Though the Great River Road covers an incredible amount of ground—2,000 miles along the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Louisiana—it's easy to enjoy piece by piece during leisurely weekend getaways, especially as a a drive-by gallery of fiery-color foliage engulfing the bluffs.
The scenery alone could sell it. Fall in Galena inevitably means balmy Indian summer days and winding drives that open up into a panorama of green valleys, golden seas of cornfields and dairy cows. For generations, travelers have come to this town of 3,300 simply to admire the fall foliage and browse charming shops. But Galena is so much more than leaves and Main Street shopping. Tiny businesses selling handmade furniture, organic blueberries and cool home decor tuck into the hills around town. Hikes explore sacred Native American spaces, river cruises ply storied waters and new (and newly renovated) restaurants help redefine an autumn weekend here.
Get into the spirit of harvest season by enjoying a hands-on farm experience at the John Deere Pavilion, home to a farming simulator, a giant combine, and a host of vintage and modern tractors. The fun continues along the downtown Moline riverfront, where you can take a foliage or Oktoberfest cruise aboard the 750-passenger Celebration Belle. Live music entertains guests on themed cruises, while narrated cruises focus on history along the Mississippi. Afterward, enjoy comfort food such as Reubens slathered in sauerkraut and dressing at the family-friendly River House Bar and Grill.
A bright palette of chrysanthemums greets fall visitors to the perennial gardens of the Quad City Botanical Center. The Children’s Garden, complete with a meandering pint-size version of the Mississippi for children to interact with, is the newest addition to the beautifully manicured property. Playtime continues at Schwiebert Riverfront Park, which includes splash fountains as well as art sculptures along a jogging path. Round out the day with ribs and specialty beers at Blue Cat Brew Pub.
Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, named this town after the Hebrew word for “beautiful place” in 1839; it continues to preserve Mormon history and faith. The Historic Nauvoo Visitors Center provides free tickets for the horse-drawn Wagon Tour of Old Nauvoo; arrive early to claim a spot. Only LDS members are allowed inside the towering Nauvoo Temple, but anyone can snap photos of the striking exterior. Peek into Nauvoo Mercantile and Temple House Gallery, then take advantage of free tastings and self-guided tours at Baxter’s Vineyards, the oldest winery in Illinois. Dine in one of five rooms at Hotel Nauvoo’s popular dinner buffet.
Set amid 8,000 hilly, tree-dappled acres, the Civilian Conservation Corps-built lodge at Pere Marquette State Park specializes in cozy overnights. A 50-foot limestone fireplace provides warmth, while generations battle using knights and queens half their height on a massive chessboard. For an adrenaline rush, admire the forest canopy with Grafton Zipline at Aerie’s Resort, then kick back at The Loading Dock, an open-air bar along the river.
The Illinois and Missouri rivers flow into the Mighty Mississippi near this town, and visitors converge here, too, drawn by limestone bluffs, hiking and biking trails, and fun ways to relax. Shop for treasures at Mississippi Mud Pottery, home to locally made stoneware and affordable prices. Locals frequent fine-dining Gentelin’s on Broadway for its creative dinner menu, and chocoholics stop at My Just Desserts for a slice of Mrs. Ledbetter’s Chocolate Pie, topped with coconut and pecans. Don’t be surprised if you’re greeted by a butler in a tux at the Beall Mansion. It’s all part of the experience at the elegant bed-and-breakfast.
Deeper into southern Illinois, the Great River Road takes you through the hometown of Popeye the Sailor Man. Popeye’s creator, cartoonist E.C. Segar, was born and raised in Chester, and the town pays tribute to his famous creation through statues, business names (such as Spinach Can Collectibles) and the annual Popeye Picnic weekend in early September—a little before the most eye-popping fall colors.
The Illinois Great River Road ends in Cairo, where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi. Cairo is the state’s southernmost city and its lowest lying. Though this Cairo shares a name with the one in Egypt, locals pronounce it Kay-row. In any case, the city has a pronounced history: Ulysses S. Grant built a fort here during the Civil War, Cairo is a key destination in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and several buildings, including the grand Victorian Magnolia Manor that you can tour, are on the National Register of Historic Places.