Looking for the ultimate road trip in Illinois? We have out all planned out for you! In our detailed guide, we scoped out over 30 places to fist as you cruise around some of the most scenic parts of the state.
If you have ever wondered:
Where should I go in a road trip from Chicago?
Where should I go for a weekend getaway in Illinois?
What are the best driving roads near Chicago?
What are some of Illinois must see attractions?
Then this Illinois road trip guide is for you!
Summertime is always a good time for a road trip. Depending on your preferences, many people choose to stay close to home on their road trips. We are going to give you a bit of road trip inspiration right here in Illinois.
Let’s take a road trip on the Great River Road as it winds its way along the mighty Mississippi River which forms the entire western border of Illinois. 556 miles of breathtaking scenery and history from Galena to the north and Cairo to the south.
Old Main River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation”, Big Muddy: by any name the majestic Mississippi River is a mythical symbol in American history. Who hasn’t read Mark Twain and fantasized about a trip down the Mississippi?
You might not be quite ready to book passage on the Delta Queen but by road tripping on the Great River Road you will sense a comparable majesty of the River.
These days, I think even Huck Finn would choose a BMW over an overcrowded river boat or barge to tag along the Mississippi River.
Aptly labeled “The Best Drive in America,” the Great River Road is exactly as it sounds – a road that travels along the Mississippi from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. 3000 miles tracking the river closely and winding through innumerable picturesque towns.
Its National Scenic Byways designation by the Federal government means that those who travel through the road are sure to encounter history, culture and natural beauty in large quantities.
A few things before we start. The Great River Road is not one continuous road but rather a collection of federal and state controlled highways that take travelers along the Mississippi River through 10 states.
In Illinois alone it consists of IL highways 111, 3, 84, 92, 96 and US highway 20.
Travelling the Great River Road is a journey and not a destination. Part of the fun is navigating some windy and twisty sections, enjoying open road sections and, yes, even going off course. There is always an adventure awaiting you on any side back road. For the purposes of our article today, we are going to stay primarily in Illinois with only a few short excursions out of state.
There are two things that will aid your road trip. There is a wonderful map of the Great River Road in Illinois. You will be glad that you did. Secondly, the original idea for the Great River Road was to create one continuous road along the Mississippi. That did not prove to be feasible. It was decided to designate that you were on the road by using a green and white sign showing a steamboat inside a river pilot’s wheel, usually with the name of the state. The pilot’s wheel is a quintessential representation of river travel bringing us back to an era when riverboats dominated the waters of the Mississippi.
Having traveled through the 10 states, I found Illinois and Mississippi to have the best maintained signs. So follow the pilot’s wheel and you won’t go wrong
While you can still see barges and some exemplary paddle boats on the river today, pilot wheel designs appear on signs up and down the river helping motorists to identify sections of the Great River Road in each state. Having traveled through the 10 states, I found Illinois and Mississippi to have the best maintained signs. So follow the pilot’s wheel and you won’t go wrong.
So, now is the time to load up your high performance Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Porsche or Range Rover, pack your overnight bag and bring along plenty of extra snacks, start humming the Grateful Dead’s “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been” and let’s go road tripping! You can spend one day, two days, three or more days – it’s up to you! Travel part of the road or do the whole thing….but just get going.
Less than three hours west of Chicago our road trip officially begins in East Dubuque, Illinois on IL-84/US20 beginning at the junction of Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. Head south on IL-84/US20 which rides a ridge all the way to Galena, Illinois, a town loaded with historic buildings, artisan and craft shops and interesting restaurants. Highway IL-84/US20 actually bypasses the historic district but it’s worth it to take a detour and spend some time downtown.
In the first half of the 19th century, Galena was a thriving town while Chicago was a swamp. The growing riverboat travel on the Mississippi and the discovery of rich lead ore deposits made the town a major Mississippi port, the busiest between St. Paul and St. Louis. Galena is actually located on the Galena River, a few miles upstream from the confluence with the Mississippi. At one time, the river was 300 feet wide and deep allowing the largest Mississippi river boats to come upstream and dock at Galena.
