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4 reasons to travel the Great River Road in Illinois

Convertible on Illinois Great River Road
Driving on the Great River Road in Illinois (Credit: Great River Road in Illinois)

The Great River Road follows the Mississippi River for nearly 3,000 miles (4,800 km), and roadtrippers will find the longest stretch along the western edge of Illinois. The Great River Road in Illinois starts near Galena in the northwestern corner of the state and passes by charming river towns, past stunning vistas, and through the history of the Midwest. Here’s a closer look at a few reasons you should explore this National Scenic Byway and All-American Road.


Travelers on the Great River Road in Illinois can find unique and inspiring history pretty much anywhere they turn. Galena, founded in the 1820s, is well-known for its iconic Main Street, which boasts more than 100 historic storefronts that are home to everything from antique shops and spas to restaruants and hotels. In fact, more than 80% of the city’s downtown buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site preserves the home that was given to the former Civil War general and U.S. president by the residents of Galena after the war ended in 1865, and the DeSoto House Hotel (opened in 1855) is the oldest operating hotel in Illinois.

South of Galena, the town of Nauvoo is one of the most accurately restored and intact historic towns in the United States—there are more than three dozen restored historic sites in the area, and visitors can find fun experiences like pioneer games and horse-drawn wagon rides. Learn about the ancient Mississippian culture at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that preserves the remains of an ancient city that flourished from the 8th to 15th century. The Fort de Chartres State Historic Site in Prairie du Rocher offers a view at life in French-controlled Illinois in the 1700s.

Scenery & outdoor recreation

The region’s location along the Mississippi River means western Illinois is home to some oustanding scenery and options for outdoor recreation, from paddling and boating to hiking and biking. Mississippi Palisades State Park just north of Savanna offers great views of the river from its forested bluffs and rock palisades; it’s also a popular spot for rock climbing and hiking. Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton is popular among bikers, horseback riders, and anglers and is a great spot to see bald eagles in the winter. Giant City State Park in Makanda, is part of the Shawnee National Forest and is a great spot for outdoor recreation, including hiking, fishing, and camping.

Unique attractions

Famed farm equipment manufacturer John Deere was founded in Illinois in the 1830s and is still proud to call the Midwest its home today. Visitors can head to the impressive John Deere Pavilion in Moline (one of the four Quad Cities on the Illinois-Iowa border) to see vintage John Deere machines, get up close and personal with the modern vehicles and equipment and learn about the company’s history and manufacturing process with fun, interactive exhibits.

The National Great Rivers Musuem in Alton educates visitors about the Mississippi River and the locks and dams that aid navigation on the waterway (tours of the Melvin Price Locks and Dam—one of the largest lock and dam facilities on the river—are also available).

Some notable roadside attractions worth a visit include the Mississippi-Ohio River Confluence Observation Deck at Fort Defiance State Park in Cairo (which also marks Illinois’ southernmost point), the 1854 Mary’s River Covered Bridge in Chester, and De Immigrant Windmill and Windmill Cultural Center in Fulton.

Delicious drinks

Raise a glass to the Great River Road in Illinois! The byway boasts two dozen breweries, nearly two dozen wineries, and five distilleries, so it’s easy to find something for every taste. Beer lovers can discover outstanding ales and lagers at unique breweries like Scratch Brewing in Ava and Stubborn German Brewing in Waterloo, and Illinois’ Great River Road is also home to the oldest winery in the state (Baxter’s Vineyards in Nauvoo) and Alto Vineyards in Alto Pass (the first winery on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail).

Learn more about breweries, wineries & distilleries along the Great River Road in Illinois here.