In the early to mid-1800s, Galena, Ill., was the most prosperous and important city in “the West” – much more so than a quiet lakeshore trading post 170 miles to the east named Chicago. Galena was a bustling riverboat and lead mining city, with 14,000 inhabitants, famous for its related, often scandalous, industries: alcohol (Red Stripe Beer actually originated in Galena), tobacco, “hospitality,” and politics. Ulysses S. Grant had a home here (which is now a museum), and the DeSoto House Hotel, the largest hotel in “the West” when it opened in 1855, was the site of famous speeches by both Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. The ironwork balcony that both stood upon during their historic orations still looks out over Galena’s main street. Along with Grant’s home, there’s a Civil War encampment, the oldest wood-structure home in Illinois, and several historic mansions offering tours. The Galena River, once the lifeblood of the town, silted up in the early 1900s due to lead-mining activities, and now is largely contained by a bulwark of levies and, on occasion, massive steel flood gates at the entrance to the postcard-perfect downtown. Clues to the rich, industrious, and boisterous past remain on historical markers and signs throughout town. Multiple options exist for Galena “ghost tours” for tourists who have an urge to try to meet some of the city’s past residents.
The surprisingly rich history of Galena is not the only thing that makes this northwestern-most corner of Illinois unique. The topography of this “driftless zone” is characterized by bluffs, hills, valleys, and exposed rock outcroppings, due to the fact that it escaped glaciation during the last ice age. (The only other area in the otherwise flattest state in America that was not scraped flat by ice is the very southern tip.) As such, the Galena territory is the only place in Illinois where you’ll find downhill ski slopes. It is also the location of the first, and largest, true golf resort in the state, Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa.
Eagle Ridge Resort comprises over 200 homes and villas, 80 hotel guest rooms, the 3,500 square-foot Stonedrift Spa, and 63 holes of the best resort golf in the state, along with tennis, swimming, marina, fishing, equestrian center, several dining options, the aforementioned ski slopes, and nearby attractions including ziplining and craft cocktails. The sprawling 6,800-acre grounds of Eagle Ridge, with all the hills and valleys—and even a waterfall—feel more like northern Michigan than northern Illinois.
New owner, lots of improvements
In 2018, Mark Klausner took over Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa, and improvements have been underway ever since. “Coming from the ‘inner’ south side of Chicago, quite by happenstance, Kathy and I ‘discovered’ The Galena Territory,” says Klausner, who moved his wife and six kids to Galena some 20 years ago. “As a serial entrepreneur,” explains Klausner, “I was most fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. Ensured that the finest staff continued in their employment, I proceeded with the greatest venture of my career. Kathy and I proceeded in our quest to expand the horizons of Eagle Ridge Resort and make it even a greater place.”
This venture has been multi-faceted to date, with a significant amount of work taking place at the clubhouse perched above The General. The pandemic lockdown provided an unprecedented opportunity to hire all local contractors to completely renovate the old Spikes and Woodstone restaurant into the Highlands Restaurant and Lounge 289. Included in this project are almost too many changes to list. First, the old restaurant was completely rebuilt. The old outdoor patio was enclosed to create a private dining area, and a new cantilevered deck with seating for 45 and sliding garage doors was added to look out over the 10th tee and 18th green (formerly the 1st tee and 9th green, but the nines have been flipped to provide a more dramatic closing experience). Lounge 289 was the old proshop. Now, after adding 30 extra feet to it, it is a homey, happening 19th Hole. Relive your round at The General with your foursome while splitting a massive Bavarian pretzel, fall-off-the-bone Buffalo wings, and a pitcher of Leinenkugel Screaming Eagle Ale, brewed exclusively for Eagle Ridge.
Downstairs now houses a greatly expanded Golf Shop with easier access and a wider selection of everything. My son, a high school golfer, said, “This might be the nicest pro shop I’ve ever been in.” Finally, the General Store, renamed The Country Store, was moved up to the Highlands complex and includes a convenience along with coffee, pastries, and light breakfast fare.
Whew! That all seems like a lot, but the facelift is not stopping there. Work on the new stand-alone Stonedrift Spa is underway, after a considerable planning and permitting process. According to Colin Sanderson, Director of Sales and Marketing, the spa alone will be approximately a $2.5 million project. The new spa will sit on the site of the old General Store, across the street from the Inn. It will be about 2.5 times the size of the current spa and will add hair and make-up rooms (for the resort’s robust wedding clientele – there’s even an in-house wedding boutique). There will also be a separate Men’s Relaxation Room and a dedicated Bride’s Room.
My wife was lucky enough to enjoy a signature Swedish massage in the current spa and returned extremely relaxed. A separate Men’s Relaxation Room will be welcome, though, as she felt a bit self-conscious in the current coed room, in which a few male golfers were lounging as well. Even so, “The spa was very down-to earth,” she reported. “It wasn’t at all stuffy, which was nice. Everyone was so friendly and relaxed.” Precisely how a spa should feel!
Along with improvements and expansions in the facilities, Eagle Ridge as a whole is moving toward going green. Solar panels have been installed throughout the resort that will provide energy to all buildings. As for golf renovations, the exteriors of both the North Course and South Course clubhouse have been redone. Most of the sand bunkers on the short East Course are being converted to grass bunkers. At The General, all the bunkers have been redone. But the big change is that the two nines have been switched in order to take full advantage of the former 9th hole (now the 18th), which requires a long carry over a deep gulley to a fairway that snakes and rises rather dramatically up to a green hunkered into the hillside below the newly refurbished clubhouse.
Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa soaring again
We all hope that the pandemic is winding down, but there are no guarantees. “We’re the original ‘socially distant’ vacation destination,” notes Colin Sanderson, “thanks to our family vacation homes.” My family and I were treated to one of these idyllic retreats in the woods, complete with screened-in porch and a Jacuzzi in back. It was a perfect home base not only for golf and spa, but also a zip-lining excursion at Long Hollow Canopy Tours. Long Hollow’s basecamp is just a few minutes off of the Eagle Ridge property. The zip-line tour is guided by extremely competent and fun experts along a progressively longer, higher, and faster series of cables strung through Galena’s dramatic and picturesque valleys and ridges. (I believe I hit 50mph on the longest line.)
Along with zip-lining, there’s a host of activities at Eagle Ridge itself and in the Galena area. “Guests of Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa have miles of nature to hike, bike, golf, fish, kayak, canoe, horseback ride, and even take a hot air balloon ride,” says Sanderson. “They can order in pizza or anything from our restaurants and enjoy the great outdoors without worrying about coming into contact with others.”
Homes can be booked directly online, and families can bring pets, celebrate family events together, or even spend some mid-week time e-learning and working while being close to nature and all the activities the resort has to offer. In addition to the private homes, Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa guests can stay in the Inn, as well as enjoy a wide variety of open-air dining options.
“Our new ownership, unlike previous owners, is re-investing the money we are making and putting it back into the resort,” says Sanderson. This stewardship and all the improvements will ensure that Eagle Ridge Resort remains a yearly destination for golfers and families throughout the Midwest. Now that things are opening up again, I ran into several groups who have been visiting every year for 25 years. It is easy to see why: There is honestly nothing else like Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa and nowhere else like Galena anywhere else in Illinois.