By Amber Holst of Concierge Preferred
From pelicans soaring above a national wildlife refuge to what President Theodore Roosevelt declared as the "world’s most beautiful drive," the 291-mile byway along the Illinois River is a must-do experience. Stretching from Ottawa in the north to Havana (yes, it’s named after the city in Cuba) to the south, the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway showcases Illinois’ natural wonders with a healthy dose of Americana on the side. From historic exploration of the quaint towns that dot the route to the scenic views, here’s a look at seven of our favorite spots—from North to South—to check out along the way.
Nestled at the confluence of the Illinois and Fox Rivers, Ottawa is steeped in history. While the town is surrounded by diverse natural beauty and offers a plethora of outdoor recreational activities, the first Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas senatorial debate was held here in Washington Square. It’s also where the Boy Scouts of America began, as founder William Dickson Boyce was a resident. For a fun history lesson, and to check out some great memorabilia, make sure to pop into the Ottawa Scouting Museum.
Featuring 13 miles of trails twisting and turning through 18 glacier-carved canyons, Starved Rock State Park is our next stop along the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway. Whether you’re looking to take a gingerly stroll in Aurora Canyon or wanting to tackle the challenging Lover’s Leap, this park is a stunner and must-see for its awe-inspiring beauty. Waterfalls in Illinois? Yes, 14 of them here to be exact. And they’re glorious. So charge your phone and prepare to snap a plethora of no-filter-needed nature shots of Illinois in all of her glory.
About 100 miles Southwest of Chicago you’ll find the historically-significant town of LaSalle. What was once the economic crossroads where the Illinois and Michigan Canal met the Illinois River, in the mid-1800s this town was actually larger than Chicago. While here, make sure to visit the Illinois and Michigan Canal Heritage Area where you can journey back in time aboard an 1840s replica canal boat that is… wait for it…. pulled by a mule. The docented mile-long excursion provides an essential overview to the canal—and Illinois River’s—significance to the economic development of the Midwest.
Just a short jaunt Northwest over the River, your next stop played a significant role in the Underground Railroad. It’s also home to one of Illinois' five remaining covered bridges and one of state’s first wind farms. The Lovejoy Homestead, on the Eastern edge of town, was the home of the Denham and Lovejoy families for nearly 100 years. As an outspoken abolitionist, Lovejoy openly proclaimed his willingness to assist fugitive slaves. His involvement made this house one of the most important stations on the Underground Railroad in Illinois. The home was opened as a museum in 1972 and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1997.
Sure it’s home to Caterpillar (which also has its own museum here), but did you know this metropolis on the Illinois River was also the first European settlement in Illinois? Needless to say, Peoria is equally rich in both history and natural beauty. Whether you’re just looking to drive through and soak in the scenic drive that overlooks the bluffs of the River Valley or to observe the animals that inhabit the Wildlife Prairie State Park and Peoria Zoo, there’s something for everyone’s interest here. Make sure to drive the 2.52 mile stretch of Grandview Drive which President Theodore Roosevelt dubbed the “world’s most beautiful drive” after his 1910 visit.
For a place to stay, consider one of the rustic cabins at Wildlife Prairie Park Lodging.
Ornithology more your thing? Then this is your spot. The Illinois River has long been known as a favorite layover spot for migratory birds and the place to see them is here. Encompassing almost 4,500 acres with five types of habitats (and a plethora of hiking trails), this refuge is home to a massive population of waterfowl and is one of the area’s best spots to catch a glimpse of a bald eagle.
Named for the Cuban capital, Havana is our last stop and a hotbed for agritourism in Illinois. Did you know that 65% of the country’s pumpkins are grown in the region? While it’s the perfect fall getaway (ahem, pumpkins) there’s plenty to see and do here year-round. Must-do’s include paying a visit to the New Salem State Historic Site so you can see where Abraham Lincoln lived for several years and hiking at Riverfront Park. So, why is a town in Illinois named after a city in Cuba? It’s because the Island of Belle Rose at the mouth of the Spoon River is shaped like the island of Cuba.
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