Thinking about driving the Great River Road in Illinois? Being from the state myself, the historic National Scenic Byway has always been a goal of mine which I recently just completed!
Last fall, the open road was calling so my husband and I set out from Cairo in Southern Illinois to explore the route along the nation’s longest river.
From Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, the Mississippi River slices right through the central part of the United States.
Touching ten states and flowing 2,350 miles, the river and its influences have been woven into our literature, history, and culture. It’s been a way of life for hundreds of years and has symbolized freedom and industrialism.
We drove roughly 550 miles north up the Illinois side and then quickly made our way back down on the Iowa side over the course of a few days.
And it was quite the adventure!
On the byway, we discovered historic places we didn’t know existed, quaint and welcoming towns, odd roadside attractions, and – our favorite – impressive natural beauty.
Map of the Best Things to Do on the Great River Road in Illinois
From Cairo to Galena, here are the best things to do on the Great River Road Illinois edition!
1. Fort Defiance Park
At the southern tip of the Great River Road in Illinois, you will find the nearly abandoned city of Cairo.
A once-booming transportation town located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers is more like a ghost town now with just a shell left of its former self.
Dilapidated houses dot the “Historic Downtown Cairo” district and there’s not much life breathing from its community with the exception of a few historic homes.
With that said, it is the official start of your Great River Road Illinois trip so stop by Fort Defiance Park, known as Camp Defiance during the American Civil War.
At the former military fortification, there’s a small observation tower to climb to see where the two waterways meet.
2. Horseshoe Lake
Twenty-three miles from Cairo off of IL-3, you’ll find one of the most unique lakes in all of Illinois.
Teeming with bald cypress, tupelo gum, and swamp cottonwood trees, you’ll think you were in the deep south.
The beautiful Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974 and is an oxbow of the Mississippi River.
For spectacular views, walk to Horseshoe Island and you’re bound to see waterfowl, flowers, or fall foliage depending on what time of year you arrive.
3. Inspiration Point
Another worthy stop off Illinois Route 3, is Inspiration Point Trail in LaRue Pine Hills.
The national recreation trail is short, but a little tricky. If you don’t like heights or the idea of loose rocks then you can skip this one, but if you are adventurous take the hike.
It’s amazing how far up you drive in such a short amount of time to the point, where it’s only a short walk to fantastic views below the bluffs.
Shawnee National Forest is just minutes away, it’s an outdoor enthusiast’s playground so if you’re interested in planning a few days, check out our Shawnee National Forest Weekend Guide.
4. Chester, Home of Popeye
Did you know a town in Illinois is considered the official home of Popeye?
Elzie Crisler Segar, the cartoonist best known as the creator of the spinach-eating seaman was born on December 8th, 1894 in the sleepy Mississippi River town of Chester.
You’ll soon find out many of his characters were based on real people he knew growing up. Some of the fun stops are the Segar Memorial Park with the Popeye Statue, the Popeye Character Trail, and Spinach Can Collectibles.
5. Mary’s River Covered Bridge
Mary’s River Covered Bridge is a 4-mile detour from the town of Chester, but it’s worth the drive.
The red 1854 bridge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was once a thoroughfare for agricultural products that come from the steamboats on the Mississippi.
The picturesque Burr truss bridge crosses Mary’s River and is 86 feet (26 m) long and 17 feet 8 inches (5.38 m) wide.
6. Kaskaskia Bell State Historic Site
Kaskaskia was chosen as the first capital of Illinois by President James Monroe in 1818. It only lasted a year though, when it was moved to Vandalia, a more central location.
Eventually, most of the Kaskaskia village was destroyed by flooding, and the river now passes east rather than west of town.
It’s strange because you’re on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River but this small village is still considered Illinois.
It’s also the starting point of the Kaskaskia-Cahokia Trail and where you’ll find a beautiful church, and the Liberty Bell of the West, a bell given to the state in 1741 by King Louis XV of France.
7. Pierre Menard Home State Historic Site
At this point on your trip, you’ll begin to see unique remnants of the French occupation of the mid-Mississippi Valley.
The Pierre Menard House is a fantastic example of French Colonial architecture constructed with an expansive Creole-style porch.
Built by Illinois’ first lieutenant governor in 1815, the two-story home stands as the only testament to where the first state capital once stood – before the flood.
8. Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site
Take a scenic drive up on a blufftop for spectacular views overlooking the Mississippi River.
At the Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site, you’ll discover a fantastic picnic spot, the earthen remains of Fort Kaskaskia constructed by the French in 1759 as a line of defense, and a small campground.
9. Modoc Rock Shelter National Historic Site
The Modoc Rock Shelter is just a brief stop to learn about the Native Americans that used the overhang beneath the sandstone bluffs as a rock shelter when they would come to hunt and gather.
