Untouched by receding glaciers, Galena is perfectly located to be a bountiful natural getaway with easy travel to bigger cities. Having peaked in the 1850’s, Galena has preserved much of its history, and architecture, which has been restored and enhanced for all to enjoy.
A Brief History of Galena, Illinois
Galena is located in the county seat of Jo Daviess County, where it is the largest city. Although it is close to much larger cities, such as Chicago, Galena is blessed by its isolated location. This creates a pocket of untouched landscape safe from the hustle of neighboring cities.
Two airports make traveling to and from Galena a breeze, and area leadership has worked tirelessly to expand the area’s bike trails and outdoor space so that others can experience the region’s beauty first hand.
Whether you are a first-time visitor or a long-time resident, you will notice that Galena is very invested in the preservation of their history which creates a unique opportunity for fascinating elements of local history to be discovered. Approximately 85% of Galena’s buildings are currently registered on the National Register of Historic Places, and the number continues to grow.
The first settler arrived in 1821, and the population grew to a whopping 10,000 by 1828 which rivaled the population within Chicago during that time. The city was also a steamboat hub on the Mississippi River, and the home of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States.
Things to Do
Outdoor recreation in Galena is not just a draw in this area, it’s a way of life for most residents and guests. With much of the land untouched by receding glaciers, a generous selection of outdoor recreation is possible, including horseback riding, fishing, downhill skiing, hot air balloon rides, and hiking. In short, there are plenty of things to do in Galena.
Hot Air Balloon Rides
Of the many unique things to do in Galena, it would be remiss not to include its love with hot air balloons. Visitors can choose from several companies in the area, and schedule a time to go 3,000 feet in the air with a group of up to 14 people.
Visitors report amazing experiences with friends and family groups, along with multiple return visits just to see the beautiful landscape from high above the tree line. Although there are multiple companies that provide this service, the leading one in the area is called ‘On the Fly’ which offers hour-long rides at various heights.
Once you land, a ‘chase car’ will pick you up and return you to the meeting point where you can purchase items to commemorate your experience.
Each year in the summer, Galena hosts a 3-day hot air balloon race during the third weekend in June which attracts people from across the state. There are both daytime and nighttime events as well as live music, entertainment, and tethered balloon rides.
Galena Hiking Trails
Galena hiking trails are truly a thing of beauty as the wind through the numerous geological features left by receding glaciers long ago. With over 16 trails to choose from, visitors can find the trail that best suits what they are looking for.
Badger State Trail
Badger State Trail is a 40-mile-long Galena hiking trail that is travel-friendly year-round. In the summer hikers, and bikers can walk the crushed stone trail, while in the winter cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and ice skating are popular.
This trail runs from Madison to the Illinois state line and boasts a 1200-foot Stewart Tunnel.
Bear River Recreation Trail
This Galena hiking trail follows part of the Maquoketa River as it runs outside of Spragueville and Preston. Much of this trail follows an abandoned railway and includes several scenic overlooks of the river, valley, and limestone bluffs. Picnic tables and signs can be found along the way, and fishing is permitted.
Cheese Country Recreation Trail
The Cheese Country Recreation Trail is easy if using a motorized mode of transportation, but can be challenging by foot or bike. Some parts of the trail are deep mud or dust, while other parts have ruts or are deeply graveled.
This trail begins slightly west of the Badger State Trail, where you’ll find yourself in a town called the “Swiss Cheese Capital of the USA.” The trailhead is 0.2 miles from the Badger State Trail and 0.7 miles from the National Historic Cheesemaking Center.
Galena River Trail
The Galena River Trail is another of the many Galena hiking trails in the area, however, this one is built on a disused railroad spur of the Burlington Railroad line. This particular spur served as a link between Galena and Galena Junction where the main railroad is still active and follows the Mississippi River.
Trains on this trail stopped running around 1960, but you can still view many of the old signal foundations between the railroad bridge and the underpass where this trail meets South Park Avenue.
This trail is mostly wooded, which provides much-needed shade on hot summer days. In winter, this trail is a good choice for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.
Some natural highlights include limestone bluffs, wetlands, and the original stone foundation of a house. There are picnic tables along the trail, interpretive signs, an information station, and a bathroom at the trailhead.
Where to Stay
Galena offers many options for visitors looking for lodging. With a wide variety of motels, resorts, hotels, B&B’s, rentals, and campgrounds visitors are spoiled for choice. Many local establishments are historic sites and situated in the heart of local activities and sightseeing.
Galena’s Irish Hollow
Galena’s Irish Hollow is a romantic bed and breakfast that was recently voted to be the best in Galena. With beautiful suites, and fantastic views this establishment works hard to ensure that their products and rooms are fully stocked with the highest quality, organic goods.
With 500 acres of pristine landscape and grassy pastures, Irish Hollow features meandering trails, lush woods, fields of wildflowers, and glacier-fed streams. Their food ingredients are sourced locally, and their philosophy of Farm-to-Table is as strong as their attention to being environmentally friendly.
The Goldmoor Inn has been open for just over 30 years and features elite amenities, dining, spa services, and amazingly romantic views. The estate has 13 rooms which overlook the Mississippi River, and beautiful gardens.
The beautiful landscape and venue makes it the perfect location for weddings, or events and is located minutes from downtown Galena. They offer whirlpool suites, private gourmet breakfasts in your room, and romantic dining in their restaurant. Their menu is seasonal and uses local ingredients.
What was once a privately-owned estate was transformed over three decades ago into an elegant country inn suitable for those who prefer to be inside, or in the great outdoors.
DeSoto House Hotel
This Victorian-style hotel features 55 rooms, three restaurants, a banquet hall, and a self-guided walking tour all on site. Once built as a Grand Hotel to house prosperous individuals, the DeSoto house opened in 1855 and was deemed the “Largest Hotel in the West” at the time.
Built to service the flourishing mining and trade industry in Galena, the original building had 225 rooms. Today the 55 rooms are encompassed in four stories and pay homage to the history that it has withstood over the years. The rich accommodations and superior service pair beautifully in the historic setting.
Apple River Canyon State Park
If camping is more your speed when you are visiting Galena, Apple River Canyon is a must-see destination. With beautiful limestone bluffs, deep ravines, streams, springs, and ample wildlife, Galena is a picturesque place to set up camp.
Formed by the gentle waters of the Apple River, Apple River Canyon State Park was established in 1932 and currently consists of 1,907 acres. This state park encompasses several nature areas and other sites that stretch across the entire canyon area.
While other areas are flat from the sweeping of receding glaciers, Apple River was left untouched. In this area, there are a large number of fossils, at least 14 kinds of ferns, over 500 herbaceous plant types, and 165 varieties of flowers.
Fun Facts About Galena
According to the 2010 census, Galena has a population of 3,429, with 581 acres of the city listed as part of the National Register of Historic Places.
The city itself is named after the mineral, Galena, which was mined in the area by Native Americans for over a thousand years. Given the abundant deposits of the mineral, Galena was the first major mineral rush in the United States.
Galena is the home of 9 Civil War generals, including Ulysses S. Grant. It was when Grant returned to Galena in 1865 that he was gifted a brick house, which is now the Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site.