“If you had a puzzle of Illinois, Galena Country would be one of the coveted corner pieces.”
Verbatim, that’s how my husband, Ryan, described where we’d be going on our February weekend getaway sans kids. The corner piece analogy was puzzling to me. How could this rural area, less than a tank of gas away from our Chicago apartment, offer the winter activities my Rocky Mountain roots were pining for?
Snow glistened on the ground; it was cold enough that steam rose from the surface of Lake Galena. But I was still too warm. Unzipping my parka, I marveled at how quickly snowshoeing heated me up. Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa still had six more miles of groomed trails to cover. Against a backdrop of cloudless blue sky, the leafless branches made spotting the resort’s namesake one of the benefits of visiting during the winter. And we learned that another perk of visiting Eagle Ridge’s Winter Carnival was a pretty fun one—getting the chance to roll frozen turkeys. “Strike!” Ryan triumphantly shouted, scattering 10 pins across the ice.
After snowshoeing and turkey bowling, we made the rounds at the resort’s annual winter carnival. Most of the action took place near the Nordic Ski and Winter Sports Center. On the sledding hillside, corporate teams were competing to see who could build the fastest sled. In another area, kids were learning how to ice skate, cross-country ski and harness themselves to dogs for skijoring.
After a day of constant motion, Ryan and I were drawn to the afternoon bonfire—like moths to a flame. As dusk fell, flames continued to rise above the resort’s marina. They powered the colorful, cloud-sized lanterns illuminating the winter sky. Hot air balloons were the last things I expected to see at a winter festival, and I thought the sight was magical. Galena on the Fly’s hot air balloon pilots could hold their own against any fireworks finale.
The next morning, we had the bird’s-eye view from a bluff overlooking the banks of the Mississippi River. Very few terrain parks in the Midwest come close to competing with Chestnut Mountain’s. With dozens of rails and its own triple chair lift, Far Side Terrain Park helped us set a personal record for rails ridden in an hour.
“How about some runs?” Ryan said after a few humbling attempts at the half-pipe. Minutes later we were carving our way down War Path and then Eagle—a black diamond aptly named for the eagles nesting in the trees above. From their perches, they had a strategic and scenic view of the river.
“You’re actually riding on the Mississippi River,” a ski patroller informed us at lunch. “We pull water from the river and combine it with compressed air in our snow guns.” Learning about the state-of-the-art snowmaking technology was fascinating. But the irony was, just an hour later, we traveled back in time.
“Haw!” commanded the driver, making a clucking noise with his tongue. The team of Percherons’ tails swished right and our bright red sleigh—adorned with bells of course—followed. Just 11 miles from Chestnut Mountain, Shenandoah Riding Center was an ideal way to relax while continuing to enjoy the outdoors. First snuggled under the sleigh’s blankets and then enjoying the hot chocolate we sipped by the bonfire when the horses reached a sheltered wooded area, we couldn’t complain of being cold. “Such an incredible day,” I said to Ryan, “Snowboarding, mountaintop lunch and a sleigh ride. I think it was pretty much perfect.”
Sunset was “happiest hour” at Chestnut Mountain Resort’s Sunset Grille—perhaps the best vantage point of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Floor-to-ceiling windows formed a wall of glass through which we soaked up the most spectacular—at least color-wise—few minutes of the day. By the time the sun dipped down below the horizon, the Mississippi turned from blue to black and we could no longer see the river’s islands or Iowa in the distance, and our appetizers had arrived.
“That view was even better than I’d heard,” I announced. “Now I can’t wait for dinner.”
Ryan shot me a smile, and we found that our meals were everything we hoped for. We jokingly fought about who got the last appetizer—a walleye strip coated in cucumber wasabi sauce. A few craft beers and two filet mignons later, we were still talking about the sunset.
“If Galena was a puzzle, that sunset would be a corner piece,” Ryan said. I laughed in agreement. Still, somehow, I couldn’t see how this unique stretch of countryside could have only four coveted corners.Plan your winter wonderland trip to Galena Country.