Over the years, due to erosion from agricultural clearing, grazing and abandoned mine operations, tons of salt was brought to the Galena River limiting its width and depth and, ultimately, its viability as a major port. Yet its market and hospitality base that had been established when it was a major port survived and a stream of craftsmen and artisans moving to the town has made it a fantastic tourist destination.
What to do in Galena?
Visit a Presidential Estate
Upon his return from the Civil War, proud residents of Galena presented Ulysses S. Grant with a furnished home located at 500 Bouthiler Street on a hill overlooking the town. In 1860, Grant and his family moved to Galena after he took a position with his father’s leather goods business. Grant’s home and adjoining Grant’s Park offer a panoramic view of downtown Galena and a footbridge across the Galena River will take you to the main shopping district.
Visit a Historic Hotel
Galena’s Desoto House is the oldest continuing operating hotel in Illinois – first opening its door in 1855. At its peak, it had 250 rooms and was billed as the “biggest hotel in the West.” Today, interesting shops and boutiques line the first floor of the hotel with the second and third floors offering 53 guest rooms. A beautiful Victorian atmosphere. Located at 230 Galena Street.
Visit a Vineyard
Take a short trip from downtown (remember this is a road trip and you have the wheels) and visit Galena Cellars Vineyard to enjoy the “vineyard with a view.” Some favorites: General Reserve Red, a classic blend of European varietals and native French hybrid grapes create a premium dry red wine, and Wedding Cake Wine, a semi-sweet carbonated white wine infused with all round flavor. This is a great dessert wine and will short circuit all those cheesecake and creme brulee calories. Located at 4746 North Ford Road.
Visit a Quirky Place
The Galena Canning Company is an eccentric store featuring sauces, spreads, dressings, oils and seasonings. Every time I exit the store I’m opening something up and eating it out of the jar. Some Favorites: Mushroom Merlot Gourmet Braising and Pasta Sauce, with Portabella mushrooms, merlot wine, savory spices, caramelized onions….you’re on your way to heaven. Also, Bread and Butter Jalapenos – lay it on my eggs over easy, grilled brats, in my Bloody Mary or just out of the jar. Last but not least, Cabernet Mustard – mustard seed, California cabernet and roasted garlic puree. New Orleans has their Holy Trinity of onion, celery, bell pepper and so does Galena Canning. Try it on a soft pretzel, sausage or in a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Located at 106 Main Street.
If You Are Hungry
Fried Green Tomatoes will give you a side of history with your meal. The restaurant is located in the building that once housed the leather goods shop of Ulysses Grant’s father and a place that the future president worked in prior to the Civil War. Some favorites: of course the fried green tomatoes, but the meatloaf is a keeper and don’t miss the lobster ravioli. Located at 213 Main Street.
Apple River Canyon State Park
Now a little detour. Leaving Galena, use your GPS for the Stagecoach Trail (love the name) – your aim is the Apple River Canyon State Park, 23.7 free wheeling miles from Galena. You will not believe the incredible limestone bluffs carved by the Apple River. The area is special due to the lack of glacial episodes. Known as the Driftless Area, glaciers bypassed this part of Illinois while flattening the rest of the state. Mosses and ferns cling to the canyon walls. Ravines and streams. Hike, bike, kayak but not too long….your car will miss you! 8763 East Canyon Road, Apple River, Illinois.
Stockton Heritage Museum
Being that you went to Apple River, take the short jaunt to Stockton, Illinois, a mere 15 miles of county road. But be forewarned, depending on taste this can be the good, the bad or the ugly….but always interesting. Stockton is the birthplace of Kraft Cheese with the first cheese factory opening in 1914 by J.L. Kraft who developed a revolutionary process for pasteurizing cheese so it would resist spoiling and could be shipped long distances. Velveeta anyone? You can take it all in at the Stockton Heritage Museum, 107 West Front Avenue.
