals and more.  Located 14 miles southeast of the Quad Cities, tours run every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night through Halloween, for those who dare to attend.

Horror Film Series at the Egyptian Theatre

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Country Corner warns visitors. Photo courtesy of @susurrafonseca

Country Corner invites one and all to join them for nighttime fun filled with a flashlight maze, zombie paintball and bonfires with dates throughout October. The flashlight maze makes for great “no scare fun” for younger Halloween fans or those who want to get festive without the fear of darkness.

Below are even more eerie events to check out this season:

For more information about where to get scared silly this Halloween season, visit the Illinois Trail of Terror site, here.

-Illinois Office of Tourism