Though small, with just an area of about six square miles, Sterling is an interesting place to visit when traveling to Whiteside County in northwestern Illinois.
Sterling was incorporated as a city in 1857, and many of its points of interest are woven around its rich history.
This city emerged from the 1838 merger of the towns of Harrisburg and Chatham, both established in the early 1830s.
Sterling spreads on the north banks of the Rock River that provides plenty of recreational activities to locals and visitors alike.
Sterling’s twin city, Rock Falls, is across the river banks and adds further delights to a visit to Sterling.
Although farmlands surround Sterling, this city was formerly known as the "Hardware Capital of the World" because of its association with the steel industry.
Browse the following list of the best things to do in Sterling, Illinois, to discover more of the city's major attractions.
Explore Sinnissippi Park
Sinnissippi Park is Sterling’s largest, with the six-acre Hopewillian Indian Mounds among its points of interest.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, these Indian Mounds date back 2,000 years ago.
Sinnissippi Park also features recreational amenities, including ball fields and a Frisbee golf course.
Visitors can also enjoy the park’s open play areas, playground equipment, park shelters, and picnic areas with grills.
A trail system connects Sinnissippi Park with Hoover Park on Woodlawn Road and 37th Avenue.
Enjoy the River Views at Martin’s Landing
Visitors of Sterling can enjoy amazing views of the Rock River at Martin’s Landing.
The park is accessible from 10th Avenue and 2nd Street, offering riverside benches and a gazebo shelter.
Martin’s Landing was developed along with a walkway over Sinnissippi Dam which was built over the Rock River.
The dam was constructed in 1906 to feed Rock River’s waters into the historic Hennepin Canal, built for recreational purposes.
The Sinnissippi Dam Walkway extends for about half a mile and is open to pedestrians and bikers.
A stroll at Martin’s Landing and this walkway can unlock other points of interest not only in Sterling but also in Rock Falls.
Tour the Dillon Home Museum
The Dillon Home Museum is located on East Third Street, a short walk from Martin’s Landing.
The Dillon Home housing the museum was built in 1858, boasting impressive Italianate architecture.
It was originally built for Edward Needles Kirk, a Civil War brigadier general.
The mansion later became the home of the Northwestern Steel and Wire owner, P.W. Dillon.
His wife, Crete, furnished the home with eclectic period furniture and décor that remained untouched in the Dillon Home Museum.
Within the well-groomed grounds of this museum, the home’s Carriage House is another interesting place.
It serves as the headquarters of the Sterling Rock Falls Historical Society which also keeps museum pieces in the Carriage House.
Along East Third Street, you can also visit the Lincoln-Manahan Home Museum.
President Lincoln stayed here during his visit to Sterling, hence the home’s name.
Launch a Boat at Harry Oppold Marina
The Harry Oppold Marina is a public facility that makes Sterling a great jump-off point for boating on the Rock River.
This marina, which was completed in 1971, is located on Stouffer Road just east of Sinnissippi Park.
The marina’s facilities were masterfully built to take advantage of an oxbow lake that the meandering river created on its banks along Sterling.
These facilities can accommodate canoes, rowboats, and power boats, which are all allowed on Rock River.
The marina offers a 100-foot main dock and a 500-foot boat ramp, as well as lighted roads and parking.
Aside from these facilities, Harry Oppold Marina provides two picnic shelters, playground areas, and well-landscaped open areas.
August or September is a great time to visit Harry Oppold Marina, as the Rock Falls River Chase is typically held during these months.
This event kicks off from Sewards Park across the river in Rock Falls, just a short distance west of Harry Oppold Marina.
Stock outboard motorboats compete in various categories of this boat racing event.
Enjoy Riverside Camping at the Crow Valley Campground
The Crow Valley Campground is located on Moline Road, tucked on a bend of the Rock River.
This RV campground spreads over 40 acres where campers can pick sites directly on the riverfront.
It’s open from April to October and can accommodate up to 45-foot RVs.
The campground provides water and electric hookups of 30 and 50 amps, as well as a dump station.
It is also family-friendly, offering four children’s playgrounds and courts for horseshoes, basketball, and volleyball.
Other facilities in this campground include a serenity pond, hiking trails, and a boat ramp.
You can enjoy fishing at the river, and although you can’t swim in its strong currents, the Crow Valley Campground provides a swimming pool for your enjoyment.
Cast Lures at Lawrence Park
The riverfront location of Sterling provides many public spots for fishing, with Lawrence Park as one of the best choices for anglers.
This park is perfect for casting lures into the Rock River, as it’s located on an island at the eastern terminus of Avenue G.
Anglers fishing at this Avenue G Island public park often haul in channel catfish weighing 45 to 50 pounds.
They can also reel in sauger and walleye from the Rock River, thanks to the regular river stocking of these fish species by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Small-mouth bass, bluegill, white bass, and drum are among anglers’ potential catch in the waters off Lawrence Park.
Established in the mid-1920s, this park also provides other amenities including a boat launch, horseshoe courts, and open play areas with playground equipment.
The park, considered Sterling’s first, also features shelters and picnic areas with barbecue grills.
Hunt at the Sinnissippi Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area
With a license, you can go hunting at the 2,000-acre Sinnissippi Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area accessible from Sterling via Stouffer Road.
Its hunting grounds are spread over a total area of approximately 700 acres, and the game includes waterfowl, like wild geese (except the young ones).
Trapping of furbearers, like skunks, coyotes, raccoons, and foxes, is also allowed here for licensed hunters.