For more information. Call (815)947-2220 or visit https://www.visitgalena.org/Venue/stockton-heritage-museum
Let’s get back on the Great River Road. Punch in your GPS or look at your map as we are heading to Savanna, Illinois. Leaving Stockton, you will rejoin Il-84/US20 and will soon see a pilot’s wheel sign. This is a pleasant 22 mile open road journey. Savanna is an outdoor person’s paradise with hiking, biking, rock climbing and fishing. Your objective is Palisades State Park. The park is named for the eroded limestone revealing unusual rock formations. There are 15 miles of trails through woods and ravines to developed overlooks with amazing views of the Mississippi River. Wildlife in abundance: white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, ducks and geese. Boat rentals available and fishing for carp and catfish. If you are a rock climber, then Sentinel, a 145 foot limestone pinnacle, will be a treat. 16327A, IL-84, Savanna, Illinois. (815)273-2731. https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/Parks/Pages/MississippiPalisades.aspx
From Savanna we are going to hug the river all the way on IL-84 to Albany, brisk clean driving for 25 miles. This is a stop I always approach with awe. Here you’ll find the Albany Mounds Historic Site, an interpretive center for the history of the Hopewellian culture, a widely dispersed yet complex society of related Native American populations. 205 acres of tree covered hills, valleys and surrounding prairies – walk, bike ride or sit and contemplate the wonders of this lost civilization. http://albanymounds.com/. (309)887- 4865
Get back on IL-84 hugging the river to East Moline then follow IL-92 to Moline. Moline is the home of John Deere. The John Deere Pavilion and World Headquarters for the company features a hands on exhibit for kids of all ages – and adults too! You can climb into the driver’s seat of big machines, state of the art simulators and gain an understanding of how John Deere changed the world. 1400 River Drive. (309)765-1000 https://www.deere.com/sub-saharan/en/connect-with-john-deere/visit-john-deere/world-headquarters/
Illiniwek Forest Preserve
While you are in Moline take a quick 7.5 mile trip to Illiniwek Forest Preserve, you will never forget the stunning views of the Mississippi River. 836 State Avenue, Hampton, Illinois.
For more information. Call (309)203-1404 or visit http://www.ricfpd.org/Parks-Preserves/Illiniwek-Park-Forest-Preserve.asp
Need a Quick Bite?
The answer is Uncle Petes Gyros – try the “Yee Rows” gyro – lamb, (tzatziki) sauce, tomatoes and onion. A savory delight. In a different mood? Then order the Grilled Pork Chop sandwich – it is hog heaven. 3629 Avenue of the Cities, Moline, IL.
And If You’re Tired…
The Victorian Inn in nearby Rock Island is a perfect place to rest and refresh. It’s only four miles up on the Great River Road. An elegantly appointed inn with a sumptuous breakfast. Located at 702 20th Street, Rock Island, Illinois.
Another quick detour (7 miles from Moline, 11 from Rock Island) is the Niabi Zoo. 140 different species from Africa, Australia and Asia. Well worth the detour. Located at 13010 Niabi Zoo Road, Coal Valley, Illinois.
Now head back towards the Mississippi River. Just before the bridge crosses over to Iowa, pick up IL-14 (for GPS purposes, you will be traveling south towards the small village of Keithsburg, Illinois). Once on IL-14, you will soon see a pilot’s wheel indicating that you are on the Great River Road. IL-14 will become IL-3 and hugs the river closely. We are heading for Big River State Park. As you pass through Keithsburg I suggest you stop at Casey’s General Store (especially if you need gas). Stock up on some drinks, snacks, sandwiches. (After spending some time at Big River you will thank me.) Caesy’s has all kinds of sandwiches, drinks, pizza’s etc. I especially like their made to order subs. If you want something special, try the Club Combo – ham, turkey, roast beef, pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, banana peppers, spicy onion sauce all crammed into a freshly baked jalapeno cheddar bread. Casey’s General Store is located at 601 Main Street. (309)374-2303. https://www.caseys.com/general-store/il-keithsburg/601-main-st/1067
Big River State Forest
Right down the road will be the entrance to Big River State Forest. This state forest is dedicated to conservation and sustainable forestry. It is home to the 200 acre Oquawka Refuge which houses the region’s oldest pine trees. There is hiking, biking, fishing and horseback riding. But this is not why I stop at Big River. I stop to climb the fire tower to a view that takes my breath away. You will experience the majesty of the river and the region. Then, if you followed my advice, you can have a picnic in these beautiful surroundings. Big River State Forest is located at 1337 Township Road.
