© 2024 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Midwest Travel: Galena's Winter Wonderland


One of the most scenic towns in Illinois, Galena is especially picturesque in the winter. The historic town’s snow-covered hills, valleys and charming 19th century architecture make it a perfect winter wonderland. Instead of traveling south before or after the holidays, you’ll find real winter fun in northwestern Illinois.

The woodsy nature trails and bluffs near Galena with views of the Mississippi River form a dramatic backdrop for your favorite outdoor activities, from downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing to sledding. As a dog lover, I’d love to learn how to skijore, a type of cross-country skiing in which your dog pulls you on skis. My cocker spaniel, though, might prefer a horse-drawn sleigh ride through town as a 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 the 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.

Other lodging choices include 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 in the outdoors or from the comfort of your hotel room.

Outdoors sports dominate Galena’s winter calendar. Chestnut Mountain Resort, just nine miles south of Galena, is a draw for downhill skiers and snow boarders 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 nearby hilly woods.

Just outside of Galena on Pilot Knob Road is the Casper Bluff Land & 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 bird watching 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. For this year’s winter getaway, pack your skis and binoculars and head to Galena.

For more information about Galena and upcoming events this winter, check out www.visitgalena.org.

For more information about Caspar Bluff Land & Water Reserve, go to http://jdcf.org/properties/casper-bluff-land-water-reserve/

Mary C. Galligan is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago.  She wrote about Galena for the You Journal.

Related Stories