This wildlife area is located above the Sinnissippi Dam and is also a great destination for fishing on the Rock River.
The calm Sinnissippi Lake waters in the Sinnissippi Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area are likewise popular for kayaking and canoeing.
Log Running Mileage at Hoover Park
The acreage of Hoover Park at Woodlawn Road and 37th Avenue is popular among runners and joggers.
This park was established in the 1940s as a northeast extension of Sinnissippi Park.
A 1.25-mile stretch of the Sterling Multi-Activity Recreational Trail is Hudson Park’s main attraction for runners.
This trail section is asphalt-paved and accessible from the parking lot on Woodland Road.
Runners, as well as hikers, love this trail as it traverses the scenic Woodland Creek and Sinnissippi Bayou.
Hoover Park also provides a kids’ playground at its trailhead and hosts the annual cross-country Rock River Run for high school athletes in the region.
Watch a Classic Film at Midway Drive-In Theatre
The Midway Drive-In Theatre on Palmyra Road is an icon of the 1950s where you can watch classic films.
This family-owned and operated outdoor movie theater opened in 1950 and has remained in operation since then.
The retro vibe of this movie drive-in can be seen at once in its spaceship-themed ticket booth.
Up to 500 cars can be accommodated at Midway Drive-In, which boasts a 90-foot giant screen with stereo sound piped into the cars’ FM radio.
Besides classic movies, this outdoor theater shows first-run films as well as double-header movie showings.
The theater’s patrons have access to a self-service Midway Diner with a full restaurant menu.
Stay in Shape at the Westwood Fitness & Sports Center
Fitness buffs on a holiday in Sterling don’t have to miss their training regimen, as the city boasts Westwood Fitness & Sports Center.
At 35,000 square feet, it’s the main recreational facility of the Sterling Park District.
A drop-in fee to this center provides access to a wide selection of fitness equipment ranging from traditional free weights to cutting-edge training setups like TechnoGym.
The center also features a kids’ gym, basketball and volleyball courts, plus a 200-meter indoor track around a 60-yard AstroTurf football/soccer field.
In addition, Westwood Fitness & Sports Center is home to six pickleball courts and two racquetball courts.
Traverse the Lynn Boulevard/Westwood Trail
The Lynn Boulevard/Westwood Trail is an asphalt-paved paved, carless path stretching over 3.7 miles one way.
This wooded trail is accessible from the parking lot of the Westwood Fitness and Sports Center on Westwood Drive.
From here, it extends southeast and winds up at the junction of YMCA Way and Lynn Boulevard.
The Lynn Boulevard/Westwood Trail is wheelchair accessible and open to pedestrians, bikers, and inline skates, as well as cross-country skiers during winter.
Along the way, you will pass along Elkhorn Creek, rolling hills, a man-made lake, and a shelter atop a small hill.
Take the Kids to Kilgour Park
Its two-story wooden playhouse makes Kilgour Park a stand-out on West 15th Street.
Dubbed Imagination Station, this play space features a striking castle-shaped structure that the local community built.
It features metal slides and tunnels are sure to delight children visiting with their guardians or parents.
Adult-oriented recreational facilities are also available at this park sprawling over 12 acres off West Le Fevre Road.
These facilities include picnic areas and outdoor courts for tennis and basketball, as well as a half-mile walk path around the park’s perimeter.
The site of Kilgour Park was a former farm of Civil War Colonel William M. Kilgour, after whom it was named.
Shop Local at Primitive Frills
Custom designs of Sterling’s local artists are sold at Primitive Frills.
This homegrown shop is located on East 3rd Street in the city’s downtown district.
Its shelves feature not only locally designed apparel but also home décor and furniture.
Primitive Frills opened in 2016 after several years of operations as a home-based retailer.
This unique shop accepts made-to-order items.
Other Things to Do Nearby
Visit Selmi's Greenhouse
Fresh farm produce isn’t the only attraction for visitors of Selmi's Greenhouse, Sweet Corn, Pumpkin Patch and Orchard.
Located on Dixon Avenue in Sterling’s nearby twin city of Rock Falls, Selmi’s also delights visitors with its corn maze and petting zoo.
In addition, Selmi’s hosts various seasonal events, including weekend magic shows.
The Wizard Haunted House and lumberjack show further spice up a visit to Selmi’s.
After enjoying these attractions, you can select from plenty of freshly picked fruits and vegetables at Selmi’s to take home.
Bike on the Hennepin Feeder Canal Trail
The Hennepin Feeder Canal on East 2nd Street in Rock Falls features a bike trail easily accessible from Sterling via the Sinnissippi Dam Walkway off Martin’s Landing.
The trail along the historic canal stretches over 96 miles and is popular not only among bikers but also horse riders, hikers, and cross-country skiers.
For bike-less visitors, Rock Falls has a bike share program to the rescue.
Bikes under this program are available at the RB&W District Park on East 2nd Street near the trailhead of the Hennepin Feeder Canal.
Other outdoor activities that can be enjoyed along Hennepin Feeder Canal include boating and fishing, as well as snowmobile riding and ice skating during winter.
Campgrounds, picnic sites, and day-use areas are also accessible along the Hennepin Canal.
The wide range of the best things to do in Sterling, Illinois, makes this city a great destination.
It’s easy to shift from one activity to another during a visit to Sterling, as many of its points of interest are bunched together.
Rock Falls, just across the river, complements the attractions in Sterling, further enhancing the delights of visiting this part of Whiteside County.