With the work and school week ending, my family and I needed a break from the norm, an escape from technology and the city. The outdoors of Galena, Illinois, gave us the chance to reconnect, reenergize, and explore nature right from the start.
Our youngest, Teelie, was outside the cabin enjoying the warm springtime sunshine as she peered up into a tree at a squirrel chittering down at her.
The family was just waking up after rolling in late the night before and snuggling into a snug, comfy cabin at the Palace Campground just outside Galena, a historic and picturesque village along the banks of the Mississippi River in the northwest corner of the state. Ahead of us, we had days of fun in the Galena area outdoors, the spring warm-up having finally arrived.
Weeks before, snow had covered the area, but it was all gone now after several days of sunny warmth. Buds were greening on the trees and spring crocuses were peeking colorfully over the awakening grass. It looked like spring had finally broken winter’s icy hold. And none too soon.
“Dad! There’s a squirrel in the tree and a chipmunk under the cabin,” Teelie cried, spotting me in the cabin window. “Come out and meet them!” Her chirpy 8-year-old voice blended sweetly with the morning chorus of songbirds in the woods behind the cabin. I grinned and waved, then raised a bag to show I was getting ready for our outdoor fun.
The rest of the day was going to be even more exciting than this great beginning, starting at Fever River Outfitters to gear up for its Mississippi River Day tour. For our explorations around Galena, Fever River had great rental equipment: bikes, canoes, kayaks, scooters and everything in between.
Slurping coffee and pulling canvas bags full of family equipment along, we pulled Teelie in from her nature visit. We loaded up for the drive to Fever River, where we’d catch a shuttle to the Galena ferry landing to get our kayaks and meet our fellow adventurers.
Arriving a few minutes later at the ferry just south of Galena, we paid attention to the quick but thorough kayaking lesson provided by our Fever River guide, Karly.
Soon, we were paddling through the quiet tangle of Mississippi River backwaters that make kayaking around Galena an endless and gentle delight.
“Look at the beaver dam,” Teelie cried, spotting a telltale hump of gnawed branches and saplings some 50 yards away up a side channel. “Do you think there are baby beavers in there?” she asked her sister, Irene, who was sharing the two-person kayak with her.
“Well, it sure won’t be baby giraffes,” her brother Keegan said, laughing, paddling past them in his one-seater.
“Very funny,” Teelie said, sniffing.
The nice thing about the Mississippi River Adventure tour is that it’s really three tours in one. So after seven miles of stirring the slow water with our paddles, gliding along so quietly we startled great blue herons into low, graceful flight, we were ready for the next part of the adventure, a hike to the top of Chestnut Mountain.
A popular ski destination in the winter, Chestnut Mountain gives a thousand-foot-high overlook of the Mississippi River. The trail to the top led us through rock bluffs and wooded glades alive with animals on the move, enjoying the warmth and sunshine as much as we were. At the top we had a choice: Mom and Irene went for the fresh-air yoga class, while Teelie, Keegan and I took to the woods on a guided hike for more wildlife spotting. Teelie saw three woodpeckers and a turkey vulture; Keegan pointed out a groundhog nosing through some spring violets on a sun-washed hillside. Afterwards, we all munched on a catered lunch and sighed over the three-state vista spread out under a broad, deep blue sky.
After a hike back down the mountain, we mounted up for the third leg of the adventure, an easy bike ride along Pilot Knob Road, a smooth ribbon of blacktop named for the riverboat traffic that made Galena prosperous in the 1800s.
The next day, we were on the road early again for a much-anticipated trip to Galena’s Winston Tunnel Trail. The trail is well known and popular because it leads along an abandoned railroad track to an old tunnel running roughly a quarter-mile through a wooded hill.
“Ooh, looks spooky in there,” Keegan said. “Does it look scary, Teelie?”
“Nah,” she said, more interested in the underbrush around and above the entrance. “Look! Butterflies!” she cried out, pointing to some orange-and-black specimens. “Monarchs!”
Irene shook her head. “Too early for monarchs,” she said. “Probably viceroys. They look almost the same. And a sunny, warm spring day like this will bring them out.”
Slowly walking the trail back to the car, we took the time to spot chipmunks, squirrels, early robins and other wildlife easily visible because of the light spring foliage. The main trail was generously wide, since it was once a railroad right-of-way, grassed over in spots and shady with overhanging limbs. Frequently, the kids darted off the main path down animal trails and footpaths leading away, only to rejoin us as they looped back to the primary trail.
Heading into Galena, we couldn’t resist lunch at Durty Gurt’s Burger Joynt—motto: “She’s not durty, she’s just Gurty” – where the food was tasty and fun. Teelie was playfully disappointed that she couldn’t meet Gurty. “I hope she’s not hurty,” she said, laughing.
Afterwards, it was back to Fever River Outfitters to rent marvelously convenient electric bikes for a ride through Galena’s fascinating Historic District. Centered on the brick-and-wrought-iron downtown, the district overflows into roughly 80 percent of the town, all filled with well-preserved and ornate 19th century buildings including the homes of Civil War figures Ulysses S. Grant and Elihu Washburne.
After weaving back and forth in a relaxing ride through Galena, we stumbled upon the West Street Sculpture Park, a collection of welded steel artworks by local artist John Martinson. Giving the two-acre site a refreshingly modern and spiky feel, the sculptures are arrayed along a self-guided walking tour. We weren’t lucky enough to encounter the artist, who keeps a workshop on site, but there was more than enough to look at to keep us exploring, discovering and enjoying right up to dinnertime.
For a special wrap-up to our trip, we traveled a bit north of Galena to Timmerman’s Supper Club, an old-school establishment perched on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. The restaurant is a fixture of the area known for its comfort and a small-town feel that doesn’t sacrifice luxurious amenities such as the Oysters Rockefeller that we shared as an appetizer.
“I never knew anything could be that good,” Irene said, moaning.
“I never knew anything could look that good,” said Teelie, purring, gazing at the river washed in shades of coral, deep purple and gold as the sun set.
I’ll admit, the view distracted a bit when our entrees arrived—sumptuous roast duck for Mom, a pink-in-the-center steak for me, catfish for Keegan and Irene and Teelie sharing a rack of barbecue ribs. But the rich, savory scents steaming up from the plates soon caught our full attention, and we ate hearty as the day wound down to a quiet end outside.
Besides its Mississippi River vistas, historic structures and beautiful countryside, Galena is known for its hot-air ballooning.
Fans of the sport trek in from states away to try out Jo Daviess County’s gentle winds and calm weather. The area’s spring, summer and fall mornings and evenings are perfect for breeze-drifted journeys that skim the treetops and float as high as 4,000 feet.
A favorite ballooning company in the area is Galena On The Fly, which offers experiences for up to 14 people that start with breathtaking vistas across three states. The flights show off the lovingly maintained Galena Historic District with quiet moments of serenity that just don’t seem to happen on the ground.
Ballooning in Galena peaks on the third weekend in June with the Great Galena Balloon Race, a three-day festival offering rides (tethered and free), live music, food, wine tasting, an evening balloon-glow event and, of course, a colorful race with dozens of colorful balloons flying across the Illinois countryside.
Best of all, the event benefits the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and a camp for kids with diabetes, Camp Hertko Hollow.