FINALLY, THE CALM HAS RETURNED TO THIS SCENIC TOWN AFTER THE STORM. Ten years ago, a historic F3 tornado ripped through downtown Utica, destroying more than 100 homes, decimating the popular Milestone Tap and killing eight. Today, the town is renewed and thriving thanks, in part, to the historic Starved Rock State Park and numerous attractions that draw regular visitors and corporate groups from Chicagoland and beyond. Join us on this trail of the sites to see.
Starved Rock State Park & Lodge and Conference Center
Voted the Illinois Department of Tourism’s Fan Favorite attraction in 2012, Starved Rock State Park (which celebrated its 100th anniversary the year prior) combines scenic rock formations, fabulous hiking, rustic elegance and great meeting space for a perfect corporate retreat.
Particularly in the springtime, the melting ice and frequent showers contribute to beautiful cascading waterfalls in the various canyons. Add to that the lush forest greenery and a blanket of spring bluebells, and your guests won’t believe they are only 90 miles from downtown Chicago.
Starved Rock State Park is a National Historic Landmark, while the on-site lodge and cabins are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Kathy Casstevens, director of marketing. The Lodge’s Great Hall is the centerpiece of the pine-and-log structure, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Many of the paths, bridges, shelters and cabins built by the CCC are still around today.
The Starved Rock Lodge and Conference Center celebrates its 75th anniversary this year and offers historic, yet much updated, accommodations for groups of all sizes. Inside the 69-guest-room venue, visitors will stand in awe of the state’s largest two-sided fireplace, which is stunning and cozy in any season. Want something more intimate? Twenty-one spacious cabins are located on the grounds; some even have gas or woodburning fireplaces, while all have heat and air conditioning.
For meeting space, the Conference Center offers six versatile rooms, formal to informal, depending on the event. Each is equipped with complimentary wireless Internet and A/V services. In the lodge’s Starved Rock Room, 2,244 square feet of meeting space can accommodate groups up to 200 in a theater setting. The LaSalle and Utica rooms, at 684 and 513 square feet, respectively, can fit smaller groups of 40 to 60 people-and with room for 28 in a circle setup, they’re perfect for board meetings.
The Lodge’s Main Dining Room, located off the quaint lobby, offers a friendly atmosphere for group meals and has a menu featuring salads, steaks and seafood alongside vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. Favorites include tarragon apple salad, filet mignon, pot roast, Gorgonzola meatloaf and drunken goat mac and cheese.
Guests will have plenty to do, too, in their downtime with miles of scenic hikes among historic rock formations and waterfalls. Or, they can take a swim in the lodge’s indoor pool, relax in the hot tub or cozy up with a good book by the fire.
"We also offer a variety of programs that both entertain and educate," Casstevens says, encouraging guests to take advantage of the unique park setting and hold a breakout session on the veranda. "Our recently constructed Fox Ridge outdoor programming space has seating for 100 and is perfect for naturalist demonstrations, such as falconry. We also offer creative team-building activities such as scavenger hunts and guided hikes."
Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort
Less than a mile from the entrance to Starved Rock State Park is one of the newer additions to the area that offers a wide variety of options for groups who want to mix work with pleasure. With 7,500 square feet of flexible meeting space, Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort has 92 hotel rooms, 140 villas and 48 luxury cabins (great for large groups). Along with cutting-edge A/V equipment and wireless Internet (only available in the Main Lodge), it’s a great escape for corporate groups of all sizes.
You’ll want to include families, too, because the Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort offers year-round fun for both kids and adults. A 24,000-square-foot indoor waterpark will keep the family busy during meeting time with various slides, a wave pool, snack bar and a lazy river. For those interested in staying dry, the resort also includes a 36,000-square-foot indoor amusement park with rides, an arcade, zip line and a full-service restaurant, all under one roof. During the summer months, resort guests can also enjoy 18 holes of mini golf, a fire pit and an outdoor bar.
"While our resort as a whole focuses on being family-friendly, many people do not realize we have so much meeting space to work with," says Kimberly Robinson, director of sales and catering, noting the flexible menus and full-service planning services. "We also have low rates, comparable to your standard brands, midweek during our offseason, and we are working to create a business-class floor here in our lodge."
Waterfalls, fireplaces, falconry and meeting spaces? Don’t let the name fool you-Starved Rock is more than a fulfilling option for group outings.