For more information. Call (309)374-2496 or visit https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/Parks/Pages/BigRiver.aspx
Back on the Great River Road, inspired by the view and your sandwiches, zip down about 30 miles to Gladstone, Illinois then take highway 34 west, cross the Mississippi on the Great River Bridge and discover Burlington, Iowa. When in Burlington, you will want to experience “Snake Alley.” It’s a local landmark constructed in 1894 to connect the residential district (which lies high on top of a bluff) with the commercial district down below. Snake Alley consists of 5 half curves, 2 quarter curves and drops 58 feet over a distance of 275 feet. This could be your ultimate driving test (yes, you’re allowed to drive it). If you have the nerve, and are driving a Porsche, Audi, Mercedes or BMW, it should be a breeze and probably one of the highlights of the trip. For those of a different demeanor, you can walk it too. Bicycling is also somewhat daring. Ripley’s Believe it or not calls Snake Alley, “Unbelievably Crooked.” Think Lombard Street in San Francisco.
Snake Alley, 6th Street between Columbia and Washington Streets, Burlington, Iowa. https://www.burlingtoniowa.org/2311/History-Heritage-Snake-Alley
If you want an arresting view of the Mississippi River as it flows into Burlington, then make your way to Mosquito Park (so named for its small size). In this case, size doesn’t matter because the view is sublime. Very popular wedding spot and in the winter you can watch eagles flying over the bluffs fishing for food. Located at the junction of North 3rd and Washington Streets.
For more information. Call (319)753-8117 or visite https://www.traveliowa.com/destination/mosquito-park/10897/
If you are making this trip with children (and they need a break from the views) head over to the PZAZZ Entertainment Complex. There’s a huge arcade, kingpin bowling, zoom go karts and much more. For the adults, check out the Catfish Bend Casino located in the complex. Located at 3001 Winegard Drive.
If you decide to spend the night, my go to stop is the Evans’ Holly Grove Inn, a refurbished 1860 mansion sitting high up on the bluff. My favorite room is the Gatsby Suite (but it thankfully doesn’t have Jay Gatsby prices). It has a fireplace and a memorable view of downtown. Complimentary homemade breakfasts. Evans’ Holly Grove Inn can be found at 616 Columbia Street.
If dining, I am sure you will be happy with The Drake. Housed in a large historical building with a spacious patio to enjoy your meal with beautiful river views. I have especially enjoyed the grilled duck breast with bing cherries and risotto. The farm raised elk steaks are also special. For an unusual taste try the elk pastrami sandwich. Full Bar. The Drake is located at 106 Washington Street.
Leaving Burlington, cross back over the river and follow the signs back to the Great River Road, which will now be IL-96. There will be a pilot’s wheel about 5 miles after you cross the river. This is another river hugging section and a chance to wind up the RPM’s.
Our next stop is Nauvoo, Illinois, 30 miles from Burlington. Never heard of Nauvoo? Be prepared for a delightful surprise. As you approach downtown you are confronted with a mammoth building. This is the rebuilt temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LSD), completed in 2000, on the original site of the temple which was built in 1846. Damaged by arson in 1845, and a tornado in 1850, it later fell into disrepair. The Latter Day Saints (more commonly known as Mormons) founded by Joseph Smith, settled in Illinois in 1839 after being driven from upstate New York and Missouri.
