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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

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

Autumn in the Midwest is a spectacular sight to behold and even better to experience up close. The plethora of pumpkin patches scattered across the state of Illinois gives residents and visitors alike an opportunity to really enjoy the season to its fullest. This week we asked you to show us your best pumpkin patch shots 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.

krolls-fall-harvest-farm-1-pumpkin-at-zophack

This looks like a shot straight out of an old book of fairy tales about pumpkins. Thanks for this amazing close up at Kroll’s Farm, @zophack.

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So many pumpkins, we lost track trying to count! Photo captured at Bengston’s by @jchirempes.

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Tiny pumpkins are often overlooked so we have to thank @lakes77 for spotting the rich colors and beauty of these smaller gourds at Bengston’s Pumpkin Farm.

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Some fly the W, others paint their pumpkins in support. We like both – go Cubs! Thanks to @chicagobotanic for the photo.

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Goebbert’s Pumpkin Farm knows how to greet folks in search of the perfect pumpkin. Cool shot from @msoma97.

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Gourds galore! Thanks for the photo @a_touch_of_b. Green City Market – (at) a_touch_of_b.png

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Instagramer @thechispy couldn’t pass up the chance to get a shot of these pretty pumpkins and we don’t blame her!

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Not one of these gourds is the same and we can thank nature for that. Great shot @mabblytribe!

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Come for the art, leave with a pumpkin, that’s our motto. Thanks for the cool photo in front of the Alexander Calder ‘Flamingo’ statue in Chicago’s Federal Plaza @ll_cool_j2!

It’s amazing the view you get to enjoy when you’re at a high vantage point. Whether you’re standing in the window of a Chicago skyscraper or on top of a cliff with a view of an entire forest, Illinois provides incredible views. This week we ask you to capture your view from a high vantage point, 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 week we kicked off the challenge with a shot from the top of the Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier from @dmarieolsen.

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Mississippi Palisades State Park in Savanna offers the peace of mind that we always count on nature to provide. This serene photo was taken by @zophack.

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Helicopter tours of Chicago are for the adventurer in all of us. This photo defines what it means to have a “high vantage point.” Great shot captured by @thecraighensel.

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Only a high vantage point can provide the view of the mist from a rainy day over Millennium Park. Thanks @macknielson for such a great photo!

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All of the lights courtesy of @jayeffex.

sunrise-over-lake-at-gkluvschi

Can we all just sigh in jealousy of @gkluvschi’s South Loop view in Chicago?

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When your view gives you a front row seat to the storm that’s brewing, you take a photo. Awesome capture @e4rlyr1ser!

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Nature’s brilliance from above. Visit Starved Rock State Park to see for yourself. Thanks for capturing @minaxivishnu!

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Thanks @natelongg, from those of us who may not have the moxie to dangle our feet from great heights to get the photo.

-Illinois Office of Tourism