30 Must-See Places on the Great River Road in Illinois

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. 

Great River Road Illinois Map
We found a few of these helpful maps at stops along the Great River Road in Illinois.

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. 

The Great River Road National Scenic Byway Map
Well-marked Pilot’s Wheel Road Signs are found along the way to guide you on your journey.

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. 

The exterior of the Magnolia Manor, a red brick Victorian historic mansion in Cairo, Illinois.
The Magnolia Manor in Cairo was completed in 1872 by a milling merchant who made his money by selling flour to the government during the Civil War. Tours are available at the Victorian Museum.

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.

A view of the Mississippi River and a bridge from Fort Defiance Park in Cairo on the Great River Road in Illinois.
The view of the Mississippi River from Fort Defiance Park in Cairo on a cloudy day.

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.

Beautiful cypress trees turning orange for the fall season at Horseshoe Lake in Illinois.
Horseshoe Lake is a National Natural Landmark in the American Bottom of Illinois.

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.

A pier going into Horseshoe Lake surrounded by Cypress trees.
Horseshoe Lake will make you feel like you’re in the south with all the Cypress trees!

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.

The view from Inspiration Point in LaRue Pine Hills area in southern Illinois.
Would you look at that view! Inspiration Point is found near Wolf Lake in the LaRue Pine Hills area in southern Illinois.

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?

A colorful mural with the cast of the Popeye cartoon in a boat on the Mississippi River in memory of their creator, E.C. Segar's.
You can find this colorful mural with Popeye and his friends in memory of E.C. Segar on the side of the Spinach Can Collectibles building on State Street in Chester.

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.

The Chester Bridge on the Great River Road in Illinois stretches across the Mississippi connecting Perryville, Missouri, and Chester.
Stop at the Chester Welcome Center for a view of the Chester Bridge stretching over the Mississippi River connecting Perryville, Missouri and Chester, Illinois.

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.

Mary's River Covered Bridge in Chester, Ilinois.
There are only nine authentic covered bridges in Illinois and Mary’s River Bridge in Chester is one of them.

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.

A plaque that states: The Liberty Bell of the West: This bell, given by King Louis XV of France to the Catholic Church of Illinois Country in 1741, has been in Kaskaskia for centuries.
You can find the Liberty Bell of the West in the now nearly abandoned town of Kaskaskia once the capital of Illinois.

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.

The Liberty Bell of the West in Kaskaskia on the Great River Road in Illinois.
Even if the building looks closed make sure to walk up and hit the large green button to open.

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. 

The Pierre Menard Home National Historic Site.

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. 

The Fort Kaskaskia State Historic is one of the many things to do on the Great River Road Illinois.
Fort Kaskaskia is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Kaskaskia Rivers.

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. 

The Modoc Rock Shelter in Illinois.
The Modoc Rock Shelter in Illinois.

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.

The Fort de Chartres State Historic Site is on the things to do on the Great River Road Illinois.
The Fort de Chartres is a hidden gem in southern Illinois.
The Fort de Chartres State Historic Site is one of the many things to do on the Great River Road Illinois.
The site grounds are open from sunrise to sunset, 7 days a week.

11. Maeystown

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.

Cahokia Courthouse, one of the things to do on the Great River Road Illinois.

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.”

The Holy Family Catholic Church on the Great River Road in Illinois.
The Holy Family Catholic Church in Cahokia is one of the oldest churches in the United States and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Holy Family Catholic Church on the Great River Road in Illinois.
The fleur-de-lis is used in Catholicism to represent the Virgin Mary as well as the Holy Trinity.

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. 

The Jarrot Mansion, the oldest brick home in Illinois.
The Jarrot Mansion is the oldest brick home in Illinois.

15. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Dating back to AD 1250, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is one of the 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites within the United States. 

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. 

The staircase up to Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.
Climbing Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

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.

Things to do on the Great River Road Illinois section include the Prehistoric Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.
The view of St. Louis atop Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois.

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.

RELATED: 10 FUN THINGS TO DO IN ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

The Mississippi River Overlook on the Great River Road Illinois.
The Mississippi River Overlook has 5 tiered observation deck areas, each at eight-foot intervals.

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.

The Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower.
The Confluence Tower is near the location the famous explorers began the Lewis & Clark Expedition in 1803.

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.

Robert Wadlow Statue on the Great River Road Alton IL
Just checking how I measure up to the World’s Tallest Man, Robert Wadlow.

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.

The Lincoln - Douglas Square on the Great River Road Alton IL.
You can see the “Welcome to Alton” painted silos from the Lincoln – Douglas Square!

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. 

The Piasa Mural on the Great River Road Alton IL
Pronounced pie-a-saw, the bird was described by Native Americans as one with such dimensions that he could easily carry off in his talons a full-grown deer.

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. 

Highway 100 from Alton to Grafton is one of the most scenic drives in Illinois.
Drive right along the Mississippi River on Illinois Route 100.

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.

The Welcome to Historic Village of Elsah sign, established 1853
The Elsah Historic District is a cute little town on the Great River Road in Illinois.
The Elsah Village Hall in southern Illinois.
The tiny town of Elsah is a storybook town if I ever saw one!

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! 

The Loading Dock Bar & Grill on the Great River Road Grafton Illinois.
The Loading Dock in Grafton, Illinois is a fun stop, especially on a nice day!

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.

A beautifully architected home in Quincy, Illinois.

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. 

The Mississippi River is the backdrop for the "Calm as A Summer's Morning" statue near the Nauvoo Illinois Temple.
The Nauvoo Historic Sites overlook the Mississippi River.
The Pendleton Home and School in the Nauvoo Historic District in Illinois.
The Pendleton Home and School is one of the Nauvoo Historic Sites. The Latter-day Saints focused heavily on education and would often teach inside their homes.

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.

A 30-foot tall man on a bicycle, Will B. Rolling, in Port Byron, Illinois.
The $60,000 giant bicyclist statue was donated by Port Byron’s former mayor who hopes to start a yearly bike ride event.

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.

The Windmill Cultural Center in Illinois.

Fulton's Dutch Windmill

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.

Looking over the Mississippi River at the Mississippi Palisades State Park on the Great River Road.
Overlooking the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge from the Mississippi Palisades State Park.
The Mississippi Palisades State Park is one of the best things to do on the Great River Road Illinois.
One of the spectacular overlooks at the Mississippi Palisades State Park.

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 Fergedaboudit Winery can be found on the Illinois River Road in Hanover.
Get a load of this scenic view at Fergetaboudit Vineyard and Winery in Hanover!

30. Galena

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. 

Galena is the most charming town in Illinois. Here's a view from the Galena River.
The Galena River, also known as the Fever River, winds right next to Galena’s historic district.
The charming Main Street at sunset in Galena, Illinois.
The Helluva Half Mile, located in the heart of Galena’s Historic District, is home to over 125 specialty shops, restaurants, boutiques, and bars.

Final Thoughts about Our 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

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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2 Responses

  1. Vivia

    Thank you so much for these photos and narratives. We hope to use them soon as we begin our travel of the Great River Road.

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