Wanderlust

Six Flags gay day, and 4 other great road trips that start in Chicago

What’s better than a road trip?

You get in the car with friends or your spouse, queue up the playlists, open the sunroof and head out on the highway. Where you end up is only part of the adventure — getting there is half the fun.

When you think of traveling in Illinois, your first thoughts probably take you to Chicago. Set in the northeast corner of the state, the city has a lot to offer LGBTQ travelers, but Illinois is a huge state with a lot of natural beauty and small-town charm that’s waiting to get explored.

Ready to hit the road? Here are five ideas to get you started.

1. Joy ride at Six Flags Great America

If you love the thrill of a roller coaster, head to Chicago’s northern suburbs for an exhilarating visit to Six Flags Great America. The park has amusement rides and a water park and plenty to do for everyone. People who love speed will get off riding the 15 coasters like the American Eagle, the world’s largest double-racing roller coaster and the Joker, the newest ride that makes you feel like you’re free flying. And if you happen to be in the Chicago area around Sept. 9, get tickets for the annual Out in the Park. This private event reserved exclusively for the LGBTQ community takes place from 8 p.m. to midnight and includes dance parties and live performances in addition to access to all the rides. Tickets are $40 (parking is free for the event), and a portion of sales will benefit a to-be-named non-profit organization chosen by Best Gay Chicago.

2. Hiking the Starved Rock State Park and river rafting the Vermillion River

Photo: Kathy Casstevens Starved Rock Lodge

Set along the Illinois River, Starved Rock State Park is about a 90-minute drive southwest from Chicago near the towns of North Utica and Oglesby. If you stay over, check into the LGBTQ-friendly Starved Rock Lodge. Or if you want more of an outdoor feeling, book one of their rustic yet well-appointed cabins in the woods, some which are also pet friendly. From there, embark on a hike along 13 miles of trails where you can also discover 18 gorgeous canyons, many of which have seasonal waterfall and icefalls. Go horseback riding, fishing and eagle watching or canoeing or kayaking on the Illinois River. And if you want to take your adventure up a notch, head about 10 minutes south of Starved Rock to the Vermillion River. Here, class III rapids offer hours of a fun, wet excursion. Rent four to six person rafts through Vermillion River Rafting for $30 per adult and float off through 14 sets of rapids over nearly 10 miles of river. If you spend at least one night camping or in the lodge at Starved Rock, that gives you the opportunity to pop up to North Utica for antiquing — and who doesn’t love sifting through other people’s vintage pieces? You never know what treasures you can find whether for your apartment or your lake house.

3. Wine tasting and nature exploration in Southern Illinois

When you think of wine tasting, Southern Illinois may not be the first place to come to mind. But the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, set in and around the stunningly beautiful Shawnee National Forest near Carbondale — about 300 miles south of Chicago — will help change that perception. Book a room at one of the three wineries that offer lodging or at another cabin, lodge or bed and breakfast along the wine trail. You can also find lodging in Carbondale, home to Southern Illinois University, and make that your home base for the wine trail to explore more than a dozen wineries. Look into one of the local tours or hire a driver so you can truly enjoy touring the wineries and tasting the wines, which include Cabernet Franc, Traminette, Chambourcin and Riesling among others. This area makes for a great getaway or long weekend as you can pair the wine excursion with a host of outdoor activities like hiking Little Grand Canyon, biking, rock climbing and pampering at a spa.

4. Discover Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park

Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most important American architects. His designs took us from a darker Victorian style of home design, where rooms were smaller, darker and tighter to the modern era of open design that connects to the earth and the sun. FLW experimented with bringing nature into the home through light, higher ceilings, surprising touches like stained glass, beautiful woods and more. And there’s no better way to experience his genius than by touring Oak Park, a suburb just outside of Chicago. You can get to Oak Park by riding the CTA’s Green Line or Metra trains from the city or driving. Start your tour at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, where FLW and his team worked for 20 years and developed the Prairie School of architecture. Do a guided tour of the home and studio and then see many of his most iconic structures by signing up for a walking or biking tour through Oak Park. Here you’ll see famous homes like the Charles A. Purcell House, Laura Gale House and the Frank Thomas House. Oak Park is a charming city with many great restaurants, wine bars, specialty shops and retail.

5. Get pre-historic at Cahokia Mounds

Illinois boasts some startling archeological finds. The Cahokia Mounds Historic Site sits about 10 miles inside Illinois from St. Louis and was the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. The area consisted of about 120 mounds at the civilization’s height, between 1050 and 1150 A.D. It’s estimated that upwards of 20,000 people (the size of some large European cities at the time) lived in this chiefdom society. Monks Mound, the highest peak, still visible, stood at 30 meters tall. Today, the area is certified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and shows an example of pre-urban agricultural society that was part of the settlements in the Mississippi Valley.