Winter Fun in the Blackhawk Waterways

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November 28, 2022
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Summer had to end

The summer of 2022 was enjoyable around here, and the fall was fabulous. Enjoying the outdoors with friends and family is addictive. It doesn't have to end when our furnaces start to growl.

Many people don't think of northwest Illinois as a winter vacation destination, but you'll be surprised. The Blackhawk Waterways area, which includes Carroll, Lee, Ogle, and Whiteside Counties, has a lot to offer. It's also easy to get there by car from Chicago and its suburbs, which takes 90 minutes to 3 hours, and from all places in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Several major waterways give the area our name. The Rock River meanders southward from Wisconsin, then leisurely bends and weaves through the forested miles of Ogle, Lee, and Whiteside Counties, before emptying into the mighty Mississippi River. Along the way, the Hennepin Canal provides many recreational opportunities in the Rock Falls, Illinois area.

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Prairie in the winter

On the eastern edge of the Blackhawk Waterways region is the Nachusa Grasslands, located at 2075 S. Lowden Road in Franklin Grove, Illinois. It is a Nature Conservancy preserve nestled in rural Lee County. The unfenced areas of the Nachusa Grasslands are open for hiking every day from dawn to dusk, except during controlled burn and hunting seasons. All humans are allowed, but dogs and pets are not.

Winter is the best time to learn about what kinds of animals are around. A fresh blanket of snow can reveal the story of an animal’s life through its tracks. 

“Learning how to identify animal tracks and tracing their routes in the snow are exhilarating outdoor winter activities that anyone can do. It starts with using your wildlife detective skills to look up, down, and around at the surrounding environment for clues, such as tracks.”
-- Jessica Fliginger, field technician at Nachusa and blogger

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Look sharp for a bison or two.

In October 2014, the Nachusa Grasslands were introduced to an old friend: the American bison. The Nature Conservancy brought thirty bison to the preserve. It was the first bison east of the Mississippi River in more than 200 years. They have since thrived and multiplied, living on approximately 1,500 fenced-off acres, for the safety of the herd and visitors. The bison herd roaming the property is an added bonus for any hiker. A good day is seeing several of the herd grazing on portions of the prairie. On other days, they keep to themselves and won’t be around at the visitor’s convenience. However, when you see them, grab your phones or cameras and take some shots. They will be brag-worthy.

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Another prairie up north

Farther north in Ogle County, the Byron Forest Preserve, located at 7993 North River Road in Byron, Illinois, also boasts many individual preserves. This organization has many core beliefs, like Nachusa Grasslands, which are devoted to purchasing and managing natural areas while conserving rare animals and native plants.

Rentals!
In addition to hiking, the Byron Forest Preserve also offers cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding when the snow falls. This facility also provides ski, sled, and snowshoe rentals for $5 per hour. Equip the entire family for a day of skiing through prairie trails, sledding downhill with screaming children, or standing atop a crunchy snow crust.

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Giddyup!

Bring your horses and saddle up at the Nardi Equine Prairie Preserve. This preserve has 10 miles of scenic trails and is the only preserve that allows horseback riding within the Byron Forest Preserve. It’s open year-round for riding and provides a quiet place to relax and enjoy the vast views of oak savannas, forests, and prairies. A no-pet policy is in place to ensure the safety of visitors and horses alike.

More to see and experience

Back on the road, traveling west, the countryside undulates between rolling farmland and expansive vistas. When snow covers the fields, a painter's eye appreciates the contrast and patterns of the winter fields lying fallow after harvest before reaching White Pines Forest State Park, located at 6712 W. Pines Road in Mt. Morris, Illinois, just outside of Oregon, Illinois.

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Even though the White Pines Lodge and restaurant close just before Christmas and reopens in early March, the hiking and cross-country skiing trails are open to the public. If staying in the area, spend a couple of days hiking the more than six miles of trails. Take in the stark beauty of the winter landscape within the forest and its winding paths. Don’t worry about getting lost. The trails are well-marked.

Get the WHITE PINES TRAIL MAP.

Crossing the meandering Pine Creek in the park by car is a fan favorite, no matter what your age. Keep a watchful eye out for deer, wild turkeys, and other wildlife that call the White Pines Forest home.

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Heading toward the Mississippi River

"Palisades" is the word used to describe a line of tall, steep cliffs, usually seen along a river. Mississippi Palisades State Park, three miles north of Savanna, Illinois, in Carroll County, lives up to its name. The park boasts 2,500 acres of recreation opportunities, including hiking, skiing, rock climbing, and birding.

Watch your step.

The Palisades is known for its relatively robust trail system—approximately 15 miles. The five trails in the northern part of the park tend to be wider and less strenuous than the five in the south, which are narrow and extremely close to the bluff, with an emphasis on extremely. The southern trails are hazardous when wet, especially in the winter.

Winter birding

Animal life within the park and the river areas immediately adjoining it is varied. Waterfowl and shorebirds are numerous and vary seasonally. Bald eagles feed on what the river offers in January and February, depending on ice conditions. And bald eagle-watching is a huge draw throughout northwest Illinois. If you’re in the area on Feb. 11, the Flock to the Rock event in Rock Falls at the lower dam will make any birder’s heart flutter. Bring your binoculars and camera, dress warmly, and be ready to learn a lot about the bald eagle and other birds along the Rock River.

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Ice fishing

You'll need to bring your cross-country skis if you want to enjoy a refreshing trek through the park's trails. Hikers needing snowshoes or an ice fishing guide can contact cSavanna Adventures, a local company that offers outdoor adventures, lodging, bus tour events, and equipment rentals. For ice-fishing services, it’s weekends only between January 1 and March 15, weather permitting. This is the spot for you if you enjoy fishing while braving the chill on top of a thick sheet of ice. The guide will bring shelter, fishing poles, bait, and—most importantly—knowledge.

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Winter camping sounds fun

For more ice fishing without the guide service, head south into Whiteside County to the Morrison-Rockwood State Park, located just north of Morrison, Illinois, at 18750 Lake Road. Once you arrive inside the park, a stream-fed reservoir, Lake Carlton, is the ideal spot for fishing. The park also has hiking all year and, in the winter, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and tent and camper sites.

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Heading south

Farther to the south, on the edge of Rock Falls, Illinois, is the historic Hennepin Feeder Canal located at 810 E. 2nd Street. It provides a plethora of winter fun, like cross-country skiing, ice skating, hiking, and snowmobiling. The canal boasts the longest snowmobile trail in the state: 91 miles on the signed towpath. When the ice is strong enough, strap on a pair of skates and glide along this historic canal. Whatever form of skating or hiking you embark on, watch for snowmobilers coming down the trails, which can be at high speeds.

Make northwest Illinois your next visit

In any season, the changing contours of the Blackhawk Waterways landscape are breathtaking. Each county transitions from flat farmlands away from the rivers to undulating hills and forests as it approaches the river valleys.

While traveling to your outdoor destination of choice, let spontaneity be your ultimate guide whenever you see a preserve, park, charming village, or a unique small shop or brewery. Stop and chat with the locals. They love where they live for a reason, and you will too.

Published in: NW Illinois Travel Blog

NW Illinois Travel Blog

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  • Winter Fun in the Blackhawk Waterways

    November 28, 2022
    Summer had to end The summer of 2022 was enjoyable around here, and the fall was fabulous. Enjoying the outdoors with friends and family is addictive. It doesn't have to end when our furnaces start to growl. Many people don't think of northwest Illinois as a winter vacation destination, but…
    Read More
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