Back then it wasn’t flatlands like you see today but a dense and wooded forested area.
The site is noted for its archaeological evidence of thousands of years of human habitation during the Archaic period.
10. Fort de Chartres State Historic Site
Fort de Chartres is one of our favorite attractions on the Great River Road in Illinois. The massive stone fort was built by the French in the 1750s and served as the French seat of government and chief military installation.
Once France ceded its territory, the British occupied it from 1765 to 1772. It was eventually abandoned and deteriorated due to the Mississippi River floodwaters, but it has been reconstructed for our pleasure!
Hot Tip: To make your visit extra special, plan around one of the many festivals and events held throughout the year.
Established in 1852, the entire delightful German town of Maeystown, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is preserved just as it was back in the day. You’ll see stone everywhere – gutters, arches, churches, homes, a mill, and bridges.
“This was because of three contributing things: the uniqueness of how and with what, the 1800’s buildings and structures were built, that 60 of those buildings are still intact and because of the common nationality of the community.”
If you’re meandering through on a weekend, be sure to stop in at Corner George Inn Sweet Shoppe for a hand-dipped ice cream cone or the Maeystown General Store stocked with antiques and country goods.
12. Cahokia Courthouse
Originally constructed in 1740 as a dwelling, this building was turned into the Cahokia Courthouse around 1790, and served as the center for political activity in the area for twenty years.
For a few months in 1804, Lewis and Clark occupied the courthouse and used it as their headquarters. There they gathered information, supplies, maps, and prepared gifts for the tribal Indians they expected to meet on their voyage.
13. Holy Family Catholic Church
Roughly 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis is the oldest continuous Catholic Church west of the Allegheny Mountains, the Holy Family Catholic Church.
It’s a beautifully constructed log church built in 1799 and is designated as a National Historic Landmark.
“It is a remarkably unaltered example of the French Colonial construction style known as poteaux-sur-solle (post on sill), and one of the few such buildings surviving in North America.”
14. The Jarrot Mansion
Right next door to the Cahokia Church is the Jarrot Mansion State Historic Site, the oldest brick house in the state.
The landmark structure was completed in 1810 for Nicholas Jarrot, a Frenchman, and gained attention for its use of American Federal architectural design versus the traditional French Colonial that was popular at the time.
Mr. Jarrot served as a judge of St. Clair County at the above Cahokia Courthouse just a few miles away.
15. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Monks Mound, found in the center of the city, is the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas. Constructed in layers of basket-transported soil and clay, the mound size was calculated as about 100 feet.
Once you climb the stairs, you’re rewarded with expansive views of the area. On a clear day, you can even see the Gateway Arch.
16. Mississippi River Overlook & Gateway Geyser
Another do-not-miss detour is the Mississippi River Overlook for its outstanding view of the Gateway Arch across the river in St. Louis.
Shooting 630 feet into the air, the tallest water fountain in the United States, the Gateway Geyser, is also found here.
It operates daily at noon for ten minutes from Memorial Day through Labor Day weather permitting.
17. Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower
Another wonderful lookout on the Great River Road in Illinois is the Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower.
Rising 150 feet above the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the structure was erected to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
18. Robert Wadlow Statue
Born in 1918, the city of Alton is the birthplace of Robert Wadlow, also known as the Alton Giant and the Giant of Illinois, the tallest person in recorded history.
By the time he turned eight years old, Robert was six feet tall. And at the time of his premature death at age 22, he had grown to 8 feet 11 inches.
The Guinness Book of World Records also deemed Robert Wadlow to have the largest feet ever – US size 37AA – and the largest hands ever measuring 12.7 inches from the wrist to the tips of his middle finger.
19. Lincoln and Douglas Square
Stand in the very spot that Abraham Lincoln and Stephan A. Douglas stood for their final debate at Broadway and Market Street in Alton.
In the square, you’ll find two very life-life statues of the pair staged as if they were in the middle of the three-hour match.
Lincoln lost the election for Senate, but these debates rose his profile with his anti-slavery views, so much he eventually beat Douglas out in the future presidential election.
20. The Piasa Bird Mural
One of the most well-known sites on Highway 100 is the Piasa Bird Mural, a bird-like dragon painted on a massive limestone bluff along the river.
The original painting from 1673 completed by the Illini Native Indians is long gone, but Alton residents have maintained the current one for years with it becoming sort of a mascot for the river town of Alton.
21. Illinois Route 100
Illinois Route 100 is a state highway that hugs the shoreline of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers for 159 miles in the southwest part of the state.
The section from Alton to Grafton is only roughly 15 miles but it’s one of the most scenic drives in Illinois. We have driven this section at least ten times, and it never gets old.