They purchased the town of Commerce on the Mississippi and renamed it Nauvoo. By 1844, Nauvoo was one of the largest cities in Illinois. Yet local prejudices and political tensions created a toxic atmosphere and Smith and his brother were killed by a mob in 1844, in Carthage, Illinois. A few years later, the new leader, Brigham Young, led the Mormons to Utah and Nauvoo was never the same. But the history remains. Begin your visit at the Nauvoo Visitor Center so that you can put all the history in perspective. Then I suggest a visit to the Joseph Smith Historic Site. Here, there is a museum, family homestead, Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store and the family cemetery. It is truly a step back in time. Conclude your visit with a stop at the magnificent Nauvoo Temple.
The Nauvoo Visitor Center can be found at 290 North Main Street. (217)577-2603. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/locations/nauvoo-visitors-center?lang=eng.
The Joseph Smith Historic Site is located at 865 Water Street. (217)453-2246. https://www.historicnauvoo.net/joseph-smith-historic-sites.
The Nauvoo Temple is at 50 North Wells Street. (217)453-6252. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/temples/details/nauvoo-illinois-temple?lang=eng
Do you remember the great Lucinda Williams song, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”? Well, that’s what I hum when I get to this stretch: 70 miles on IL-96 and then we visit the next iconic Americana town. Coming down IL-96 you will pass through Warsaw, Illinois. Shortly thereafter, there will be a pilot’s wheel sign – keep going. You will pass Quincy, Illinois, then look for signs directing you to Hannibal, Missouri.
Cross over the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge (photo) and you will enter the boyhood town of the noted author. You are now in the land of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Make your first stop the Mark Twain Boyhood Home. Then take a tour to visit the Becky Thatcher House, Huckleberry Finn House, J.M. Clemens Justice of the Peace House. The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum Properties can be found at 415 North Main Street. (573)221-9010. https://marktwainmuseum.org/
The Huck Finn Freedom Center
Then it’s on to Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center. This is Hannibal’s memorial to “Jim” aka Daniel Quarles and a very moving experience. Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center is located at 509 North 3rd Street. Call (217)617-1507 or visit https://jimsjourney.org/
There’s also the Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer statue on North Street.
If you want some hearty, honest food in Hannibal then head to Finn’s Food and Spirits. A good choice is a BLT with cut bacon, local tomatoes and garden fresh basil aioli. Pair it with some homemade potato salad. If this special is available, you definitely want to go for it – Grilled BBQ Pork Steak, side of cheesy mashed potatoes and fabulous green beans. Full Bar/Music. Finn’s Food Spirit is located at 214 North Main Street.
For more information. Call (573)248-0881.
Need a Place to Stay?
Look no further than the Belvedere Inn. A beautiful restored 1859 Italianate Mansion with all the amenities of a 4 star hotel. Words cannot describe the delicious breakfasts. The Belvedere Inn can be found at 521 Bird Street.
For more information. Call (217)799-6086 or visit http://belvedereinnhannibal.com/
Recross the bridge back to Illinois follow the signs to IL-96 and get ready for a 90 mile spirit to Grafton, Illinois. IL-96 is going to take you away from the Mississippi but before you know it you will be hugging the Illinois River.
North of Grafton is the largest state park in the Illinois Park System, Pere Marquette State Park, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. Roam through limestone bluffs inundated with sea fossils. If you can, you definitely want to hike McAdams Peak, its 791 foot climb will reward you with gorgeous river views. There is also an option to drive to some overlooks, and this is a road trip after all.
Make sure you stop at the lodge in the Park. Its massive timbers and huge fireplace remind me of the Bear Mountain Lodge near West Point, NY. Relax and have a glass of wine from the Mary Michelle Winery located within the Lodge. You can find Pere Marquette State Park at 13112 Visitor Center Lane and the Lodge at 13653 Lodge Boulevard. https://www.pmlodge.net/
After exiting the park there will be a pilot’s wheel sign as you go south towards Elsah and Alton. You will now be on two coinciding roads, the Great River Road and the Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Route. This is a 33 mile trek that culminates at the Lewis and Clark Historic Site near the confluence of the Mississippi (Illinois) and Missouri Rivers passing through Grafton, Elsah, Alton and Hartford.
