Top Stops on Illinois’ Great River Road

October 18, 2018

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The Great River Road meanders along the Mississippi, the western border of Illinois, through historic river towns, past state parks and towering bluffs.

The Illinois Top 200 project celebrates the Illinois Bicentennial by inviting Illinoisans to vote on the state’s greatest treasures. In early May Illinoisans voted for the top ten scenic spots in the state. Not only did the Great River Road take second place, five of the top ten most beloved scenic gems are along the Great River Road.

So what else could we do to honor the Bicentennial, but take a slow drive south from Galena to Cairo and call out our favorite stops along the way?

Galena Gardens

linmar2Galena is a bit awesome. We’re big fans. It really is one of the jewels of Illinois, considered by many to be one of the best small-town getaways in America. Check out:

Fortunately, we have no shortage of new Galena adventures on our bucket list! And with such a good excuse to pay a late spring visit to one of our fav Illinois towns, we knew just where to go.

Our first stop on our Great River Road adventure was a real hidden gem, Linmar Gardens. Perched above Galena’s Main Street, these private gardens offer guided tours mid-May through October, and we were just in time to book one of the first tours of the year.

Built by the artist Hal Martin, who started transforming the property in the early eighties, Linmar is built on the site of a disused stone quarry, a derelict lead mine and an old garbage dump. It just goes to show that vision can create beauty out of anything!

Today, three acres of shady woodland gardens include a waterfall tumbling from a bluff, creeks, wildflower meadows, ponds with koi carp, charming sculptures and gazebos. At the heart is the Sunken Garden, built on the foundations of an old church. The tumbledown walls of the church remain, and the baptismal font has been transformed into a fountain.

These gardens are naturalistic and slightly overgrown, which is just the way we love it, it adds to the magic. But if your taste lies to more formal groomed borders, this may not be your cup of horticultural tea.

Our guide was delightful, and very knowledgeable about Galena’s history, as well as the story of the gardens. He isn’t a plantsman, but we were there for the vibe, not the scientific names, so we were down with that. We turned off our phones and immersed ourselves in the peaceful sounds of the garden, birds and running water. One word to the wise, take your mosquito repellent if you’re there at dusk!

After the gardens we stopped at Otto’s Place for lunch. We’d eaten brunch there the last time we were in town, and it was so good, that we wanted to see what they could do for lunch.

We weren’t disappointed! Their quinoa bowl was delicious, and we’ve eaten our fair share, so we consider ourselves quinoa connoisseurs. Add shrimp for extra indulgence. You’re welcome. We also had a Gorgonzola, Apple and Bacon Omelette, which was everything you’d dream of with that combo. There shouldn’t have been room for cake, but there was, and the lemon icebox cake sent us reeling out into the street clutching our food babies and wailing, “We’re never going to eat again!”

Mississippi Palisades State Park

Mississippi Palisades State Park (Retouched)The only thing to do after eating that much good food is to walk it off, and so we drove south along the Great River Road to the Mississippi Palisades State Park, put our boots on and hit the Sentinel Rock loop trail.

It’s a short walk, only one mile, but along narrow rocky paths close to the bluffs, and we felt like we’d worked off our lunch by the time we’d scrambled up and down ravines, stopping on bluffs to admire the views out over the river. The park is lovely, wooded and rocky, and the steep trails meant that we felt like we were the only people there for much of our hike.

Afterwards, glowing with virtue and fresh air, we headed to our stop for the night, the Nest at Palisades Cabins. These delightful secluded cabins are set high above the river. We loved the rustic décor, with traditional quilts on the bed, and a wood burning stove. We’d picked up a bottle of Secret Garden Viognier at Galena Cellars and as we toasted our road trip on the deck of our cabin, a deer stepped out of the undergrowth and stared at us, surely a good omen for our adventure.

Quad Cities & Quincy

Quad Cities Botanical

Quad Cities Botanical Center

The next morning, after a wonderful peaceful night’s sleep, we were up with the dawn chorus and on the road, as we had a long drive ahead of us. We planned to push through to Quincy for lunch, and then onto Elsah, admiring the meeting of the great rivers, where the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers converge en route.

