Japanese Gardens Rockford IL

Our top picks for 9 fun-filled, summer road trips within a day’s drive of Chicago.

Haven’t saved up enough for a summer vacation, but know a staycation just isn’t going to cut it with the kids (or spouse)? How about a “daycation” or a long weekend here in the great Midwest?

Here are our top 9 recommendations for summer road trips within a day’s drive of Chicago…

New Glarus, WI — Sherman’s top pick!

Home of New Glarus Brewing Co., this town is Sherman’s favorite destination on our list. “The town is beautiful and the brewery is by far the nicest I’ve ever seen,” he says. “You could eat off the floors. Plus their beers are fantastic and they do tastings at the end.”

Known in some circles as “America’s Little Switzerland,” New Glarus is a short 2-hour drive from Chicago and hosts several festivals throughout the summer, including Polkafest, Beer, Bacon & Cheese and the Heidi Festival. Don’t miss Swiss Volksfest (Swiss Independence Day) on August 6.

For outdoor lovers, there’s also Badger State Trail, Sugar River Trail, and the New Glarus Woods State Park, which offers 435 acres of the scenic wildlife and is popular with campers.

Volo Auto Museum | Volo, IL—My grandson’s top pick!

If you loved the Dukes of Hazzard, you can check out the General Lee on display at the Volo Auto Museum.

If you loved the Dukes of Hazzard, you can check out the General Lee on display at the Volo Auto Museum.

Fanatic about all things four-wheeled? This is the place for you. The museum boasts 33 exhibits and is home to such iconic vehicles as Herbie, Fred Flintstone’s stone-age ride, the Batmobile and Speed Racer’s Mach 5.

Sherman’s son – and my grandson – loves cars, which means he loves to visit Volo. One drawback: It’s a museum, so the little guy doesn’t understand that he can’t clambor in and test out the cars like he can at the auto show.

Volo isn’t just about cars. Have a family member who loves antiques? He or she can stroll through the antique mall, located on the museum grounds. Want to get the lay of the museum campus? Take a guided tour in the open-air train tour.

Kids can even drive the Batmobile, take a ride with Mickey Mouse or go for a spin with Winnie the Pooh. And on June 17, you and your family can see CARS 3 for free. Your museum ticket from that day earns you free entry into the McHenry Drive-In to see CARS 3 that night.

Luddington, MI

Ludington State Park has been named one of the top state parks in the Midwest.

Ludington State Park has been named one of the top state parks in the Midwest.

Midwest Living Magazine voted Ludington State Park one of the top state parks in the Midwest, and with seven miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, it’s a favorite destination in the summer. Touted as a “vacation within itself,” this state park is not just for beachgoers and campers. It’s also a haven for hikers, fishermen, bikers, or anyone who loves what nature has to offer. Here you’ll discover sand dunes with spectacular views, hardwood forests, and marshlands.

Away from the beach, Ludington is home to Friday Night Live. Scheduled for four Friday nights in late July and early August, FNL features music, food, and great family activities. The three blocks of Ludington Avenue between Harrison and Robert streets are closed to traffic between 6:00-9:00pm, allowing people to fill the streets and watch local entertainment. Some of the highlights include musical performances, Blessing of the Badges and free ice cream.

There’s also historic White Pine Village, Sandcastles Children’s Museum, antiques, golfing and  U-Pick Farms.


Rockford, IL

One of the gems of Rockford, IL: Anderson Japanese Gardens.

One of the gems of Rockford, IL: Anderson Japanese Gardens.

Want to stay in Illinois and need a variety of options for all ages? Then Rockford is for you. There’s more than 10,000 acres of parks and forest preserves, where you can hike, in-line skate, swim, boat, sail, picnic, camp, fish, bird-watch, ride horses and play miniature golf. The Rockford area has 25 miles of interconnecting trails and 12 golf courses. Kids of all ages (and adults!) can enjoy the 35-acre Magic Waters Waterpark and car and motorcycle races at Rockford Speedway and Blackhawk Farms Raceway.

If you’re interested in a little culture with your fresh air, swing by the Anderson Japanese Gardens, ranked the top Japanese garden in North America. Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens at Sinnissippi Gardens, a linear park on the Rock River, brings the tropics to the Midwest. Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden has so many rare and unusual trees and shrubs, botanists say there’s only one comparable site─and it’s in France.

Rockford Art Museum is Illinois’ largest art museum outside of Chicago and features 1,500 works of art plus dynamic and changing exhibits featuring regional and national artists. The Burpee Museum of Natural History offers the award-winning exhibit, Jane: Diary of a Dinosaur, which explores the history of the young T. rex skeleton found by Burpee Museum researchers in the badlands of Montana.

Harbor County, MI

Harbor County, MI is a haven for art galleries.

Harbor County, MI is a haven for art galleries.

Love art? Then this is the destination for you. The area comprises eight communities along a stretch of about 15 miles along Lake Michigan. It’s home to nearly 20 art galleries offering large-scale marble, granite and bronze sculptures, to watercolor dune scenes, to fine glasswork and handcrafted jewelry. There’s also a thriving theater and performing arts scene and a number of museums, including the New Buffalo Railroad Museum and the Three Oaks Bicycle Museum.

If you need a little more noise and excitement, you can head over to Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, and test your luck. There’s also fine dining and entertainment on hand at Four Winds. Adults can continue the grown-up activities at the region’s many wineries, distilleries and breweries.

If you’re in the mood for a little shopping, you’ll find everything from high fashion and casual clothing boutiques to home decor and decorating emporiums, gifts, mementos and keepsakes in Harbor Country.

Mackinac Island, MI

Horse-drawn carriage in Mackinac Island, MI

There are no cars on Mackinac Island, so horses and bikes are the main methods of transportation.

If you’re looking for pure relaxation, try Mackinac Island, which is located in Lake Huron off the coast of Michigan between the state’s upper and lower peninsulas. No motor vehicles are allowed on the island (except for some service and emergency vehicles) so you have to take a ferry and the rely on your feet, bikes, carriages or horses to get around.

There are a variety of lodging options, including resorts, historic inns, bed-and-breakfasts and cottages. For entertainment, there’s Mackinac State Park, Fort Mackinac, horse-back riding, carriage tours, hiking, shopping, diverse dining options, nightly entertainment, festivals, Victorian architecture to admire and more.

And did we mention the fudge? Mackinac Island has had a tradition of fudge-making since shortly after the Civil War, and there are seven companies with shops all over the island. There’s even an annual Mackinac Island Fudge Festival.

Illinois & Michigan Wine Trails

Illinois and Michigan Wine TrailsDid you know there are more than 100 wineries and 450 vineyards located throughout Illinois? There are six official wine trails that wine lovers can traverse and discover a variety of wines in just one trip. The wineries offer a variety of experiences: classes, tours, tastings, restaurants, comedy shows, music festivals and more. Pick a trail close to home or venture to the other end of the state.

If that’s not enough wine for you, you can continue the tasting into Michigan and tour the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Country, which stretches across the southwestern corner of Michigan from the Indiana-Michigan state line, north to the Kalamazoo River and east toward the city of Kalamazoo.




Donley’s Wild West Town

Tucked away in Union, Ill., you’ll think you’ve not only traveled back in time but across the great plains all on less than a tank of gas. Put on your cowboy hat and enjoy shoot-‘em-up wild west shows, archery range, tomahawk throw, canoe rides, cowboy roping lessons, vintage carousel, pyrite gold panning and more. There’s shopping and a museum that houses not only western and Civil War-themed items, but an antique phonograph and music box collection.


Metropolis, IL is home to the annual Superman Celebration.

Metropolis, IL is home to the annual Superman Celebration.

Home to the Man of Steel, Metropolis, Ill., boasts the Super Museum and its $2.5 billion worth of Superman collectibles. Plus, there’s a 15-foot bronze statue of America’s Super Hero in the middle of Superman Square and, two blocks away, a statue of actress Noel Neill’s portrayal of Lois Lane.

If super heroes aren’t your thing, consider visiting for the 2017 Great American Solar Eclipse or the  2017 Fort Massac Encampment, which lets visitors see what life was like in the 1700s and early 1800s.

Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy the Mermet Lake Fish & Wildlife Area or the  George Rogers Clark Discovery Bike Trail, an 8.7 mile trail that begins at the Superman Statue and then winds through the city streets and historic Fort Massac State Park. If you’ve ever wanted to learn to scuba dive, check out Mermet Springs full-service dive site and scuba training facility, which is in 8.5 acres of water in an abandoned stone quarry. The center offers dives from 15-120 feet and numerous sunken treasures to explore, including the airplane from the movie U.S. Marshals.

Before you hit the road, schedule a pre-road trip checkup at Auto Lab. We recommend scheduling a week or two before you leave. Here’s why.

Posted in Road Trips.