Visit Galena, the winter wonderland of Illinois
One of the most scenic towns in Illinois, Galena is a picturesque wonderland in the winter, with its snow-covered hills, valleys and charming 19th century architecture. If you’re looking for a variety of outdoor recreation and the opportunity to see some real winter snow birds, head north to this town of 3,400 in far northwestern Illinois, about 230 miles from Springfield.
The woodsy nature trails and bluffs with views of the Mississippi River form a dramatic backdrop for your favorite outdoor activities. In Galena you can go downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing or sledding. Dog lovers can learn how to skijore, a type of cross-country skiing in which your dog pulls you on skis. A horse-drawn sleigh ride through town or to one of the area wineries is another way to enjoy the scenery.
Early settlers and lead miners discovered the area early in the 19th century when Galena was fast becoming an important port on the Mississippi River. They followed in the steps of Native Americans who mined the mineral galena and, after them, early French trappers. When the river changed course, Galena lost much of its commerce but maintained its historic architecture. Among its important buildings are the Ulysses S. Grant house, which welcomed the returning general in 1865 after the Civil War and continued as his home after he was elected president in 1868, and the DeSoto House, which opened in 1855 and is now the oldest operating hotel in Illinois.
For other lodging choices, Galena also has ski and golf resorts, motels and several B&B’s. Combined with a variety of restaurants, specialty shops and spas, Galena provides plenty of creature comforts for an enjoyable getaway weekend, whether you experience the scenic views outdoors or from the comfort of your hotel room.
Outdoor sports dominate Galena’s winter calendar. Chestnut Mountain Resort, just nine miles south of Galena, is a draw for downhill skiers and snowboarders from around the Midwest. Eagle Ridge Resort, also a short drive from Galena, offers cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding and spa services to its guests.
You don’t have to stay at a resort, though, to have fun here. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are available at several public locations in the area. Galena has two cross-country trails that begin in town – the tree-lined trail south of the Galena River, and the north river trail that leads to the Buehler Preserve and hilly woods.
Just outside of Galena on Pilot Knob Road is the Casper Bluff Land and Water Reserve, a new public preserve. Skiers and hikers on snowshoes can create their own trails through forests and meadows, with a wonderful view of the Mississippi as the payoff. It’s also become a popular birdwatching area. At other times of the year, visitors can view the effigy mound of a thunderbird, the only known intact one in Illinois.
Other nature trails within driving distance of Galena are the Mississippi Palisades in Savanna, and three trails near Dubuque, Iowa. Those include the Mines of Spain, the Heritage Trail and the Swiss Valley Nature Trails.
If you drive to either Savanna or Dubuque, you can see another major outdoor attraction in the Galena area: bald eagles. Every winter, as many as 2,500 American bald eagles migrate south along the Mississippi River. For many years the bald eagle was on the federal endangered species list and then the threatened species list. But following successful efforts to protect and preserve the eagles’ habitat, the eagle was taken off the threatened list in 2007. There are now some 10,000 mating pairs of eagles in the lower 48 states.
The height of the migration season here in the Midwest is mid-January to mid-February, as eagles spend the winter along the Mississippi between Minneapolis and St. Louis. As they migrate, the eagles hang out near the locks and dams that provide open water for them to fish. Watching eagles dive, feed and roost has become a popular activity for experienced birders and amateurs at several viewing locations along the Mississippi.
Besides Casper Bluff, the closest place near Galena to see eagles is Savanna, about a 30-minute drive from Galena. Visitors flock to the Mississippi Palisades State Park, located one mile north of Savanna on Highway 84. Eagle watching is also available at Lock and Dam 13 along the Great River Road near Savanna. In Dubuque, outdoor viewing is available at Lock and Dam 11. If you’re up for a longer trip, a popular place north of Dubuque is Guttenberg, Iowa.
If you need a getaway and want to get out your skis and binoculars, head to Galena.
For more information about Galena and upcoming events this winter, check out www.visitgalena.org.
Mary C. Galligan of Chicago has worked as an editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and adjunct faculty member at Northwestern University. She and Mary Bohlen of Springfield write a monthly Midwest travel column for Illinois Times.