Located in Rockford, IL, about 90 minutes from Chicagoland, the Anderson Japanese Gardens are a treat well worth the ride. Though small compared to Chicago Botanic Gardens, the Japanese Gardens provide calm walks through lush greenery, across crooked bridges, along koi ponds and around beautiful waterfalls.
The gardens are about 10 minutes off of I-90 in the city of Rockford, though you will not notice the city once you are wandering the garden paths. The gardens are a non-profit and the admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students, and parking on the premises is free. The gardens are open from May 1- October 31; weekday hours are 9:00- 6:00; weekend hours are 9:00-5:00.
A casual stroll through the gardens took us about 75 minutes. If you are in a rush, plan on 60 minutes minimum. Should you choose to sit and relax on one of the many benches throughout the gardens, you could spend a few hours. Comfortable shoes are a must – the paths are a mix of paved, crushed gravel and occasionally stepping stones – some of the paths are not very level.
There is a restaurant on the premises, though we did not eat there. A gift shop is also available.
Once we purchased our admission, we made our way out to the main path. The path is generally a one way route where we comfortably moved at our own pace.
Just a few minutes into our stroll we began rounding a large pond where several large koi fish surfaced regularly. This lake, located in the Garden of Reflection, was a prime introduction to the tranquil gardens. While many other visitors wandered the grounds, there was a general calm throughout.
Making our way through along the winding path, many of the “grand” sights stole our focus – the waterfalls, tea house and other architectural features. However, a slower pace is a great benefit to noticing the great details – whether the raked stone garden or small stone lanterns hidden amongst the well-trained trees which hovered over lakes, buildings and paths.
First and foremost, the serenity of the environment is second to none. Though Chicagoland is lucky to have several gardens/arboretums, these gardens are quiet and calm, despite the density of the grounds. Benches dot the paths to sit, relax and simply gaze at the surroundings.
The West Waterfall was a highlight for us. Perhaps the noon lighting reflecting off the waterfalls made them extra attractive, but the falls, observable from both very close up as well as an observation deck a bit further away, were simply beautiful. Framed by a variety of plant life, a hidden bridge and a smaller waterfall at the very top, enjoying the falls took up a large chunk of our time. It was a standout for most other visitors as well, noted by the number of folks posing for selfies at the base of the falls.
The walking loop encompassing the Tea House and the West Waterfall was probably our favorite part of the gardens. Though we had to watch our footing a number of times along this portion of the path, we probably could have done another loop here.
Though the drive to and from Anderson Japanese Gardens was longer than the amount of time we wandered there, it was well worth the time. We had been here about a decade ago, and for whatever reason – gray skies, higher temperatures, less developed gardens – they had not been a high priority to return to. Revisiting Rockford’s treasure a decade later has let us reassess how we felt – we can definitely see ourselves returning more quickly this time around.
Bonus- Rock Cut State Park:
Over the last 15 years, we’ve made the trip through Rockford, north to Wisconsin, at least a dozen times. On each of those trips we inevitably saw the signs for Rock Cut State Park, located just 10-15 minutes north of Rockford.
Given that our stay at the gardens left us with a sizable portion of the day left to explore, we made our way to Rock Cut. It is worth noting that at our 12:00 arrival, the parking lot was near capacity and there was considerable construction underway in August of 2019.
Getting into the main area of the park is a little confusing. The main entrance takes you to a boat launch and lake for boating. However, before arriving at this lake, there is a spur road, heading west, which we found took us to the main park, after an additional 10 or so minute ride.
Rock Cut is centered around a large lake and provides all of the activities one expects at a larger state park – boating, fishing, hiking trails, picnic grounds, etc. The heat of summer, as noted by the full parking lots, also brings out the crowds.
We limited ourselves to one trail, picked up directly from the parking lot and leading into the forest. The primitive path wound through a well canopied forest, eventually leading up to a path of very tall pines, before winding down to the lake. One this trail, we were able to escape the vast crowds located in the other areas. In total we spent about 45 minutes walking the paths and it was a nice complement to the Japanese Gardens from earlier in the day.
Though we probably would not make the drive to the Rockford area simply for Rock Cut State park, the park was pleasant, and if you are in the Rockford area looking for something to do, this visit would not be a disappointment.