At last, summer is officially here, which makes it a perfect opportunity to get out of the house and do something fun with family or friends.
There’s plenty to do within Springfield, but some people choose to have a fun, relaxing day outside the city at places that one can get to and back easily within a day.
Here’s a look at five great day trip ideas for this summer:
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Within Central Illinois
Central Illinois outside of Springfield may not have the overall amount of good day trip places that areas such as Chicago or St. Louis have – we’ll get to those later – but there’s still plenty to do within a relatively short drive from Springfield.
Within the general SJ-R publication area sits three popular attractions – Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, the Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area and Sangchris Lake State Park.
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At New Salem, you and your family can tour the recreated village designed specifically to resemble the place where Abraham Lincoln spent much of his early professional life in the 1830s as a businessman, postmaster, militia member and member of the Illinois General Assembly. Each of the 12 buildings within the site have been painstakingly furnished to showcase life in the 1830s, complete with cord beds, wood cards and even early pewter.
New Salem is also home to Theatre in the Park, which hosts musicals and plays to entertain people of all ages. For 2023, upcoming performances include Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (July 20-23) and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (Aug. 3-6). Tickets are available by logging on to theatreinthepark.net or by calling (217) 725-0239. People can also buy tickets at the box office beginning 2 hours prior to each performance.
People can also take advantage of the large picnic area north of the amphitheater for an enjoyable way to eat lunch or dinner during or after the tour.
The Panther Creek park is one of the state’s largest public access areas, with a wide variety of different activities for everyone, such as sport fishing on the site’s three lakes, using the 24 miles of mountain bike trails, 26 miles of equestrian trails and a three-mile hiking trail. In addition, the site includes both an archery range, a shotgun range and five separate picnic areas.
Sangchris Lake, nine miles south of Rochester, contains plenty of fishing opportunities, with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources noting the large amounts of bass, bluegill, crappie and catfish present within its waters. The park also contains an archery range, a dog training area and opportunities for metal detecting if one has the necessary permits.
Decatur, Bloomington-Normal, Peoria and Champaign-Urbana
Each of these four cities are accessible via interstate highways from Springfield – Bloomington-Normal is a direct shot up Interstate 55; Decatur and Champaign can each be accessed via Interstate 72; Peoria requires traveling up northbound I-55 to the Interstate 155 connector from Lincoln.
Decatur: Located 40 miles to the east on I-72, this city contains several museums and parks perfect for people of all ages. Downtown Decatur is home to the Hieronymus Mueller Museum, exploring the life and legacy of a German immigrant who moved to the city in the 1850s and built a simple gunsmithing business into a multi-million dollar industrial manufacturing company that is the largest supplier of potable water distribution products in the U.S.
A few blocks down the road is the Staley Museum, spotlighting the life of A.E. Staley, founder of the Staley Manufacturing Company that set up shop in the city in 1909 as a cultivator of soybeans and a company football team called the Decatur Staleys, which would later be renamed the Chicago Bears.
Two other historical landmarks in Decatur are the James Millikin Homestead – the home that local businessman and philanthropist James Millikin lived in from 1876 until his death in 1909 and is currently owned by the university which bears his name – and the Oglesby Mansion – where James Oglesby, former Illinois governor and friend of both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant lived in for 14 years both during and after his Governorship.
In addition, the Decatur Transfer House is a noted symbol of the city that served as a transfer point for trains and streetcars well into the 1950s. The building now serves as a meeting place within a large green space perfect for walking, picnics and special events.
Outside of the downtown area, Decatur is also home to the Scovill Zoo, home to over 400 animals from six continents, providing fun and education for people of all ages. Nearby is the Children’s Museum of Illinois, a hands-on learning experience with more than 60 exhibits that help to facilitate knowledge of a wide range of scientific and artistic topics, from agriculture to anatomy.
For gearheads, the city provides a unique experience with the Chevrolet Hall of Fame Museum, containing cars from the 1920s to the present day, alongside oodles of automotive memorabilia.
Champaign-Urbana: Home base for the University of Illinois, the twin cities of Champaign-Urbana have plenty to see and do both on and around the campus.
At UIUC sits the Krannert Art Museum, home to a large collection of pieces from around the world and galleries spotlighting a wide range of art topics. Among the permanent galleries at Krannert include a spotlight of Works Progress Administration pieces, the evolution of art since 1948, an exploration of ancient Andean works and a collection of feedback provided to the museum on various pieces showcased in the building.
In addition, the museum also hosts traveling exhibitions exploring the art world. Currently, Krannert is home to a showcase of rare ink wash paintings by Illinois art professor emeritus Shozo Sato and an examination of how pattern can influence how people view the world.
