Drive some of Illinois’ oldest and greatest roads for classic Midwestern culture, scenic beauty and a few good eats along the way.
Built along the Mighty Mississippi, at 550 miles long, the Great River Road runs almost the entire length of the state. With both northern and southern sections of the byway, this gorgeous river drive offers everything from outdoor adventure and quiet charm, to presidential and colonial history and some good old fashioned kitsch. There’s no better way to experience the life and industry of the Mississippi River.
Sink into European charm in Galena, one of Illinois’ most popular Great River Road getaways. Take a stroll through the story-book downtown to chat up the eccentric locals at Miss Kitty’s Grape Escape, travel the rolling hills to a local winery, hit the slopes for a day of skiing or book a night at the extravagant DeSoto House Hotel. And don’t miss a visit to Fulton to catch a glimpse of “de immigrant,” one of only two working Dutch windmills in the country and the only in the state.
If you want a closer look at the industry of the Mighty Mississippi, pull off in the Quad Cities area. In Moline, check out the John Deere Pavilion for a glimpse at the area’s agricultural heritage and a few Midwestern souvenirs, then check out a sightseeing boat tour on the Celebration Belle. For military buffs, visit the arsenal for its military museum and a bonus look at the lock and dam operations.
History, historic sites and a little more history. The Heartland Region is where you’ll encounter the pioneer days of Joseph Smith, the remains of the ancient city of Cahokia and a host of preserved architecture. This is also where you’ll find the Meeting of the Great Rivers – another of the state’s scenic byways and one of the Seven Wonders of Illinois.
H3: Southern Region
The Southern Region brings you to the end of the Great River Road and the Start of the Ohio River Scenic Byway. French colonial architecture, early American and Civil War history and phenomenal outdoor adventures await along this stretch of the drive. Stop in Grand Tower for a trip to Devil’s Backbone – the peculiar rock formations lining the Mississippi River. Then hop off the byway in Cairo, where the local harbour played a significant role during the Civil War.
Meeting of the Great Rivers is a breathtaking 33-mile section of the Great River Road, where the great Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers come together. Extending from Pere Marquette State Park to the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site, traces of history can be seen all throughout the bluffs and river towns along the byway.
The bluffs around the scenic byway, a favourite haunt for migrating bald eagles, are a great spot to catch a glimpse of the nation’s bird. In fact, there are more than 230 species of native and migrating birds that set up shop around the Meeting of the Great Rivers. But what about Native American dragons? A short drive up the byway in Alton is the famous Piasa Bird. This legendary man-eating dragon was painted on the bluffs along the Mississippi River by the Illini Indians.
If you get hungry during your travels, head over for a bite at Fast Eddie’s Bon Air in Alton. This local favourite is the recipient of one of Enjoy Illinois’ coveted Delicious Destinations awards. Serving up tasty grub like the Big Elwood on a Stick at just the right price, this institution is the best place to grab a brew and relax after a long day’s drive.
Travel the rolling hills of central Illinois as you follow the path of the Illinois River. At 291 miles, the Illinois River Road offers incredible views and opportunities to stretch your legs at some of the best state parks in Illinois.
The 2.52-mile winding pleasure drive in Peoria was referred to by President Theodore Roosevelt as the “world’s most beautiful drive” during his visit in 1910. The drive features breathtaking panoramic views of the Illinois River Valley, set against a backdrop of some of Illinois’ most remarkable homes.
When it’s time for a break, hop out of the car and stretch your legs at Buffalo Rock State Park in Ottawa. This quaint park set into the bluffs of the Illinois River features five giant earthen sculptures known as Effigy Tumuli. These towering sculptures are molded from Illinois clay, and beckon travelers to explore the Midwestern terrain.
Drive clear across northern Illinois on the nation’s first successful coast-to-coast highway. Enjoy 179 miles of rolling farmland and classic Midwest traditions, as you loop around to the Great River Road or follow the byway toward Chicago.
Wind your way along country roads and through the Shawnee National Forest on the Ohio River Scenic Byway. Travel the 188 miles around the southern tip of Illinois to experience some of the very best scenic views and outdoor destinations in the state.
The Shawnee National Forest is a Midwest destination that’s quite literally unlike any other. Towering rock formations and deep valleys carve the landscape around the river. Cave-in-Rock State Park and Garden of the Gods are popular natural attractions in the forest.
For some old-fashioned kitsch, visit the home of Superman in Metropolis. The town square is marked by a larger-than-life 15-ft. Superman, diligently keeping watch over the small river town.
Get a taste of the area’s colourful history at the Mound City Cemetery in the aptly named Mound City, where a presumed “Confederate Spy” is buried among the 2,700 Union and Confederate graves.
America’s first highway, the Historic National Road, stretches 164 miles from Marshall to East St. Louis. The Historic National Highway played a pivotal role in uniting the country and promoting interstate commerce. Visit prehistoric cities, Victorian architecture and Midwest small town America along the way.