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Daytrip: The Beach on Crystal Lake, in Crystal Lake

This past Monday was a rare day when my daughter and I had absolutely nothing planned, from morning til night. I was also feeling in a bit of a funk, and I thought we should shake up our routine. I remembered vaguely hearing last summer that Crystal Lake had a neat new beach, so we headed up Randall Road. Here's what we found, including a funny twist.

Name: Main Beach in Crystal Lake, part of the Crystal Lake Park District. It's located on yep, Crystal Lake.

Location: 300 Lake Shore Drive in Crystal Lake. It took us about 45 minutes to reach the beach from Geneva. 

Looking at on Crystal Lake's Main Beach. Photo by Tara Burghart.Hours: 9 a.m. until dusk daily. Once school is in session, the beach is open from 3 p.m. until dusk. In 2012, the Main Beach opened for the season on May 26. It will close for the season on Monday , Sept. 3. (Check thewebsite for the hours for the smaller West Beach, which lacks concessions and boat rentals.) Note: Make sure the beach is indeed open on the day you're planning to visit. You can call 815-477-5404, or there is a link onthe site if the McHenry County Department of Health has to close the beach for any water quality reasons.  

Amenities: The beach has a large sandy area, a large wooden playground, lots of picnic tables in the shade and a beach house that has two sets of restrooms, showers, benches and hooks. There are no lockers in the beach house, so I locked my valuables in the car, and just took my beach bag and what cash I would need. The concession stand sells chips, ice cream, beverages and candy, as well as pizza slices ($3) and fries ($3.50). (If you are going to be eating a meal at the beach, I'd recommend bringing your own food just because the options for "real" food at the stand are so limited.) A variety of boats are available for rental at $6 an hour, including paddleboats, canoes, rowboats, kayaks and for those who are certified, sailboats at $8 an hour. Animals are prohibited at the beaches. There are a number of lifeguards. You can rent beach chairs and umbrellas, or you can bring your own foldable variety from home, too.

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Five Great ... Daytrips from the Fox Valley

For many of you, we've nearly reached the midpoint of spring break. Are you or your kids going stir-crazy? Here are five suggestions for fun daytrips you can do from the Fox Valley, and we didn't even get near Chicago! 

Photo courtesy of the LaSalle Canal Boat.*Starved Rock State Park: The park features 13 miles of trails, waterfalls active in the spring and amazing views. The park is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Both the park and its parking lots are free. It is located about 60 miles from Geneva.

*Kohl Children's Museum: We love the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville, but if you're looking for something different, head on up to Glenview for an outing that's all about imaginative play. The museumis located in a gorgeous newer facility on land that used to be occupied by the Naval Air Station Glenview. It's best for children up to 6 or 7 years of age. The museum is about 40 miles from Geneva.

*Burpee Museum of Natural History: This museum is located in Rockford, about 50 miles from Elgin. It is home to Jane, an unusually complete skeleton of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex. And while Jane was just 11 when she died, her fossilized skeleton is 21 feet long. The Burpee is right next to the Discovery Center Museum, a hands-on science museum.

*Discovery Zone Park at Deicke Park: This park in Huntley was the one that kicked off the Go West "Great Parks!" series, and I'm not sure it will ever be topped. The Discovery Zone is a play village for toddlers and preschoolers. And while it looks like a junior amusement park, it's all free and part of the Huntley Park District. Huntley is about 23 miles north of St. Charles. Make sure to pack a picnic lunch!

*The Illinois and Michigan Canal: This one has been on my list to explore for a long time, and I hope to finally get there this summer. The canal, which runs along the Illinois and Des Plaines rivers, helped provide the first complete water route from the East Coast to the Gulf of Mexico. It's now used for recreation and features miles of trails, state parks, restored historical sites, wildlife and beautiful landscapes. The canal runs from Channahon west to Seneca. Morris, a town which is located along the trail, is about 32 miles south of Aurora. The LaSalle Canal Boat begins its season in May and runs into October, so this is also a good addition to your summer plans.


Daytrip: Midwest Museum of Natural History in Sycamore

Did you know there is an elephant in the DeKalb County of Sycamore? Yep, it's true! He's mounted and is surrounded by dozens of other "stuffed' animals. Read on to find out where he makes his home.

Name: Midwest Museum of Natural History

Location: 425 W. State Street (Route 64) in downtown Sycamore, about 25 minutes west of St. Charles.

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays, although it will be open during spring break on March 26, 2012. 

Photo by Tara Burghart.

Amenities: You can park at the meters in front of the building (they are crazy cheap), or park for free in a city lot across State Street. The museum has a coat rack in the lobby. The museum does not sell food, but if you pack a lunch or a snack, you could eat in a large room in the basement used for birthday parties and other events. There is no designated nursing area, but there are several nooks where you could breastfeed in semi-private. The lobby (where you also pay admission) features a number of cool nature- and animal-themed toys for sale. 

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Daytrip: A Go West Outing to Woodstock

“You want a prediction about the weather, you're asking the wrong Phil. I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life.” -- Bill Murray as Phil Connors in “Groundhog Day.”

In honor of Groundhog Day tomorrow, I thought we’d take a trip to the charming McHenry County town of Woodstock in the far northwestern suburbs.

The Woodstock Town Square. Photo by mstephens7 on Flickr.Now many of you are likely nodding your heads and thinking, "Sure. Groundhog Day. Woodstock. Makes sense.” But others might be a bit confused.

The 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day” – starring Bill Murray as an egocentric weatherman – was set in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where each year on Feb. 2 a groundhog named Phil emerges from his burrow. His “handlers” then announce whether he’s seen his shadow; no shadow, according to legend, means an early spring is on its way.

While that tradition truly dates back more than 120 years in Punxsutawney, much of the movie “Groundhog Day” was filmed in Woodstock, especially on its beautiful town square.

As a result of the movie’s popularity, Woodstock now has its own “Groundhog Days” festival each winter – complete with a chili cook-off, free screenings of the movie, a walking tour of filming sites and on Feb. 2, the emergence of “Woodstock Willie” from a tree trunk on the Woodstock Square. Fans of the movie will appreciate that a polka band plays in the bandstand during the ceremony to help “wake” Willie from his winter nap.

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Daytrip: A Go West outing to Shedd Aquarium in Chicago

The last time I visited the Shedd Aquarium, my husband and unknowingly went during the spring break week for many schools. I was in my 2nd trimester, and remember shielding my belly against sharp elbows in the elevator.

A beluga whale. Photo courtesy of Shedd Aquarium.When we went in November, it was with our 2-year-old daughter in tow, and I had to shield the stuffed animals in the gift shop from her grabby fingers.

Seriously, when you visit a place like Shedd can make a huge difference in your experience. We visited on a Friday afternoon in mid-November, and while the place was busy it was not overly crowded. The Shedd offers 52 days a year when admission to the aquarium’s original galleries is free. You can find upcoming dates here; keep in mind you will likely be dealing with some heavy crowds, but with thestandard ticket for an adult starting at nearly $27 and for children nearly $20, those “Community Discount Days” could save you a bundle.

No matter when you and your family visit the Shedd, you’re in for a treat that likely will enchant even the youngest visitors. (Unlike the zoo, even a baby has tons she can view from the comfort of her stroller here.)

You probably know that the Shedd edges up against Lake Michigan and is located on the Museum Campus along with the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium.

If you visited as a kid, you likely remember that massive, 90,000-gallon circular aquarium in the rotunda that holds a Caribbean Reef. That’s still there, and still impressive – and four or five times a day, you can watch and listen to a narrated dive by a Shedd staffer who hand-feeds the animals.

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