Just passed Grafton, you can take a quick detour up to Pere Marquette State Park, the largest state park in Illinois, to the Eagle Roost overlook for a view of the Illinois River and its backwaters.
22. Elsah Historic District
Founded in 1853, the historic village of Elsah is nestled right across from the Mississippi River among towering limestone bluffs. It’s one of those tiny storybook towns, you have to see to believe.
Your best bet to get a real feel of the rich history of the well-preserved district is to get out and stretch your legs with a stroll through the picturesque narrow streets.
23. The Loading Dock
Not only does the Loading Dock Bar & Grill have a killer spot on the river, but they offer live music, fire pits, drinks, and good food.
If you visit on a weekday, you’ll have no problem finding a seat with a view!
24. Quincy Architecture
Park the car and take a walk through the exquisite community of Quincy with over 3,500 buildings within four National Historic Register Districts.
The town boasts a large number of antebellum homes and buildings that can be found in and around the city’s Downtown Historic District.
Before you leave, take a self-guided driving tour to experience some other high-profile architectural treats.
25. Nauvoo Historic District
The National Historic Landmark District of Nauvoo is an interesting experience on the Great River Road.
Once home to more than 10,000 Mormons before they migrated west with the threat of persecution, the village still lives up to its Hebrew meaning of a “beautiful place” to rest.
Step back to frontier times and explore an early example of a planned community that was the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
26. Will B. Rolling in Port Byron
Weird roadside attractions always get my attention, but it’s hard to miss the 30-foot man named Will B. Rolling on an old-timey bicycle in Port Byron.
Fun Fact: The vintage bike is called a penny-farthing after the penny and farthing British coins of the time.
27. De Immigrant Windmill
Did you know you can find an authentic Dutch windmill on the Great River Road in Illinois?
The de Immigrant Windmill in Fulton was manufactured and shipped over from the Netherlands. It was even assembled and installed by Dutch craftsmen once it arrived.
The fully operational windmill sits right on the banks of the river and is powered by wind to produce a variety of flours.
You can purchase the fresh stone-ground flour in the gift shop at the Windmill Cultural Center which houses a large collection of European windmills and interpretive exhibits.
28. Mississippi Palisades State Park
Another highlight of the Illinois River Road is the Mississippi Palisades State Park, located roughly 3 miles north of Savanna.
Enjoy the winding steep drive to incredible views overlooking the river basin.
To get off the beaten path, hike the easy 1.2-mile Sentinel Rock trail through the woods to a hidden platform for more impressive views of the valley below.
29. Fergedaboudit Vineyard and Winery
Come for the wine, stay for the view! Specializing in bold, dry red wines, Fergedaboudit Vineyard and Winery is a sensational stop on the Illinois River Road.
Located on a peaceful hillside, visitors can sample wine in a Tuscan-style tasting room before heading out on the gorgeous patio to soak in the breathtaking landscape.
The saying, “save the best for last” applies to our final stop on the Illinois section of this All-American road trip.
Galena is the crown jewel of quaint towns in the Midwest.
Plan to spend at least two days enjoying outdoor adventures, historic landmarks, artisan shops, and fabulous restaurants in and around the area. Lined with 19th-century brick buildings, Galena’s Main Street is one of our favorite small towns in the United States.
Consider staying at the Irish Cottage Boutique Hotel, home of Frank O’Dowd’s Irish Pub & Grill and Irish Cottage Galena Day Spa, for a memorable experience.
Final Thoughts about Our Illinois Great River Road Trip
We would love to drive the entire road from start to finish at some point, but completing one section at a time is definitely doable… and fun!
The Great River Road in Illinois is an exciting adventure that I’d recommend to anyone interested in history, natural beauty, and charming communities.
RELATED: ONE OF THE BEST STOPS ON THE GREAT RIVER ROAD MISSOURI SIDE IS HANNIBAL, THE BOYHOOD HOME OF MARK TWAIN.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Where does the Great River Road start in Illinois? The Great River Road in Illinois starts in Cairo and ends in East Dubuque.
- How long is the Great River Road Illinois? The Great River Road in Illinois is roughly 550 miles from start to finish.
- Where does the Great River Road begin and end? The National Scenic Byway starts at Lake Itasca in Minnesota and runs down to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana.
- How long does it take to travel the Great River Road? The entire Great River Road is roughly 2,000 miles so I suggest travelers to take between a week to two weeks to enjoy the ride. There are so many things to do see and do along the way, you don’t want to miss out by planning too short of a trip.
- Click here for Great River Road Illinois Directions provided by the Federal Highway Administration.
Read About Other Sections of the Great River Road Below
- Great River Road Minnesota
- Great River Road Wisconsin
- Great River Road Iowa
- Great River Road Missouri
Do you have any comments or suggestions for things to do on the Great River Road Illinois? Let us know below!
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