A sock monkey is what really piqued my interest in Rockford, Illinois, a city of just under 200,000 people. Southern neighbor of Beloit, Wisconsin, Rockford is about an hour and a half drive from Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison.
Small enough to measure summer by the height of corn, but large enough for shopping, industry, and tourism, Rockford reminds me a lot of my hometown, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Even the Rock River, meandering through a re-vitalizing downtown and remnants of early Native American inhabitants had me double checking the map.
Linked to their industrial past, someone in Rockford, Illinois put a patent on the red-heeled sock and the rest is just monkey business. In the spirit of the primate, we “monkied” around in Rockford and found some fun places worth visiting on a family road trip:
Our first stop, of course, spotting Nelson, the world’s largest sock monkey at the Midway Village Museum. A 19th century village, the museum is set on 137 acres and features 26 historical buildings, many of which you can go in. We arrived first thing in the morning, and our patient tour guide led us through the most toddler-friendly buildings in the village (school, fire station, police station, general store, and pump house).
We could have stayed in The Old Doll’s House building for hours. A building full of doll house displays from around the world, I’d go back here on a rainy day. The museum encourages exploration of the region’s history of industry as well as a hands-on activity constructing an industrial fan. A special section focuses on the Rockford Peaches and the Women’s Baseball League was nicely laid out and inspired us to watch “A League of Their Own.”
If you haven’t been to the Discovery Center Museum in downtown, you’ll soon see why the museum has been recognized as one of the Top 10 children’s museums in the nation by The National Geographic Society. We were lucky enough to visit the Discovery Center Museum during a grand re-opening, featuring the brand new Ag-Zibit and Air and Flight displays.
A perfect day to cool down in the WaterWorks area of the outdoor Rock River Discovery Park, we continued the splashing indoors in the wonderful Tot Spot water table play area upstairs. Unlike children’s museums in big cities, parking is free. Note that the Burpee Museum of Natural History is located just next door.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that we then ventured over to the Burpee Museum of Natural History to meet Jane, the dinosaur (mental note: based on size of “young Jane’s skeleton,” I’m once again glad dinosaurs are extinct). We looked at fossils and rocks, felt tree bark, and learned about mining.
On the third floor, the kids were absolutely fascinated with the Native American exhibits and the different dwellings. Here we are seen hunting deer from the safety of the museum canoe. Clean, open, and not too big or too small for younger children, Burpee and Jane were gracious hosts.
A fabulous place for kids of all ages is the Anderson Japanese Gardens. Gravel paths wind through the fourteen-acre authentic Japanese Garden, around waterfalls, koi ponds, reflection pools, and even a tea room. Kids can purchase bags of fish food in the Visitor Center. Anderson Japanese Gardens is among my favorite botanic gardens in the Midwest; you should check it out.
Alternately, the Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens is a year-round option, with the indoor conservatory a popular respite in colder months. The gardens feature tropical plants in a 11,000 square-foot exhibition area, a newly remodeled lagoon (converted to an ice skating rink in the winter) and beautiful outdoor rose garden.
Within walking distance of the Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens are two unique tours of the city: the the historic Trolley Car 36 and the Forest City Queen Riverboat. Departing from the Trolley Station in Riverview Park, the trolley takes passengers up and down the scenic Rock River trail, past sixteen unique sculptures and making a brief stop at the Sinnissippi Gardens. The riverboat travels up and down the Rock River on an hour-long sightseeing cruise taking passengers through county parks and past some of the more stately homes in Rockford. The boat also passes through the downtown business district.
One of the more popular summertime attractions in Rockford is the Magic Waters Waterpark located near the Interstate 90 corridor. The waterpark is home to Tsunami Bay, the largest wave pool in the state of Illinois as well as a variety of water slide, a lazy river, and Tiki Island with a variety of interactive toys and a 1,000 gallon water bucket that dumps onto unsuspecting patrons at regular intervals.
Another (dryer) option is Volcano Falls Adventure Park, also located on the east side of town. A typical adventure park, the attraction features mini golf, go-carts, lazer tag, and batting cages (we did not go, but it looks fun from the road).
If you visit Rockford and decide to spend the night a nice option for families is the Hilton Garden Inn Rockford, Rockford, Illinois, United States. The Hilton Garden Inn has a super fun swimming pool catered to younger kids; I’ve stayed there before and it’s a nice hotel.
Happy trails! Pin for Later: