Why Ottawa, Illinois is a Hidden Gem for RV Camping
The city of Ottawa, Illinois has a motto: “Pick Us.” After you read this article, you’ll know why that’s a good idea and you may be more inclined to do just that.
Ottawa is at a crossroad in the middle of the country. Several of the East/West interstate highways (I-90, I-88, I-80, I-74, and I-72) run through Illinois and I-80 literally goes right through Ottawa. But even though it’s on one of America’s busiest interstate highways, most people going to Illinois think only of Chicago or just think of Illinois as a place they must endure to get to some other destination.
If that’s your mindset, I’d like to shake some sense into you because you will be missing a truly unique and marvelous experience if you just drive through this beautiful state. After all, Illinois is not an impediment to your travels or a necessary evil to be endured on your way to someplace else. It can be, and should be, a destination, in its own right.
I had never given much thought to what the inland states were like. When we finally drove to these places, I was stunned by the vastness, the beauty, the diversity, the history, and the people we encountered all across this great inland plateau.
Our journey from Seaside to Ottawa
We didn’t know what to expect in Ottawa. Six months before our arrival, we accepted an invitation to visit this crossroad city and evaluate what it had to offer travelers, especially RVers. The director of tourism realized that thousands of people drove through his city every week but not many of them paused to enjoy it.
Ottawa, Illinois exists in the shadow of Chicago and visitors to Illinois often choose the larger city as their destination because they don’t know there’s an alternative. He knew if he could just get people to pause in Ottawa, their experience would be rewarding, so he extended an invitation for us to go RV camping near Ottawa and share our experience with you, the RVing community.
The trip east from Seaside, Oregon to Ottawa, Illinois in May 2021 was filled with challenges and weather delays. The last 3 days of the journey were long, hard travel days, but arrangements had been made for us to camp on the grounds of Skydive Chicago, on the outskirts of Ottawa, and we didn’t want to arrive late. We had planned this trip for months and traveled for weeks to get to Ottawa, but we had no idea what to expect.
Battered by the last three days on the road, we needed time to catch our breath. We had been following our RV LIFE GPS app all the way across the country and used it to safely navigate to the city and to the park.
In the preceding weeks, we’d stayed in many different campgrounds and parks in multiple states and we generally enjoyed all of them, but we knew immediately upon our arrival that this place was different. The town was different. The people were different. I couldn’t put my finger on what made it unique (until much later) but we sensed it immediately.
Even though we were road weary and eager to get our rig set-up, we started to feel more relaxed as soon as we arrived. I confess that I felt a perceptible peace permeating through Ottawa and everything in and around this small town, which now included us. Tranquility and friendliness were pervasive, not just at Skydive Chicago, where the owners, Rook and Heidi Nelson, welcomed us like old friends.
From the minute we arrived until we left 12 days later, we felt this city’s warmth, friendliness, transparency, and well-deserved community pride. I’ve thought about Ottawa for almost a month since we left, and I’ve struggled to find the right words to describe this unique place. I don’t generally have trouble describing anything, but Ottawa, Illinois is much less about words and more about feelings. Feelings of community, hospitality, and optimism.
The visual manifestation of this persona was instantly recognizable in Ottawa’s downtown core. I was struck by its contrast to so many cities we have visited in our travels.
Other places had vacant shops, run-down storefronts, debris, graffiti, and evidence of homelessness in and around the city core. But downtown Ottawa is clean, orderly, and well-maintained. The buildings in the core are a combination of old and new architecture but all are in good repair. The stores, shops, businesses, and restaurants were all engaged in robust commerce. Businesses were busy but not crowded. Restaurants were bustling to serve their in-person and take-out clientele. Shops were all open and eager to serve but not overbearing or pushy.
This balance of energy, enthusiasm, and respect personified the business community and extended to the entire town. During our stay, we enjoyed great dinners and deserts, coffee and pastries, and in every establishment, we were greeted with genuine friendliness. The people of Ottawa are unguarded and open and as time went on, I realized that this was the one underlying attribute that created the unique experience we perceived upon our arrival and throughout our stay in Ottawa.
RV camping near Ottawa, Illinois
If you plan to camp at Starved Rock in a big rig, be careful about your approach to the campground. The road through the park to the campground is blocked by a low bridge so use the safe approach by going around Starved Rock State Park. The campground access road is well marked on the highway. Just don’t try to drive a big rig through the main park.
A third RV park is under construction right outside of Ottawa which will also have river views when it’s completed, and there are over a dozen private parks within a 15 mile radius of Ottawa.
If you’re up to the challenge of skydiving, you can also stay on the grounds of Skydive Chicago, but they do require at least one jump to camp in their RV park.
Broaden your thinking about Illinois to include more than just Chicago. When we were in Illinois, we did take the time to drive to the 3rd largest city in the US (only 80 miles north of Ottawa). We spent a day sightseeing. And we were as pleasantly surprised by Chicago, as we were by Ottawa and Illinois itself. Chicago is simply beautiful. But no more so than all the rest of this incredible region of the country.
Unfortunately, I fear that all the rest of Illinois is overshadowed by this massive metropolis. Visitors to Illinois are only enjoying a fraction of what this magnificent state has to offer. They just don’t know what they don’t know.
If you’re curious about Chicago, take the time to explore this grand city on a grand lake. But there’s plenty to do and see without visiting Chicago if big cities scare you.
The flora and fauna, parks, hikes, rivers, and attractions of Ottawa offer enough diversion that you will not run out of things to see and do. In the 12 days we stayed in Ottawa, we still couldn’t see and do it all.
