Illinois’ Great River Road is a US National Scenic Byway that hugs the Mississippi River, taking you through 800 kms of breathtaking beauty scenery - and back over thousands of years of history.
You can pick up the Great River Road west of Chicago and follow it all the way to Alton, just north of St Louis in Missouri. This is a journey not to be missed!
Great River Road country offers awe inspiring views of the Mighty Mississippi with limestone bluffs, soaring bald eagles and rich majestic forestry. Along the way you can stop off to marvel at spectacular scenery, discover fascinating Native American history and enjoy excellent hiking and outdoor adventures.
The Great River Road is filled with historic destinations – you’ll find the grand mansions of Civil War generals, authentic Dutch windmills, paddlewheel steamers and charming, preserved frontier towns from the 1800’s.
Don’t travel too fast - there are antique stores where you can hunt for treasures as well as artisan boutiques and Country Stores with unique crafts and souvenirs.
You can also stop off at wineries along the way. They offer a sophisticated yet approachable Illinois wine country experience. And as you travel the Great River Road you are always aware that you are in an Agricultural heartland – not least because of the fresh farm to table food!
Celebrate this Agricultural heritage – and indulge the big kid in you that is fascinated by monster machinery – at the John Deere Complex in Moline. Get up close and personal to the huge equipment such as combine harvesters, and fun simulators let you find out what it is like to drive one.
Come on a journey along the Northern section of The Great River Road National Scenic Byway that follows the mighty Mississippi River through Illinois.
Your first stop is Galena and for such a small town Galena has some big accolades. To name just a few - Condé Nast Traveler magazine rates Galena as the 2nd Friendliest City in the U.S. and the 14th Friendliest City in the world. It is also amongst Smithsonian Magazine’s 20 Best Small Town to Visit in 2013 and Fodor’s 10 best Small Towns in America.
The town takes its name from the lead ore “Galena” – and indeed in the mid-19th century Galena was one of the largest sources of lead in the entire world. At the time of the lead mining rush, Galena was a major commercial port on the Mississippi River with a large steamboat industry. However as the lead ore deposits were depleted, and as the river around Galena eroded due to the mining activities, the steamboats could no longer reach it and Galena became “the town that time forgot”.
Which is fortunate for the visitor of today as Galena is frozen in time as this thriving 19th century commercial hub. Many charming old mansions of the wealthy inhabitants still remain - including the home of Ulysses S Grant, 18th president of the United States! The historic main street is little changed. The 1855 DeSoto House Hotel still stand where it greeted guests such as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas and where it served as campaign headquarters for Ulysses S. Grant. Nowadays the main street features boutique shopping and local restaurants with fresh farm to table produce.
One of the best ways to see the town is by taking the Galena Trolley tour. You are given a great overview of all the historic attractions as well as an informative commentary on the history of Galena.
You may be so enchanted with Galena that you want to stay a while. Galena’s newest hotel is The Irish Cottage Boutique Hotel which fuses Gaelic traditions with modern 21st century accommodations. The finest Irish craftsmanship and artwork create a uniquely Celtic ambiance and the hotel is centred on Frank O’Dowd’s Irish Pub & Grill. This is Galena’s premier live entertainment venue and the Pub’s energetic atmosphere is filled with the sounds of Celtic song, laughter, and the clickety-clack of Irish dancers.
A recommendation for dining in Galena is One Eleven Main in the heart of downtown. To showcase the best of the region’s cuisine this restaurant has forged special partnerships with local and regional farmers, artisans and food purveyors. When the menu offers Arnold’s Farm Chicken and Pork and Lange Farm Organic Beef you get that wonderful feeling of knowing where your food comes from.
Continuing along the Great River Road to Fulton, this section of the Mississippi is lined by tall bluffs. Stop at the Mississippi Palisades State park for dramatic views, excellent hiking trails and rich Native American history.
Fulton is home to one of only 12 authentic Dutch Windmills in the US. You can enjoy wonderful views from the top and learn more about the use of windmills at the Windmill Cultural Centre, as well as admiring the collection of 21 miniature working windmills.
Next on your road trip you will arrive in the Quad Cities. The Quad Cities straddle the Mississippi River on the Iowa–Illinois boundary. They are made up of Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa and Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline in Illinois. But the communities are very much intertwined - so much so that in late July or August “Tugfest” stages a hotly competed tug of war across the Mississippi River between Iowa and Illinois!
This is an ideal place to take a Mississippi riverboat excursion. The paddleboat “Celebration Belle” takes you back in time and offers day cruises, dinner and dance cruises and even overnight cruises.
The Quad Cities are home to the John Deere Pavilion. Big and small kids alike will enjoy getting up close to the monster farming and excavating machines - and a simulator will give you an insight into driving one of these mighty machines.
Contrary to popular belief, John Deere did not invent the tractor. His breakthrough invention was the first commercially successful, self-scouring steel plow. This was in 1839 and steam tractors did not appear in America until 1880. Cast iron ploughs, which had been invented for the light New Hampshire soil, struggled to turn the heavy, sticky Midwest prairie soil - and John Deere’s new steel plough was the roots of the manufacturing giant we know today.