Keeping to the horticultural theme of our road trip, we stopped off to stretch our legs at the Quad City Botanical Center in Rock Island. We’re suckers for a nice conservatory, and the Tropical Sun Garden does not disappoint, with its 14-foot waterfall. The children’s garden here is delightful. It’s inspiring to see a public garden create something so inclusive and entertaining for kids, just pure fun! The gardens are by the Mississippi, so after we’d had our fill of palm trees we legged it along the walkway by the river, before leaping back into our ride for the next leg south.

So, we know we said we’d never eat again, but turns out after a four-hour drive and a brisk walk, we were hungry again. Who knew? Our lunch stop in Quincy was Thyme Square, recommended to us for their farm to plate philosophy. It’s smack in the center of downtown Quincy and its warm welcoming vibe and enthusiastic staff won our heart even before we ate our way through their delicious menu. The highlight for us was the poached lox benedict, but everything was tasty, fresh and homemade, and if the surrounding tables filled with cheerful people happily heaping fork after fork into their mouths are anything to go by, this place is a Quincy stalwart.

After lunch we stretched our legs, and admired Quincy’s historic architecture, with our own pocket version of the Quincy Private Homes Tour. We strolled up Maine Street admiring the array of restaurants, bars and boutiques housed in historic buildings. This whole downtown area is listed on the National Historic Register. When we got to the East End Historic District the street widened and historic mansions took over from the shops. We ducked into the Quincy Museum to admire its ornate gilded woodwork and checked out their fun scale models of historic archaeology sites in Illinois.

Onwards to Elsah

Elsah in SpringThen onwards to Elsah, enjoying our glimpses of historic Nauvoo through the trees, and then slowing down for the most scenic part of our drive so far, the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, which is part of the Great River Road. The road runs right down by the river, at the foot of towering bluffs, and with the sun low, every bend was a temptation to stop and take pictures.

Our final stop for the day was Elsah. Just off the River Road, nestled in a valley between the bluffs, is this tiny historic village. With under a hundred permanent residents, it’s tranquil and utterly beguiling. As we drove down the peaceful road lined with old stone houses, each quainter than then next, to our delightful B&B, the Maple Leaf Cottage Inn, we could absolutely understand why Elsah was named the state’s top scenic spot. The whole village really does feel like you’ve stepped through a door into a slower gentler time. We strolled down the streets as dusk fell and then back to sit by the fire pit.

Cahokia Mounds

Collinsville Cahokia MoundsThe next day, after a phenomenal home cooked breakfast, we passed the Piasa Bird mural, thanking our lucky stars that we hadn’t come across any man eating dragon birds on our riverside walks, and made for Cahokia Mounds.

Well, where to start with this attraction. This UNESCO World Heritage Site may lack the initial visual wow factor of say a Venice or a Yosemite, as you arrive and gaze out over a green field with some gentle mounds and a few trees. “Hmm,” we thought, “it’s very pleasant, but not exactly scintillating.” We were wrong. We’re here to tell you not to be put off by first impressions. What a place!

The visitor center is impressively well curated. We recommend taking the time to watch the film which tells the story of the rise of Cahokia into the largest North American city, a thriving metropolis about six miles wide, home to over 20,000 people.

It’s pretty mind blowing to stand in a field hearing nothing but bird song (and the odd car on the road) and imagine a wealthy city the size of London surrounding you. The city was built to a plan, with 120 earthen mounds, and a massive 100-foot-tall earthen mound, that would have been topped with a fortress. This was no primitive village. This was a significant cosmopolitan city, with a third of its diverse population from outside Cahokia. 

So why was this prosperous important city abandoned? We don’t know. Archaeological excavations have revealed no obvious reason for the city’s decline, and Native American oral history has no stories to help us understand what happened. It’s as if one day the people of Cahokia simply abandoned their city.

After exploring the museum, we rented an audio tour and strolled around the site. It’s an eerie feeling to walk around the site and imagine how nine hundred years ago, thousands of people would have milled around us, working, trading, consulting the priests and leaders of Cahokia. Standing on Monk’s Mound we could see the skyline of St. Louis and the juxtaposition of this modern skyline made an odd contrast with the images in our imagination.

Don’t miss this understated treasure. We had a fascinating morning exploring the story of Cahokia Mounds, and we’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in lost cities and American history. Have a search on this site for events at the Mounds before you visit, as they run a busy schedule of art exhibitions, falconry displays, archaeology, American Indian education, and more. 

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