Family-friendly activities in Ottawa
We spent time driving through Ottawa’s neighborhoods to get a complete sense of this community. The hallmarks of social decay were conspicuously absent in all these neighborhoods, not just the downtown area. By comparison to all the other towns and cities we have visited in our travels, it is notable that we never saw a single homeless person. There was not one mark of graffiti, and no roadside rubbish in the 12 days we spent in Ottawa.
There were numerous family-friendly parks with playgrounds and room for kids to stretch their legs to workout their pent-up energy. Additionally, for young and old scouting enthusiasts, the National Museum of Scouting Heritage in downtown Ottawa has preserved the history and contribution of the noble institutions of scouting.
We did find many streets with historic older homes. All were restored and well-maintained. We found many neighborhoods with evidence of well-balanced work/play lifestyles. The residents personified their commitment to tidiness and community pride.
Balance, candor, orderliness, pride, were all words that came to mind when I thought about the feelings Ottawa evoked in my inner person. A city just can’t be this tidy without most of its citizen’s collective commitment to community pride. Even the trash cans in the city park were decorated.
The churches, Reddick Mansion, fraternal lodges, and other building in the downtown area were older, but all were in showcase condition. Many of the buildings in the downtown core have huge murals depicting the rich history of Ottawa and collectively they make up an outdoor gallery which is best enjoyed by following a self-guided walking tour.
To really enjoy this feature, stop by the visitor’s center and pick up the tour booklet to lead you systematically around town where you can view the art and read about each creation.
Like many communities of this era, the heart of the city is a central city park. The Washington Park Historic District is Ottawa’s central city park. It’s immaculate, and its most notable feature is a statue depicting the famous Lincoln/Douglas debate. The event shaped both the city of Ottawa and the political career of Abraham Lincoln.
Washington Park is meticulously manicured and appointed with a fountain, benches, stately old trees, and wide lawns just inviting you to sit and have a picnic. I visited the park after several days in Ottawa and by then, I knew that it would be free of debris, dog waste, graffiti, or evidence of vandalism. It did not disappoint.
Lincoln Douglas Debate
I’ve mentioned the rich history of Ottawa. Most famously, it was the site of the first 1858 debate between Lincoln and Douglas who were both running for a congressional seat. Douglas won the election. But the debate series drew crowds of thousands. They traveled to Ottawa to participate in the carnival-like atmosphere and listen to the debate.
Although Douglas won the seat, Lincoln gained prominence through the debates, and later used his name recognition to win the presidency. That debate and one other notable historic event helped put Ottawa on the map.
I&M (Illinois & Michigan) Canal
The other historic event that brought Ottawa to the forefront as a key crossroad in the American continent was the construction of the I&M Canal. In 1836, prominent citizens from Illinois and nearby states began to conceptualize a plan to create a 96-mile-long canal between the Illinois River and Lake Michigan. This canal would create a continuous waterway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
By navigating thorough the St. Lawrence River, into the Great Lakes, down the I&M Canal, into the Illinois River, and eventually down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Coast would finally be connected. This waterway would open a new era of travel and commerce.
Before our current network of highways and rail lines were constructed, the movement of people and merchandise was easier by water than by land. The construction of a canal was a grand plan. There was just one small problem. The I&M Canal needed to be dug and locks constructed. And this was a century before any heavy equipment could be engaged in a construction project of this magnitude.
The I&M Canal was primarily built by Irish immigrants. They answered the call and arrived in droves with nothing more than the strength in their backs. All had a steely determination to complete the canal.
The I&M Canal opened for business in 1848. It immediately shipped agricultural produce, livestock, merchandise. Passengers flowed up and down this interconnected waterway, bringing crops to new markets and merchandise to inland populations. The construction of the I&M Canal also elevated Chicago’s status as a port city on Lake Michigan. The I&M Canal terminus was the Chicago shipyard on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Things to do while RV camping near Ottawa
Earlier, I mentioned that there were too many things to do and too little time to do it. We crammed in as much as possible. But we still ran out of time. From your campsite in Ottawa, you can take a ride on a canal barge to get a sense of what that would have been like in the mid-1800s.
The boat is pulled along an old section of the canal by mules. A narrator tells the story of the canal’s history, its prominence, and how the canal contributed to the development of the upper plains. There is also a small toll house museum located on a section of the canal in downtown Ottawa.
Walking the self-guided tour to view the murals and read about each one is a great way to see and feel Ottawa up-close and personal. The Reddick Mansion is also worth an afternoon of exploration. Take time to learn about a historic lifestyle we can only appreciate now in movies and museums.
Other towns near Ottawa
We mixed it up with the locals at a kite festival held at Heritage Harbor. Then we spent several days driving further out from Ottawa to get a sense of the surrounding communities. We were curious if all the small towns in this area also personified the tranquility and peacefulness of Ottawa.
There were some other interesting small towns like Ottawa. But I can definitively say that none of them rose to the level of Ottawa in grandeur, enterprise, tidiness, and hospitality. We visited several state parks on the Illinois River. Both of us planned to return to hike some of the more storied trails along the river. But we ran out of time to follow-up on those hikes.
Of course, we spent many hours watching hundreds of skydivers jumping out of airplanes right over our RV from morning until evening. We enjoyed talking with the skydivers and the residents of Ottawa and everywhere we went. Every time we were met with warm smiles and a genuine friendliness that was disarming.
We were reluctant to leave after spending 12 days in Ottawa. My perception of one big, flat, boring cornfield will never be part of my thinking again. If you’re planning a trip east or west and it happens to take you close to Illinois, I beg you to put a pin in Ottawa and “Pick Us” as folks in Ottawa like to say. You will not be disappointed.
Start planning your RV trip to Ottawa
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Peggy Dent is an author, writer, and full-time RVer, traveling around the US and Canada. She’s traveled more than 130,000 miles in a motorhome, over the past 20 years, and is currently writing for the RV industry. You can contact her through her website at www.APenInYourHand.com