How to 'Winter' to the Fullest in Illinois
In Illinois, winter isn’t a season, it’s a verb. “To winter” means to put on your puffy coat and mittens and get out and about, to seize the season instead of hibernating.
Between indoor relaxation and outdoor adventure, there is plenty to do throughout the winter and around the state of Illinois.
Here are a few more verbs you might find yourself using if you “winter” there.
If your ears perk up when you hear goats are involved, then make a beeline for Galena, a small town nestled in the rolling hills of northwest Illinois. Founded as a Mississippi River stop roughly halfway between St. Paul and St. Louis, Galena blossomed in the 19th century and was the one-time home of Ulysses S. Grant, before his history-making turns as Civil War general and president. The downtown has retained its charm over the years — more than 85% of the town is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The surrounding countryside of Jo Daviess County is known for its natural beauty, and that's where the goats come in. With Hoof It, you can take to those hills and trek with goats through all four seasons. A family-run business, Hoof It takes visitors on a trek exploring the wooded property and prairies that have been in the family for four generations. Suitable for all ages and abilities, the hike lasts about an hour and is 1.25 miles long. (And yes, you can pet the goats.)
If trekking for retail therapy is more your taste, fear not. Galena’s Main Street is home to more than 125 independently owned shops.
Whether you’re a novice or an expert, you can try your hand (literally) at ice climbing in Illinois. There are two types of ice to experience here. Alpine ice is the steep, compact snow and ice that's typically found high on a mountain. Cascade ice is formed when free-flowing water freezes, i.e. a frozen waterfall.
Learn the basics on a 40-foot man-made ice tower located at Camp Manitoqua in Frankfort, Illinois. You can bring your own gear (ice axes, crampons/boots, harness and helmet) or rent it there for a 2-hour training session with Nice Ice Ice Climbing.
Many state parks have waterfalls, but at Starved Rock State Park in Oglesby, you can actually climb them. About 1.5 hours drive southwest of Chicago, this park is perched atop cliffs overlooking the Illinois River and has four different locations that can be scaled: Ottawa Canyon, LaSalle Canyon, Tonti Canyon and Wild Cat Canyon. Climbing is allowed between 7 a.m. and dusk, but climbers must register, pay a fee and sign in/out at the Park Maintenance building.
In addition to being an ice-climbing destination, Starved Rock State Park also has 13 miles of well-marked trails, and these have become popular with snowshoers. (You’ll have to bring your own though, as there are no rentals at the park.) Along the way, you’ll see impressive rock formations, waterfalls and scenic lookouts.
If you don’t have your own pair of snowshoes, don’t despair as there are places that rent them. Head to the Morton Arboretum in the western Chicago suburb of Lisle. Open from 7 a.m. to sunset, the Arboretum covers 1,700 acres and has 16 miles of hiking trails. Part of the McHenry County Conservation District in northern Illinois, Glacial Park offers 3,400 acres of prairie, savanna and rolling hills as well as eight miles of trails, perfect for leaving only your snowshoe tracks.
In the wintertime, Illinois is home to more bald eagles than any other state besides Alaska. In March 2021, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources calculated that there are more than 3,100 bald eagles in Illinois. The birds are scattered in at least 27 counties of Illinois' 102 counties, so you have a decent chance of spotting one if you’re moving around the state.
Good places to watch for eagles include the top of Starved Rock and by the lock and dam of the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center in Utica. Bald eagles tend to be most visible nesting in frozen cliffs and trees in the early morning (sunrise through 10 a.m.) and tend to be soaring in the afternoon.
Events are normally held in the winter to help you catch a glimpse of our national bird. Head to Alton and hop on board a 45-minute shuttle ride that will take you to several prime spotting stops along the Mississippi River; tours are held every Saturday in January. Guided tours are also available every Saturday in January around the Grafton region; these two-hour tours highlight areas like the Brussels Ferry, Calhoun Point and Pere Marquette State Park.