Just east of the Main Quad is the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures, which provides a home for an impressive array of archaeological pieces from cultures going as far back as ancient Mesopotamia. In addition to the permanent exhibits on native cultures from across the globe, the museum is currently home to an expansive look at Japanese-American culture through the stories of former and current UIUC students and staff.
The campus is also home to a lush arboretum with more than 160 acres of plant life. The arboretum is also a good place for a summer wedding, with a beautiful backdrop for the ceremony.
Many of these activities can be enjoyed in the daytime prior to an event at the State Farm Center. The home of Illini basketball in the winter – for both the men’s and women’s teams – the recently-renovated arena is home to events year-round. This summer, the Avett Brothers, three-time Grammy Award nominees, will take the stage Aug. 12 at 7:30 p.m., with tickets available at StateFarmCenter.com, over the phone at 1-866-ILLINI-1 (866-455-4641) or at the Illinois Ticket Office at the arena.
In the northwest corner of the city at Parkland College sits the Staerkel Planetarium, the second largest of its kind in Illinois and home to spectacular shows displaying the stars above the twin cities and the Midwest.
Bloomington-Normal: Up I-55 in Bloomington-Normal, home of Illinois State University sits the Children’s Discovery Museum, which provides hands-on learning opportunities in a wide range of subjects, from art to anatomy. The museum was the first one in the United States to received LEED Silver certification for environmentally-friendly design.
For an explanation of BloNo’s history, one can visit the David Davis Mansion, which served as the home of a long-time friend of Abraham Lincoln and former associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Of course, no visit to Bloomington-Normal can be complete without a visit to Avanti’s, the long-time favorite Italian restaurant serving everything from pasta, pizza, soup, salads and the world-famous Gondolas, served either hot or cold.
Peoria: Right along the shores of the Illinois River in downtown Peoria sits the Peoria Riverfront Museum, host to a wide-range of informative exhibitions, shows and programs.
This summer, the museum is home to Body Worlds RX, a touring show featuring real human specimens designed to show the differences between healthy human bodies and those stricken with disease; American Revolutionaries: Art and Disruption, an art display examining works of those who created incisive socio-political content through the years; and HEART, an interactive exhibit with the first-ever 4D model of a human heart, created by the Jump Trading Medical Simulation Center at OSF HealthCare.
On the same site is the Dome Planetarium, celebrating its 60th anniversary of educating people of all ages about the stars. Throughout the day, the planetarium has a wide range of shows that examine astronomy topics such as solar eclipses, constellations and the exploration of space, all using the state-of-the-art Digistar 7 system that features 3D models and access to scientific databases.
People can also enjoy the Caterpillar Visitors Center, showing off the many creations that the construction equipment company has created over the years. In addition to exploring the company’s history, there are plenty of immersive exhibits, such as being able to sit in the bed of a mining truck, create your own Caterpillar vehicle and using a simulator to do tasks in the vehicle.
For those seeking a quieter experience, they can enjoy Grand View Drive, the road dubbed “The World’s Most Beautiful Drive” by former President Theodore Roosevelt. The road provides a spectacular view of the Illinois River Valley and the many beautiful homes lining the areas around it.
Over at the Peoria Zoo, people can learn about the more than 100 different animal species that live there, nestled in historic Glen Oak Park. The zoo is also a popular site for special events, such as birthday parties, bridal showers and weddings, making use of a replica African rondavel and the Zambezi River Lodge, a brand-new facility that can house around 200 people.
Just outside Peoria sits the Wildlife Prairie Park, where people can walk through a beautiful forest landscape home to more than 60 different native animal species, while also partaking in 25 miles of hiking trails, 20 miles of mountain biking trails, seven lakes for fishing and an 18-hole championship disc golf course.
Traveling on the Mother Road
Springfield is located right along historic U.S. Route 66 and the city has plenty of tributes to the Mother Road, to the Route 66 Twin Drive In near Knight’s Action Park to the Route 66 Motorheads Bar and Grill just off Interstate 55 on Toronto Road.
Since we aren’t dealing with things relating to Springfield, let’s examine some spots along Route 66 close to Springfield that would make for a fun time on one day.
Litchfield, about 45 miles south of Springfield on I-55, is home to the historic Ariston Cafe, originally opened in 1924 and moved to Route 66 in 1935. Perfect for both lunch and dinner, this place has a varied menu that includes steaks, seafood, chicken, pork chops, pasta, sandwiches, burgers and salads, along with a selection of wines, beer and cocktails.
Down the road in Livingston is the Pink Elephant Antique Mall, named as such for the distinctive pachyderm located in front of the store. Built out of the former Livingston High School, this shop includes antique furniture items, home goods, jewelry and even homemade candy and fudge. The site is also home to the Twistee Treat Diner, a 1950s-style establishment serving burgers, hot dogs, horseshoes and ice cream.