After leaving Grafton our first stop is Elsah, a village that time forgot, less than 1,000 people, beautifully preserved buildings and quiet surroundings. A village on the banks of Big Muddy. A favorite stop of mine is at Crocker and Springer. They sell handcrafted Early American Pottery; they are truly craftsmen without limits. Find them at 25337 Beltrees Road. (618)466-8624.
Want some old fashioned music? Stop at Elsah General Store. They will supply the old fashion, you supply the music. Everything you would want in a general store. Located at 22 Lasalle Street. (618)556-0709.
A quick eleven miles from Elsah is Alton, Illinois. If you like antiquing, you are home! This is also the birthplace of Miles Davis. (Admit it, Kinda Blue is the greatest jazz album ever.) Also the home of Robert Pershing Wadlow who, at 8 feet 11 inches, was the tallest man ever. Don’t miss Alton Antique Row. There are over 40 shops containing a vast selection of treasures, trinkets, antiques and gifts. Antiques Row begins on 101 Broadway Street. (618)465-6676
Close by is a wonderful place to learn about the Mississippi River. Exhibits, tours, even a working lock and dam. The National Great Rivers Museum is found at 1 Locks and Dam Valley. (618)462-6979
After walking through all the shops you’ve probably built up an appetite. Here is the place to go: Great Rivers Tap and Grill. Ever heard of a Polish Reuben? At Great Rivers they take a spin on the classic reuben with polish sausage, swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and 1000 Island Dressing. Another delicious bite is the Panko Shrimp Slider with fried jumbo shrimp, pickled onion, and tartar sauce. Full Bar. Located at 3559 – B College Avenue. (618)462-1220. https://greatriverstapandgrill.com/
Before we leave Alton, I just want to remind you that the views are other worldly. The river is so close that when it’s high, the Great River Road can be closed. Always check.
Now we head to Hartford, Illinois the culmination of our 33 mile drive. At the Lewis and Clark Historical Site (a must stop) you will learn about their captivating journey and exploration. See clothes, maps, tools, letters, and journals. Climb the 150 foot Confluence Tower and have a stunning view of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois Rivers. On clear days you can see St. Louis and the Gateway Arch. The Lewis and Clark Historic Site is found at 1 Lewis and Clark Trail. (618)252-5811. https://campdubois.com/
CAIRO, IL (also MOUNDS/MOUND CITY)
Now I saved the road tripping best for last! Let’s do the last 166 miles of the Great River Road in one big swoop to Cairo, Illinois on the Kentucky border. Listen to “Take It Easy” by the Eagles and let your machine do the rest. One little thing – if you want to see the World’s Largest Ketchup Bottle – just a little detour in Collinsville, Illinois. If you are having too much fun driving then keep going.
Once your journey to Cairo is complete, I bet it’s time for some sustenance. You’ll definitely want to go to Huckleberry’s Pub. Have a Ribeye with baked beans and black eyed peas. Or try the Fried Gulf Coast Oysters: lightly breaded, deep fried, with some macaroni salad and southern greens. The pub is at 149 Glen Hall Drive in Mounds, Illinois (8 miles from Cairo). (618)342-6444. https://huckleberryspub.com/
If you need to rest (it’s been a long trip, after all) my favorite spot is Wall Manor in nearby Mound City, Illinois. Historic Mansion, beautiful rooms. Located at 319 High Street, Mound City, Illinois. (618)742-0018. http://wallmanor.com/
You have done the ultimate Illinois road trip. I’m sure you’re tired and ready to get home! Maybe you just did part of it? Maybe still planning? If it feels right, get on the road. Always stay safe. A wonderful road machine always helps. See you next time on the road.