Great River Road
Along the Mississippi River
|Mileage||556 miles (896 km)|
|DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.||10 hours, 46 minutes|
|SeasonsThe seasons listed are the best seasons for this scenic drive. If Winter is not mentioned, the road may be closed during the winter.||All Seasons|
|Roadways||Illinois Highways 111, 3, 84, 92, and 96, and US Highway 20|
3.1 average from 54 votes
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Travel along the mighty Mississippi River, from the Wisconsin border in East Dubuque to Cairo near the Kentucky border. The section of the Mississippi River that travels along the western edge of Illinois is legendary — shaped by a rich history that has included the Hopewell Indian culture, French settlements and forts, and the Underground Railroad. Charming towns line the route, each offering a glimpse into the past via historic sites, museums, monuments and architecture. Add in extraordinary natural beauty rich in wildlife, and a plethora of state parks, consider taking at least two days to fully appreciate this drive.
Less than 3 hours west of Chicago, the drive officially begins in East Dubuque on IL-84/US-20 beginning at the junction of Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. If you are coming from Iowa you will cross the Julien Dubuque Bridge, listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Head south on IL-84. The town of Galena is a vibrant blend of the past with modern amenities. Stroll the historic main streets with Victorian-era architecture, delight in galleries, antique shops, exceptional cuisine and local wineries.
Tour the Belvedere Mansion and Gardens (A1). Commissioned by self-made merchant J. Russell Jones, this 22-room residence built in 1857 is lavishly furnished and decorated, and features an exquisite Italian hand-carved marble fireplace, velvet drapes from Gone with the Wind, Tiffany lamps, artifacts belonging to Marie Antoinette and Liberace, sculptures, art and more. The mansion is privately-owned but open for tours. There is an entrance fee.
Galena was home to Ulysses S. Grant until becoming the 18th president. The Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site (A3) is the home presented to General Grant upon his return from fighting the Civil War. Learn more about the man, his family and U.S. history through knowledgeable docents, period furnishings, paintings, personal effects. The home is a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. Entrance is free but a donation is suggested. Closed Mon.-Tues. Grant’s birthday is April 27 and the weekend surrounding this date are celebrated with special events.
There are many other historic buildings worthy of a visit, such as The Washburne House (A13) and the Old Market House constructed between 1845-46 in the Greek Revival Style.
Recreation opportunities abound. Located at the south end of Depot Park and following an old railroad spur, the 4.5-mile Galena River Trail (H1) is perfect for biking or hiking.
At Apple River Canyon State Park (H8), discover incredible limestone buffs carved by Apple River. This area is rugged due to the lack of glacial episodes. Known as the Driftless Area, glaciers bypassed this region while flattening other parts of the state. Mosses and ferns cling to the canyon walls. Ravines and streams are a draw for wildlife where you can enjoy birding and fishing for smallmouth bass, crappie and carp. Consider getting on the river as local outfitters rent canoes and kayaks. Or hike or bike the trails that traverse the lush forest featuring more than 500 species of plants and nearly 200 types of flowers. Make it an overnight with year-round tent and RV camping. The hilly landscape is a boon for winter sports, featuring cross-country and snowshoe trails. There is no entrance fee for state-owned parks though there may be a small fee to use sites with beaches.
Nearby, the town of Stockton is famed for being the birthplace of Kraft, with the first cheese factory opened in 1914 by J.L. Kraft. Kraft developed a revolutionary process, patented in 1916, for pasteurizing cheese so that it would resist spoiling and could be shipped long distances. Visit the Stockton Heritage Museum (M3) to discover exhibits about the Chicago Great Western Railroad, model trains, Kraft history and then stroll the historic downtown.
Back on the road, relish the bounty of the rich agricultural heritage with u-pick farms and markets and wineries. This region features many wineries open for tours and tasting. Please drive responsibly.
Enjoy downhill skiing at Chestnut Mountain Resort (A4), the largest terrain park in the Midwest with 19 runs for skiing and snow boarding. The resort is open year-round with summer activities such as the alpine slide, mini golf, bike rentals, and more.
The town of Savanna is known as a sportsman’s paradise for its hiking and biking trails, rock climbing and fishing. Palisades State Park (H2) is named for the eroded limestone revealing unusual rock formations. Explore 15-miles of trails through wooded ravines to developed overlooks where you can gaze upon the Mississippi River and observe white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, ducks and geese. Or consider getting on the water boating and fishing for catfish and carp. Rock climbers will love the challenge of climbing Sentinel, a 145-foot limestone pinnacle. Camping is available until Oct 31 and the park is open in winter with cross-country skiing, sledding and ice-fishing.
