In 2016, the National Park Service turned 100 years old, having spent the last century preserving some of the United States’ most unique, stunning and ecologically diverse sites—much to the delight of visitors.
In fact, a new report shows that roughly 21 million people made a trip to National Parks in the Midwest Region in 2015, spending $1.3 billion in communities within a 60-mile radius of the chosen destination, supporting jobs and local economies. In Illinois alone, that figure tallied around 233,000 recreation visits and a total visitor spending of almost $14 million.
The Midwest Region of NPS comprises 13 states, including Illinois; the state’s registered sites include the Lincoln Home in Springfield and the Pullman National Monument in Chicago. Because neither of Illinois’ National Park sites offer meeting space and lodging, it gave Illinois Meetings + Events cause to look at the accommodations and amenities in the state parks, which are just as breathtakingly beautiful and ripe for visitors.
We take a look at five of these sites—from the shores of Lake Michigan to the canyons and waterfalls of Starved Rock State Park—that offer lodges, meeting spaces, catering and serene surroundings. While all are historic sites, many have modern amenities like pools, added rooms and Wi-Fi that have been tacked on over the years. A trip will leave your guests enjoying fresh air, open spaces and inspiration that can only be found in nature.
GIANT CITY STATE PARK LODGE & RESTAURANT
Twelve miles south of Carbondale in Makanda, Giant City State Park includes 4,000 acres of land within the Shawnee National Forest. One of the park’s most popular features is the Giant City Nature Trail, home to massive sandstone bluffs formed 12,000 years ago that give the park its namesake.
Located on the grounds is the Giant City State Park Lodge & Restaurant, open from early February until early December. Like most other state park facilities in Illinois, the lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief for unemployed men during the Great Depression; it existed from 1933 to 1942.
“It’s a nice getaway in the southern part of the state,” says Mike Kelley, general manager. “The location of the lodge, situated in the middle of the park, and the history around the building—there’s an ambiance and atmosphere that most places don’t capture.”
The Kelley family has run the property since 1981.
For meetings and events, there’s The Great Room and Bar, a large dining room that can seat 200. Another option is the Bald Knob banquet room, which overlooks the woods below and can seat 120 people or be divided to accommodate smaller groups. The Shawnee room also offers additional space for up to 55 people. For overnight trips, the lodge offers 34 multiple cabins, 12 of them historic.
There is an outdoor pool and children’s pool for recreational time. Other on-site activities include rock climbing and rappelling, as well as archery, equestrian trails, fishing, hiking, hunting and metal detecting. As well, guests can enjoy golf, wineries and orchards nearby.
Giant City Lodge offers catering for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Kelley recommends the lodge’s fried chicken, Southern-style catfish or barbecue for hearty entrees.
ILLINOIS BEACH RESORT
The Illinois Beach Resort is quite unique, the only one of its kind in Illinois located on Lake Michigan. It sits on part of the 4,200-acre shoreline that makes up Illinois Beach State Park, which is about a 40-minute drive from both Chicago and Milwaukee.
“It reminds me of going to the coast when you’re only traveling a few miles up the road,” says Leslie Franklin, director of marketing and events.
Unlike other state park lodges in the state developed at the turn of the century, the Illinois Beach Resort is also unique in that it was built in the 1950s and has a fitting art deco style.
The resort offers a total of 1,400 square feet of meeting space, including the 150-person Lakeview Ballroom that overlooks the water. The Grand Vista Ballroom can accommodate up to 250 people and has the benefit of floor-to-ceiling windows, offering even more panoramic views of the nature around the building. Another option is the 3,200-squarefoot Grand Pavilion Tent, offered seasonally
Guests can enjoy swimming, boating, picnicking, hiking, fishing and camping, along with nearby attractions including the Jelly Belly factory and Six Flags Great America theme park. However, most guests choose to just relax on the beach, Franklin says—watching the sunrise at the resort is a popular pastime.
Resort guests can also unwind in the onsite spa or work out in the full-service fitness center with Olympic-sized pool, hot tub and sauna. The resort also has a full-service restaurant, in addition to catering for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At the end of the day, visitors can grab a cocktail in the Sandpiper Lounge before retiring to the 92 guest rooms.
“The Illinois Beach Resort goes above and beyond to make sure you’re getting what you want,” Franklin says. “The sales staff makes sure your group has whatever they need on any day.”
PERE MARQUETTE LODGE & CONFERENCE CENTER
Pere Marquette State Park is the largest in Illinois, with 8,000 acres for guests to explore. Located in the valley of the Illinois River, it offers beautiful views, boating, fishing, hunting, biking, rock climbing and horseback riding. Bald eagles even frequent the area from January to March.
The Pere Marquette Lodge & Conference Center is located 45 miles away from St. Louis in Grafton. Here, visitors can participate in riverboat tours, zip lining and daytrips to Eckert’s Farm and a historic downtown district.
“We’re in a good location in an adorable little river town,” says Franklin, also the director of marketing and events for Pere Marquette Lodge. “We’re just outside St. Louis but also remote enough that you can get away from the noise of the city and concentrate on what you need to do in a beautiful location.”
Like other lodges at Illinois State Parks, Pere Marquette was built during the 1930s as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps and celebrated its 75th year in 2015. The Great Room has wood and limestone floors and 50-foot vaulted ceilings that are supported by a network of wooden beams. Next to the Great Room’s massive, 700-ton double-sided stone fireplace, guests can play a game on the lodge’s jumbo chess set. They can also swim at the indoor pool or step out on a shaded terrace.
