Living in a big city has lots of advantages: different neighborhoods to explore; lots of cuisine to experiment with; shopping and art and museums and culture. But living in a big city can often also seem overwhelming: the quick pace of life; the constant noise; the feeling like you should always be out doing something. Fortunately, for those living in the urban haven that is Chicago, there are lots of places to venture to just beyond the city limits that offer respite from the hustle.


In September, four Passion Passport staff members had the opportunity to explore some of those destinations thanks to a collaboration with Enjoy Illinois. We headed westward, first visiting the city of Galena and then stopping in Rockford, Oglesby and Ottawa. The trip was a blast and we’re excited to share some of our favorite places and moments with you.

Starved Rock State Park


Just ninety minutes from the city is the oasis of Starved Rock State Park, a National Historic Landmark. Home to 18 canyons formed by glacial melt-water and stream erosion, you can lose yourself in cavernous spaces framed by large, looming rocks and towering trees. A myriad of scenic overlooks also offer views over the Illinois River. Paths are well-marked and cater to hikers of all ages and abilities.

Just a few miles down the road from Starved Rock is Matthiessen State Park, centered on a stream that flows from Matthiessen Lake to the Vermilion River. The stream has cut through the sandstone layers, leaving interesting rock formations on either side. Like Starved Rock, paths are easily accessible.


Not a fan of hiking? Fear not; Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks also offer opportunities for canoeing, paddleboat cruises, trolley rides, bird-watching, and cross-country skiing.


Rockford is not only home to the Rockford Peaches (yes, the infamous baseball team from A League of Their Own), but also to the Anderson Japanese Gardens, one of only two authentic gardens in North America. You can meander down various paths to discover waterfalls and ponds, often surrounded by beautiful Sukiya-style buildings. Take a moment for meditation, yoga or journaling while sitting adjacent of the Garden of Reflection; it feels as though you’ve been transported to another place and time.



While in Rockford, also be sure to stop at the Prairie Street Brewhouse/Rockford Brewing Company. Founded in 2011, the building sits right on the Rock River in the heart of downtown and, so long as it’s warm, you can enjoy good eats and a hearty selection of beverages right on the terrace. They pride themselves on working with Western Michigan farmers and agricultural products, adding a local flavor to their process.


The city of Ottawa sits right at the confluence of the Illinois and Fox Rivers, making it a great spot for a kayak or canoe trip. Grab breakfast or lunch at Tracy’s Boat House then head out on the water. There are some small beaches and islands scattered downriver where you can take breaks and bask in the sunshine. We even found one with some small grills set up – the perfect setting for a late afternoon snack.



Of course, there are other quaint cities and towns to explore all throughout the state of Illinois; what’s stopping you from planning your next day trip or weekend getaway? Sure, city living is fun – but leave the hustle behind for a few days to enjoy the trees and cornfields and gardens. We guarantee it will leave you feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to tackle the world.