In Albany, is one of the most important archaeological sites in Illinois. The Albany Indian Mounds State Historic Site preserves over 40 of the original 96 mounds, built by in the Middle Woodland (Hopewell Indians) between 200 BCE-CE 300. There are interpretive trails for walkers and bikers and a picnic area.
Continue on IL-84 the road hugs the river until East Moline where you follow IL-92.
Moline is the hometown of John Deere. Visit the John Deere Pavilion (A5) and World Headquarters which features hands-on exhibits for kids of all ages. Climb into the driver’s seat of the big machines, use state-of-the-art simulators and discover how John Deere’s machinery changed the world. If you want to observe the manufacturing process, sign up for a factory tour. Reservations must be made a minimum of 48 hours in advance and you must be 13 years of age or older.
At the John Deere Historic Site (A15), glimpse into pioneer life at the Deere family home built in 1836. There is a small fee to enter for visitors 12 and up. Closed Mon.-Tues.
Illiniwek Forest Preserve (H3) is a 174-acre park with picture perfect views of the Mississippi River. At this small preserve, you will find opportunities for boating, fishing, biking, hiking and two baseball diamonds. A section of the 60-mile Great River Trail passes through here, excellent for observing wildlife. Enjoy riverview camping for tent and RV’s from April 1-Oct 31.
Our scenic drive continues hugging the river, but you may want to detour to visit the Niabi Zoo (A6). Home to 140 different species from around the world, observe animals from Africa, Australia, and Asia, visit the cat House, Wolf Ridge, Aviary and Petting Zoo. There is a fee to enter and the zoo is closed in winter.
Just before road crosses into Iowa, turn left on 322nd Street West/New Boston Road/IL-14. Continue towards Keithsburg.
On the way, you will pass the 45,000-acre Mark Twain National Wildlife Refuge (H6), a blend of upland and bottomland forest, wetlands, and prairie. These diverse ecosystems provide important habitat for native birds, fish, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Birders flock here, especially in spring and fall, as the refuge is located along the Mississippi Flyway, a popular stop for migratory birds such as the reddish Egret and American Oystercatcher.
Continue south on IL-3. The Big River State Forest (H4) is dedicated to conservation and sound forestry practices and is home to the 200-acre Oquawka Refuge which contains the region’s oldest pine plantation. Firebreaks and a fire tower afford breathtaking views. Partake in hiking, boating, fishing, horseback riding or a relaxing picnic. In winter, enjoy 30-miles of marked trails for snowmobiling.
Nearby, Delabar State Park (H5) offers recreation opportunities such as hiking, river and lake fishing and camping. In winter enjoy ice fishing and skating.
Nauvoo is a Mormon settlement established in 1839. Begin at the Nauvoo Visitors’ Center, then tour the Joseph Smith Historic Site (A7) which tells the story of the Latter Day Saint Movement with guided tours of the Homestead, Mansion House, Red Brick Store, Nauvoo House and Smith Family Cemetery. Step back in time while strolling Historic Nauvoo and its restored shops and homes, take a horse drawn carriage ride, and visit the sacred Nauvoo Temple.
The unusual design of Villa Kathrine (A8) attracts attention atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. An example of Moorish architecture, the castle was built in 1900 as a private home, and now serves as the Tourist Information Center for Quincy. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the villa is open for tours where you can see striking mosaics, the harem room and reflecting pool. A small fee is charged.
Pere Marquette State Park (H7) is the largest of the Illinois State Park system. Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, it offers numerous recreation opportunities and camping. Explore limestone bluffs layered with sea fossils and a vast network of streams, forest and prairie. A few trails lead to top of McAdams Peak where you can see a remnant of native hill prairie. At 791-feet you will be rewarded with great river views, surrounding hills and Indian burial grounds. Cyclists can take advantage of the 20-mile paved Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail which runs from here to the city of Alton. Or enjoy horseback riding, boating and fishing for bluegill, carp and whitebass and more. The park is also known as a seasonal home to wintering bald eagles. From December to February, take part in eagle watching and educational programs. Visit the Pere Marquette Lodge, hand-built by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1933-1939. Relax around the 700-ton stone fireplace, which dominates the lobby or sample wine at the Mary Michelle Winery in the Lodge.