As well as visiting the modern John Deere Pavillion you can visit two historic homes in Moline that once belonged to John Deere’s descendants - the Butterworth Center & Deere-Wiman House.
After all that industrial history it might be nice to get back to nature and stop off at the Quad City Botanical Center in Rock Island. New this year is a children’s garden - a whimsical interpretation of nature that includes an entry plaza and a child-size version of the Mississippi River with a meandering shallow stream where children can play in the water.
Continue your journey along the Great River Road National Scenic Byway on the Southern part of the route from Nauvoo to Alton.
Nauvoo was a thriving community and one of the largest frontier towns in the 1840’s. This National Historic Landmark community now has over 40 restored historical sites open daily for tours.
Nauvoo was founded in 1839 by Joseph Smith - the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). You can learn more at the The Joseph Smith Historic Site and the town has a modern Mormon Temple today which, though it is not open to the public, has a Visitor’s Centre with an informative film. Many of the first German immigrants to Nauvoo were Mormon, but the influx continued with immigrants of other faiths and Nauvoo was the largest German-speaking town in Illinois until the early 20th century.
With over 60 restored historical sites, a visit to Nauvoo is a journey to another time - and a fun way to see it all is to take a carriage ride or wagon tour. As well as many historic homes the downtown district showcases many unique businesses and shops such as the Nauvoo Fudge Factory and the Nauvoo Mill and Bakery.
A place to stop on your journey might be the historic Hotel Nauvoo, which is still an inn and as well their restaurant offers a delicious, regionally famous buffet. As Nauvoo also boasts the oldest winery in Illinois you may also want to taste the wine before you move on. Baxter’s Vineyards, the oldest winery in the state of Illinois is a small family winery established in 1857. The Wine Barrel at Baxters is Nauvoo's only full service bar and features Baxter's Old Nauvoo Brand Wines as well as light fare.
As you continue South you will arrive in the beautiful city if Quincy with its pristine setting overlooking the Mississippi. Winter brings the majestic bald eagles and spring dresses the city with Dogwood blossoms.
Quicy offers you the best architecture outside of Chicago – in fact National Geographic named the corner of 16th & Maine as one of the “Most Architecturally Significant Corners in the U.S.”
A remarkable number of pre-Civil War buildings still exist today in Quncy. Many Federal and Greek Revival style homes and commercial structures, built as early as the 1830s, can be found in and around the core of the city. The South Side German Historic District reflects the influence that German immigrants had on Quincy in its early years.
Quincy experienced its greatest periods of growth between 1850 and 1880, and again in the late 1890s, as the population began to move north of the downtown into larger homes.
Every architectural style popular within the United States during the Civil War through the turn of the century can be found in what is now known as the East End Historic District. The stately mansions and large high-style found here are probably the most memorable Quincy buildings.
National architectural movements continued to influence the designs of buildings constructed in Quincy during the first half of the 20th century. The Prairie style, made significant by the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, can be found in homes throughout the city. Quincy also has a large number of Craftsman bungalows.
There are festivals all summer long in Quincy where you can discover local wines and cuisine. The “Blues in the District” festival is held in Washington Park. You met Abraham Lincoln on your first stop on the Great River Road at the DeSoto Hotel in Galena. Washington Park in Quincy is where Illinois’ most famous son held political debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1859.
Finally the road winds south to Alton, along one of the most scenic stretches of highway in the Mid West. Stop at Pere Marquette State Park for panoramic views of the Illinois River. Be sure to stop at the visitor’s center to see a bald eagle nest. Grafton also makes a good place for a quick chocolate or ice cream break or a stop at a local produce stand for fresh fruit in summer.
Alton is the meeting of two great rivers – the Mississippi and the Missouri – and a haven for migrating birds. At the Audubon Centre at Riverlands see pelicans, swans, geese, egrets, eagles and more.
Now it is time to get back onto the Mississippi River at the Melvin Price Locks & Dam 26. One of the largest locks and dam on the river, it is a central traffic point for barges transporting soybeans, corn, grain and other goods up and down the Mississippi River. From mid-November through March, keep a look out for the bald eagles which nest throughout the area.
If you are now entranced by the Mississippi River you will be fascinated by the story of the explorers Lewis and Clarke. They set out just south of Alton and followed the Mississippi westwards, eventually forging their way to the Pacific Coast in Oregon. Visit the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower, a 180-foot tower with viewing platforms at different heights for unobstructed views of the rivers and land below. Continue on to the nearby Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, the site where the two explorers who mapped the western U.S. began their journey in May 1804. The site includes a museum with a replica of their keel boat and Camp River Dubois where they trained and prepared for their trip.
Drive south of Alton to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cahokia Mounds was the largest prehistoric city north of Mexico from 700 to 1400AD. It was home to nearly 20,000 Native Americans who lived in houses arranged around open plazas and farmed vast agricultural fields. There are over 120 burial mounds at the site.
Cahokia was larger than London was in AD 1250 - and this fascinating site is a suitable reminder of Man’s long association with the Mississippi at the end of your Great River Road journey.
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