For overnight accommodations, there are 72 rooms and cabins, and full-service catering is available on-site. If you visit, you have to try the fried chicken, says Franklin.
As well, there are three main meeting spaces: Eagles Landing, a 300-square-foot room that can accommodate 20 people; Eagles Roost, a 100-square-foot conference room for groups less than seven people; and the 2,900-square-foot Grand Ballroom, which can accommodate up to 250 people but can also be sectioned off for more intimate events.
Also within the lodge, guests will find the public tasting room for the award-winning Mary Michelle Winery located in nearby Carrolton. The Mary Michelle Moscato, blueberry and Norton wines are all popular, notes Franklin. The lodge also has a full bar.
STARVED ROCK LODGE & CONFERENCE CENTER
One of the most well-known natural attractions in Illinois is Starved Rock State Park, which is centrally located, about 90 minutes from Chicago, Bloomington/Normal and the Quad Cities. The 2,600-acre site sits along the Illinois River and is popular for its steep St. Peter sandstone walls, canyons and seasonal waterfalls.
On the grounds, Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center offers 69 hotel rooms and 21 cabin rooms in the woods. There are six meeting venues inside as well, from the Starved Rock Room that can accommodate 200 to the Canyonside Cabin, which can accommodate 25 to a 14-person boardroom. Groups can also take advantage of the lodge’s veranda and fire pit for scenic atmosphere.
There are multiple dining options at the lodge, including the Main Dining Room that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week as well as Sunday brunch. The Back Door Lounge offers casual dining with additional outdoor seating (seasonal) on the veranda. One of the menu highlights is the Starved Rock Signature Ale, made just for the lodge by Leinenkugel, and is not surprisingly the lounge’s most requested craft beer. Fullservice catering is also available.
Guided hikes and scavenger hunts are the most popular team-building activities for groups, says Director of Sales and Catering Jenny Roulston. Guests can also enjoy seasonal trolley tours, bird watching, boating, horseback riding, hunting and fishing. Three wineries are located near the state park as well.
September and October are popular months at the lodge as guests arrive to enjoy the fall colors. However, don’t forget about the lodge in the winter, says Roulston.
“Every season of the year offers a wonderful form of nature at its best,” she affirms.
There are discounted rates for corporate groups from December to March, with still plenty of activities for guests to enjoy outside. Along with cross-country skiing and ice climbing, guests will be treated to the ice formations made by Starved Rock’s frozen waterfalls.
WHITE PINES INN LODGE, RESTAURANT AND CABINS
The White Pines Inn Lodge, Restaurant and Cabins are nestled deep in the forest in White Pines State Park, located in the Rock River Valley in northwest Illinois. The state park includes 385 acres of land just 30 miles southwest of Rockford and features a historic log-and-limestone lodge as well as cabins that were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
“It’s totally a step away from corporate America—as far as you can get,” says Elizabeth Henderson, proprietor at the inn. “We are deep in the forest with a retreat-like atmosphere. There’s great food and great service, and it’s a place to clear your brain and let the energy flow.”
White Pines offers two indoor meeting rooms on-site. One can hold up to 24 while the lodge’s Great Room, with an open-beam ceiling, can hold 120 people. White Pines can also accommodate up to 350 guests at the inn’s sister location, LaBranche Banquet Hall, which is 7 miles west in Polo.
Hiking, boating, horseback riding, bank and boat fishing, golf, wildlife viewing and gokarting are offered nearby, along with tourist attractions including the John Deere Historic Site, the boyhood home of President Ronald Reagan and a buffalo reserve. Back on-site, guests can enjoy a live stage show at the White Pines Dinner Theatre or unwind in the lodge’s Canyon View Spa.
White Pines Inn offers 25 single-room cabins, including 13 individual options and 12 with four separate, adjoining rooms. They are available from the first Friday in March to the Sunday before Christmas.
The White Pines Restaurant offers an award-winning Paul Bunyan Breakfast, including platters of eggs, pancakes, sausage, bacon and toast. For lunch, guests can enjoy homemade soups and sandwiches, as well as the lodge’s signature chicken potpie. Some of the restaurant’s signature dinner entrees include the lodge’s pan-fried walleye or pork tenderloin with raspberry chipotle sauce, along with the chef’s Pine Creek peach cobbler and red raspberry pie.
Outdoor Options for Groups in Cook County
Chicagoland adventure seekers have options close to home, too. Bemis Woods, part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, recently announced a thrilling new opportunity for groups called “Go Ape!” It includes a one-of-a-kind journey through the vast forest canopy, including suspended obstacles, Tarzan swings and five zip lines.
But that’s not all. The Forest Preserves of Cook County has several other options for groups looking to camp and enjoy the great outdoors:
>> Camp Bullfrog Lake in Willow Springs offers campsites and cabins, plus canoe rentals, fishing, mountain biking and 50-plus miles of hiking trails.
>> Camp Dan Beard in Northbrook features renovated cabins for groups, plus open fields for tent camping en masse.
>> Camp Reinberg in Palatine has accommodations, from campsites to heated cabins, plus a renovated dining hall.
>> Camp Shabbona Woods in South Holland includes threeseason cabins and campsites, plus the Sand Ridge Nature Center.
>> Camp Sullivan in Oak Forest offers bunkhouses for rent and will soon offer tent camping. Groups can enjoy nature exploration, group gatherings, a climbing wall and other activities.
Find out more at fpdcc.com