In Alton, the Great River Road meets up with another byway, aptly named the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway. This byway is a 33-mile stretch of the Great River Road which begins in Hartford and travels to Grafton.
Visit the informative National Great Rivers Museum (M2) which chronicles the story of the Mississippi River through interactive displays and exhibits that examine the history and culture, the steamboat era, natural ecosystems, and more. Today 15 percent of the nation’s shipping passes through the Melvin Price Lock and Dam system. Learn more from one of three free public tours offered daily.
Alton was a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Alton is also hometown to Robert Wadlow, who at 8-feet, 11 inches, is the tallest man in the world according to Guinness Book of World Records. Born in 1918, there is a life-size statue near the Alton Museum of History and Art (M1). The museum itself features artifacts and the story of Alton’s Gentle Giant, as well as preserves Alton’s history and the legend of the Piasa Bird. The revered Piasa Bird, comes from an Illini Indian bluff painting of a dragon-like creature. The museum is closed Mon.-Tues. Stroll “Antique Row”, a showcase of more than 50 antique and specialty stores.
In Hartford, the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site (A9) is a must. Learn about the preparations for their fascinating expedition through exhibits such as a 55-foot full scale replica of the keel boat used by Lewis and Clark, clothing, maps, tools, as well as letters and journals, offering personal insight to the challenges of the journey, and more. Outside you will find a reconstruction of Camp River Dubois from where, on Monday May 14, 1804 the expedition set out. There is no charge to visit, although donations are appreciated.
Rising up 150-feet, the Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower (A10) offers outstanding views of the confluence of the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers, the departure point for the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Cahokia Mounds. On clear days you can also see St. Louis and the Gateway Arch. There is an entrance fee which includes a guided tour.
The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (A11) are the remains of a bustling prehistoric native civilization inhabited from A.D. 700 to 1400 and is now a designated United Nations World Heritage Site. Currently 80 mounds remain, but it is believed that there were over 120 man-made mounds built as platforms for buildings, temples, and to cover the dead. Learn about the people, their customs, beliefs and daily lives of a community that comprised over 20,000 inhabitants. Monk’s Mound, is the largest man-made earthen mound in North America, at 100-feet high with an approximate north-south dimension of 1,037 feet. The four-tiered platform took 300 years to build. Take the stairs to the top and try to imagine the site one thousand years ago. Archaeology continues and excavations have discovered a graves, a copper workshop, arrow points, serving vessels, art and more. The site is free — donations accepted.
If you like quirky roadside attractions, visit the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle (A12). Actually a water tower/marketing ploy, the bottle was built in 1949 and makes a great a photo op.
The Fort de Chartes State Historic Site (A16) offers a glimpse into life when Illinois Country was under French rule. Originally built in the 1750s, the site now consists of a partially restored fort and other structures such as a powder magazine, guards’ house and king’s storehouse. The first weekends of May, June and October feature special events including reenactments, shooting competitions, military drills, crafts and more.
There are 29 state recreation and/or conservation areas along the route of the Great River Road but if you’re looking for another spectacular natural getaway, consider a side trip to Shawnee National Forest (H9). 320 million years of erosion have sculpted incredible sandstone rock formations and bluffs. Explore the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area on the 1/4-mile loop interpretive Observation Trail through an alien landscape of lumpy, gnarled rocks and expansive views. There are other trails such as the 3-mile loop Little Grand Canyon Trail which travels though forest and a rising elevation of rock slabs and the River to River Trail which spans 160 miles from Battery Rock on the Ohio River to Devil’s Backbone Park on the Mississippi River, no need to do it all. Wildlife abounds, look for raccoon, mink, fox, deer, bobcat and snakes. There is no charge to enter this National Forest. Camping is available year-round.
The Trail of Tears State Forest (H10) is nestled within the southern Ozark Hills. The rugged landscape creates unique ecosystems of dry ridgetops, rich understory and stream valleys, home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. Trail of Tears State Forest is listed on the National Audubon Society’s Great River Birding Trail. Enjoy hiking trails, horseback riding and camping.
Our drive ends in Cairo, IL near the Kentucky border, but you can follow the Mississippi River and the Great River Road all the way to Louisiana.