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A ride ... and a meal ... to remember

Cedar Creek Ranch/Gunsmoke Grill offer up a Wild West adventure

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 4:20 p.m. CDT

Wanting to get away from it all? In the mood for some good old-fashioned rest and relaxation, but you don’t have the time or money to really take a lengthy vacation?

Well look no further. One of the Illinois Valley’s best-kept secrets is right around the corner, and once you ride into Cedar Creek Ranch and the Gunsmoke Grill, it will — no doubt — become a destination you’ll want to visit time and time again.

The Williams family of rural Cedar Point has spent the past few years working hard to allow their visitors to relax … and if you visit this scenic spot in the woods and you don’t leave refreshed … well, it’s nobody’s fault but your own.

The Williams family consists of Mom and Dad — Rosemary and Larry; brother John of Chicago; brother Paul who operates the ranch; and brother Mark who operates the restaurant.

Cedar Creek Ranch

Paul Williams opened Cedar Creek Ranch 12 years ago. To those who know him, it probably wasn’t much of a surprise, since he’s had a passion for horses his entire life. The soft-spoken business major threw caution to the wind, and followed his heart … which led down the trail to the Cedar Creek Ranch.

“It’s just how the cards played out,” he said with a grin.

Initially opening a boarding stable, Paul expanded the business to include horseback riding six years ago. While he continues to board horses, he’s expanded his own herd to include 32 horses in a variety of breeds — Saddlebred, Paints, Appaloosas, Rasofinos, Drafts and Morgans.

Seven days a week, four times a day, Paul and his staff lead horseback riders on a five-mile trail ride through some of the most scenic terrain the Illinois Valley has to offer. Passing by two historical sites – a Civil War cemetery and an old coal mine on the ride, riders not only enjoy the scenic ride but also the serenity and beauty of the area.

“It’s truly a dream come true,” Paul said. “When we’re out riding, I tell the people, ‘Welcome to my office.’”

Those folks who have visited Paul’s "office" have come to Cedar Creek Ranch from all over the world, and repeat customers are not unusual. Paul said he encourages everyone to give horseback riding a try; he said he has first-time riders every day and doesn’t want them to be intimidated just because they've never ridden a horse before.

“There was this guy from India here once, and we had him ready to get on a Paint (horse). The guy said, ‘Are you putting me on a cow?’” Paul reminisced with a laugh. “I tell the first-time riders, ‘If you know the difference between a cow and horse, you’re already ahead of that guy.’”

Just a glance at Paul's horses will tell you they are well cared for; Paul said every horse is groomed before and after every ride. And Paul said all the horses have been trained for "countless hours and miles" before he ever puts a customer on one.

"All the animals ... well, they're like my children," he said. "I believe that if you take care of the animal, the animal will take care of you ...

"We don't wear them down. We train with kindness, softness and love — which the animals return to us," Paul added.

So if you're in the mood for a quiet outing in the country where you travel through the timber, trot through natural fields and cross the creek, Cedar Creek Ranch might just be the place for you. Rates are reasonable, and they encourage birthday parties, group events and seasonal events on request. There is a rider weight restriction of no more than 250 pounds. Reservations are required.

To learn more about Cedar Creek Ranch, call 815-481-3337 or visit their website at www.ccrstables.com.

Gunsmoke Grill

Mark Williams never dreamed he'd own a restaurant. In fact, the owner of the Gunsmoke Grill — situated in the middle of Cedar Creek Ranch, still seems a bit surprised that he's elbow-deep in fresh meat and homemade French fries.

But that hasn't stopped Mark from embracing this endeavor and creating a restaurant that speaks not only of good food and plentiful drinks, but also of a relaxing environment that causes one to kick back and enjoy life to its fullest.

Formerly employed by the House of Blues and Planet Hollywood in Chicago, Mark said his knowledge of the restaurant business was marginal, at best. But when he returned home to the Illinois Valley and Cedar Creek Ranch, he realized visitors to the ranch were looking for somewhere nearby to eat and drink.

"After a few years, we decided to keep them here," Mark said of those ranch visitors. "It started out simple, but it came out a complex restaurant. And I was the cook. I'd never, ever done it before in my life."

While Mark had a bit of experience cooking for himself and his family, who have Italian roots, he never dreamed he'd be cooking for the public. But that didn't stop the family from believing in yet another dream, as they banded together and began to build the Gunsmoke Grill on June 1, 2010. The restaurant opened a little over six months later on Dec. 22, 2010. The Gunsmoke Grill was designed/built by Dad Larry Williams, Cousins Sonny LaFollette of LaSalle and Jim Bender of Oglesby and the Williams brothers.

The finished product boasts a knotty pine interior that immediately makes you feel at home. The Northwoods, cabin-look of the grill is rustic, but not so rustic that city-slickers will feel uncomfortable. The fireplace adds an ambiance that makes you want to stay a while longer. Out back, diners/drinkers can enjoy the deck which spans the length of the restaurant and overlooks a valley with the family's horses grazing on the hillside. The family's three dogs — Shelby, Lucy and Sixx — provide a friendly welcoming committee in the parking lot.

But all the aesthetics in the Wild Wild West don't mean a darn thing, if the food doesn't do the trick, and Mark clearly pulled some of those tricks out of his cowboy hat to offer diners a meal they won't soon forget.

"We're known for our burgers. We get our meat fresh every day; it's never frozen. People also really like our fresh, hand-cut fries. We've got wraps, chicken sandwiches, a steak sandwich, appetizers ... We really concentrate on our service and our food," he said.

The signature dish at the Gunsmoke Grill is their Emery's 38 Special — a giant-sized burger topped with bacon, onion rings, American cheese, chipotle mayo and BBQ sauce, served with those homemade fries for only $9. Other favorites are the Blazing Saddle, the Fat Willy, the Hunter's Hoagie, the Cedar Sunrise and the Sixx Gun Steak. Diners can also choose from 14 different appetizers to start their meals. A children's menu is available as well as a full-service bar.

Mark said plans are in the works to offer some barbecued specialties, like ribs, brisket, chicken and all the tempting sides that go with them.

And if you walk out the side door of the grill, you'll find the outdoor Bull Pen — complete with tables and a stage, where the Gunsmoke Grill hosts a variety of bands on certain nights. Mark said they book local and national bands in the Bull Pen with differing sounds for different people, including rock, country, bluegrass and blues. The bands play at varying times, so those wishing to enjoy the music should call first for dates and times.

Soon, the Williams will be enclosing the Bull Pen to make if more weather-friendly during the winter months. At that time, the Williams will have a venue to offer people the ability to celebrate special occasions and meetings, as well as an opportunity for themselves to feature special entertainment and other activities.

Mark admits the transition from his life in the city hasn't always been easy ...

"It's unbelievable to me sometimes," he said. "I guess I've got the best of both worlds. I've brought a little of the city into the country. I guess it was God's plan; it's the way it was supposed to be.

"You know, if you go to Monari's 101 (in LaSalle), Earl Monari has this saying, 'You think this is easy?' Well, now I know exactly what he means," Mark said.

For more information on the Gunsmoke Grill, call Mark at 815-446-4017 or visit their website at www.Gunsmokegrill.com.

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