In the Metro East, the historic Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville provides a place for people to see a show or enjoy a classic movie with friends and family. Originally opened in 1909, this theatre was restored and updated thanks to a $300,000 grant from the Illinois FIRST Program and $450,000 in TIF funding from the city. Performing at the theatre this summer are acts such as John Lodge of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band The Moody Blues, Taylor Swift and Bob Seger tribute bands and The Pat Travers Band.
Out in Collinsville, one can complete their journey by getting a picture at the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle, a 170-foot tall water tower restored thanks to the help of local preservationists.
With the continued advent of electric cars, many of the potential stops on the journey have charging stations where one can plug in their car and enjoy their day. The Illinois Office of Tourism has provided a special itinerary for those seeking to take their EV out for a road trip on the Mother Road, identifying where one can enjoy activities and charge their vehicle along the trip.
Marla Cichowski, a spokesperson for the Office of Tourism, said that the goal with the itinerary was a way to connect both past and future of Illinois history with Route 66’s tradition and the new, modern style of electric cars.
“It’s the best of Route 66, (both) the past and the future,” Cichowski said. “(You’re) getting to experience all of the vintage roadside favorites that people have come to know and love along Route 66 in a more modern way.”
Shawnee and Starved Rock
Southern Illinois is home to Illinois’ lone National Forest: Shawnee, located along a wide swath of the southern portion of the state from the eastern border with Indiana and Kentucky all the way to the western boundary with Missouri.
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The sprawling, 289,000-acre site includes a whopping 400 miles of hiking trails – including the famed Rim Rock Trail providing a scenic journey – numerous lakes and creeks for swimming, boating, waterskiing, tubing and windsurfing, plenty of opportunities to view nature and space for people to ride horses along the many trails at the site.
Most famously, people flock to Shawnee to partake in the spectacular views of the Garden of the Gods, home to panoramic views of the wilderness through the site and on the horizon. Cichowski noted that with all the activities that people can do at Shawnee, those who come from out of state are surprised that something like this sits in Illinois.
“They’re like, ‘I did not know there was a national forest tucked away in southern Illinois,'” Cichowski said.
Starved Rock, the most visited state park in Illinois, is famous for its spectacular outcrops of sandstone and many deep canyons. People can get an up-close view of these features through the 13 miles of hiking trails at the park and they can also enjoy fishing, kayaking, hunting and picnicking.
Those geographic features are among the many reasons why people flock to the park, according to Cichowski.
“The geography there is stunning,” Cichowski said. “There’s so many beautiful waterfalls – more prevalent in the spring and summer – but this time of year, people love discovering the canyons there, hiking on the hiking trails (and) getting out on the Illinois River.”
Chicago, St. Louis and the surrounding area
Both major metros within driving distance of Springfield are popular day trip locales, with Chicago being home to 77 different neighborhoods showcasing the diversity of one of America’s crown jewels.
Of course, summer in Chicago can mean many things, including Lollapalooza, returning to Grant Park this August headlined by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Billie Eilish, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Lana Del Rey. If one is looking for a good way to stay out of the heat, then the Shedd Aquarium is always a good place to see a wide array of aquatic creatures, such as sea otters, turtles, dolphins, whales and sharks.
One can also enjoy a ball game at either Wrigley Field or Guaranteed Rate Field to check out the best that Major League Baseball has to offer.
Right on the shores of the mighty Mississippi River, St. Louis is a hot summer spot with attractions such as the Gateway Arch, the City Museum, the St. Louis Zoo and Busch Stadium, nestled in Ballpark Village where one can grab a bite to eat and enjoy a St. Louis Cardinals game whether they’re home or away.
However, many may not know about the other attractions available in suburban areas just outside the cities. For instance, Aurora – located almost an hour west of Chicago – is home to places like the Paramount Theatre, a source of entertainment events like dance performances, Broadway musicals and top musical acts like Styx, Flo Rida and REO Speedwagon.
Kids will enjoy the state’s largest waterpark, Raging Waves in Yorkville, home to different kinds of water slides, a lazy river and a wave pool. If water fun isn’t exactly your thing, you can enjoy First Fridays in downtown Aurora, home to live performances, art and trolley rides.
North of St. Louis sits many locations along the Great River Road, including Elsah, a historic village that is renowned for its scenic views of the Mississippi sandwiched in between two 300-foot tall limestone bluffs.
“I’ve been there once and was blown away with the fact that it really does make you feel like you’re traveling back in time,” Cichowski said. “All the homes are so unique and they’ve done such a wonderful job of preserving the history there.”