On Jan. 22-23, check out the Great River Eagle Days in Quincy, which include everything from eagle viewings to Native American foods and crafts to the annual Blessing of the Eagle ceremony. The Eagle Festival (Jan. 30) in Grafton includes vendor booths, local wine tasting and meeting magnificent birds. The World Bird Sanctuary will present a Masters of the Sky Show featuring owls, falcons, eagles and more.
Keep your gloved hands extra warm when walking around Chicago by holding a cup of artisanal hot chocolate. Travelzoo’s Chicago office recommends Mindy’s Bakery, started by 2012 James Beard Foundation Award winner Mindy Segal, who was named outstanding pastry chef. The bakery’s hot chocolate is “just like drinking straight melted chocolate and they make their own marshmallows,” raved one Travelzoo deal expert. XOCO on North Clark Street also received top marks for its frothy Mexican hot chocolate.
If you’re just doing it for the ‘gram, then head to Bombobar, where your sweet tooth will be satiated by their over-the-top hot chocolates. (Ingredients for their s’mores hot chocolate include chocolate custard, toasted marshmallow, graham cracker, chocolate bar, gail’s give me s’more double fudge brownie, hot fudge and a graham cracker bombolini.)
Every winter, downtown Chicago’s Millennium Park is transformed into a winter wonderland. Glide along the ice in the shadow of “The Bean” sculpture and the lights of Michigan Avenue at the McCormick Tribune Skating Rink (daily through March 6). The rink is free to enter, but online reservations are required. Skate rentals are available.
If you get tired of doing laps, check out the neighboring Maggie Daley Park Skating Ribbon, which meanders through snow-dusted pine trees and around soaring climbing walls. Weather permitting, the rink will be open through March 13, but advance reservations are required.
Ice skating is also taking place at Gallagher Way, right next to Wrigley Field (through Feb. 20). The 8,000-square-foot ice rink is open every day of the week and not only offers skate rentals but also the chance to watch figure-skating performances. Children 12 and under get free admission. New this year, this rink also offers ice bumper cars through Jan. 30.
Despite its nickname of "the Prairie State," Illinois offers a surprising number of ways to hit the slopes. Plus, if you’re a beginner, smaller hills aren’t so bad (and they’re cheaper too).
Chestnut Mountain Resort in Galena has a 475-foot vertical drop with 19 runs, ranging from novice to black diamond, so all levels of skiers and snowboarders can enjoy the ride. There is also a 20,000-square-foot ski center full of brand-name equipment and clothes to buy or rent. One-day lift tickets range from $45-$65.
Just minutes from Chicago in Lisle, Four Lakes Alpine Snowsports has been offering skiing and snowboarding lessons and a terrain park for six decades. Slope tickets are no more than $30 for a fun day outside the city. A little further out in Bartlett, Villa Olivia offers downhill skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing. The hill includes seven runs, a chairlift, six rope tows and a tubing hill. Slope tickets are no more than $44 per person.
You don’t need to be a guest at one of Chicago’s 5-star hotels to relax at their award-winning luxury spas, and there are plenty to choose from. Chuan Spa, at The Langham, Chicago, incorporates traditional Chinese elements like the chime of metal Bianzhong bells and acupuncture techniques in its treatments. Add your own spin on a stroll down the Magnificent Mile by booking yourself a session at The Spa at Four Seasons Hotel Chicago; their signature Magnificent Mile massage is customizable from pressure to essential oil blends.
Head to the top floor of The Peninsula Chicago, where you’ll not only find stunning views of the city, but also its signature Peninsula Spa. Inspired by Ayurvedic and Asian philosophies, treatments here range from hot stone massages to deep-cleansing facials. Bring your partner to The Waldorf Astoria Spa for a romantic couple’s massage or indulge in an Ashiatsu deep tissue massage. If you decide to stay the night, you can even book another treatment — this time in your room.