Miles of breathtaking views along Illinois’ western border, 550 of them, offer a wide variety of options to stop and explore. Absorb the views of towering bluffs, rolling countryside, sweeping panoramas of river communities, and the mighty Mississippi along the Great River Road.
The green and white paddlewheel logo of the Great River Road marks the route as signs with a brown and white paddlewheel logo lead you to spurs of interest including historic sites, recreation areas and life in small town Illinois. Ten information kiosks highlight major attractions in the area and help navigate your way.
Although its fall colors are magnificent, the Great River Road delights in all seasons and is a pathway to some of Illinois’ best state parks, historic sites and interesting people, places and things. Whether you have one day or a week, it’s worth the trip to experience all the Great River Road has to offer.
U.S. Highway 20
From East Dubuque to Stockton, Highway 20 has picturesque views of rolling hills and valleys found only in this unglaciated part of the state. If you like fall colors, this is the drive you want to take.
Long Hollow Scenic Overlook
Enjoy the leaf-peeping opportunities at Long Hollow Scenic Overlook in Elizabeth where farms, fields and foliage are on display in all their harvest-hued beauty.
It’s a steep drive up to Horseshoe Mound in Galena but the scenery is worth it. The hiking trails, panoramic overlooks and viewing scopes open your eyes to the rolling countryside decked out in fall’s finest.
Galena Main Street
Take a stroll down the historic street that includes more than 100 shops offering an array of locally made items and restaurants.
Galena Country Fair
Crafts and homemade arts are the theme for this fair. Each year, more than 150 vendors offer original works, while the farmers market sells fall produce, maple syrup and honey. Live music, food, Irish dancing and children’s games make this an event to enjoy.
Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site
Visit the home of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th U.S. president, who returned to Galena a Civil War hero. The handsomely furnished Italianate style home was presented to Grant by citizens of Galena as thanks for his service. Many furnishings belonged to the Grant family.
Mississippi Palisades State Park
This park’s 15 miles of trails include walks to six scenic overlooks of the Mississippi River and trails under the canopy, providing gorgeous autumn views. Towering limestone rock formations throughout the park are popular for rock climbing and provide a contrasting backdrop to the fall colors. The park is situated at the edge of the quaint city of Savanna. Near the confluence of the Mississippi and Apple rivers, the park is known for beautiful trails, forested bluffs, rock palisades and Native American history.
De Immigrant Windmill
Fulton’s Dutch heritage offers travelers many interesting sites including de Immigrant, an authentic Dutch windmill. Manufactured in the Netherlands, the windmill was shipped to the U.S. and rebuilt on the flood control dike in Fulton. The functioning mill features two blue basalt stones that produce a variety of flours. Volunteers provide educational tours, and stone-ground buckwheat, rye, corn and wheat flours are manufactured on location and sold at the Windmill Cultural Center.
Less than a mile from the windmill is Heritage Canyon, a restored and furnished mid-1800s settlement located in an old 12-acre quarry. Buildings include a church, one-room schoolhouse, doctor’s office, covered bridge, swinging bridge and more. Its Fall Festival is a popular destination for viewing fall colors. The canyon is open April through December.
Great River Trail
If you enjoy cycling, take the paved 60-mile path between Rock Island and Savanna that winds through riverfront communities and countryside and includes plenty of wildlife and opportunities to stop and enjoy views of the Mississippi River.
Illiniwek Forest Preserve
Enjoy the sights and sounds of fall from the Illiniwek Forest Preserve’s campground complete with tent and RV campsites. Take a stroll or bring your mountain bike to experience 5 miles of trails among the bluffs. The flowing track provides the longest sustained climbs and descents in the Quad City area. The park is located on the Great River Trail bike path.
Loud Thunder Forest Preserve
Loud Thunder Forest Preserve’s 1,480 acres is home to picnic shelters, campgrounds, hiking/mountain biking/equestrian trails, two playgrounds and Lake George. You can rent a canoe, kayak, jon boat, 2-person pontoon boat or a party barge to get out on the lake. Or, bring your own kayak or canoe.
Explore more than 30 historic sites including homes, businesses and activities. A variety of activities are available from covered wagon rides and 19th century games and tour restored homes, shops and buildings.
Rising 100 yards above the Mississippi River sits the large brick brewery built in the mid-1800s. A forgotten brick and stone tunnel that leads down near the river was discovered in the early 2010s that may have been used to move bootleg liquor via the river. The building houses a bar, restaurant and outdoor seating. It is open April through Thanksgiving.
Historic Dick Brothers Brewery
Found in the heart of the historic German District in Quincy, tour this 1857 historic brewery, once the largest in the Midwest, with its underground tunnels and caverns.
Mississippi Valley Wine Trail
The Quincy-area trail contains five family-owned wineries, each with distinctive flavors and settings with panoramic views, river bluffs and lakes.
Tour Quincy bikes are available free of charge through See Quincy. Peruse the city and explore the 24 art murals along the way.
Villa Kathrine is Quincy’s tourist information center and interpretive center along the Great River Road. This 100-plus-year-old Mediterranean castle, once a prominent home in town, overlooks the mighty Mississippi.
Center for American Archeology
Experience archeology exploring the 12,000-year history of west central Illinois with fun, hands-on activities, exhibits and presentations. The center, located in Kampsville, offers educational archaeological experiences for all ages and opportunities to join their field crew.
Pere Marquette State Park
The largest state park in Illinois encompasses more than 8,000 acres to experience fall foliage overlooking the Illinois River. Activities available include bike rentals, horseback riding, hiking, fishing and nature viewing. In winter, it is a hub for bald eagle watching. The lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression, including a 700-ton stone fireplace in the great room and picturesque views.
Fall Drive – Grafton to Alton
This 33-mile stretch of the Great River Road runs between the Mississippi River and the 300-foot tall river bluffs. Each fall, the trees put on a brilliant show of color earning the byway a spot in the National Fall Color Drives. Head west on State Route 100 from Alton to Elsah, Grafton and Pere Marquette State Park and back.
Grafton SkyTour at Aerie’s Resort
Rise to new heights along the Great River Road in Grafton in an open-air chair lift/gondola. The ride carries visitors 300 feet from Grafton’s Main Street to the top of the river bluffs at Aerie’s Resort overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Beautiful views are a highlight of the ride. Admission is $10 per person for a roundtrip ride.
Lewis & Clark State Historic Site
Lewis and Clark set up winter camp near Hartford before their journey into the wilderness. This first site on the National Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail includes a full-scale re-creation of Camp River Dubois, a 55-foot replica keelboat packed for the expedition and a variety of field notes, letters and journals.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Near Collinsville, this site encompasses the remains of the largest prehistoric Native American site north of Mexico and was once a village of 10,000-20,000 people. It includes a replica village, artifacts and interpretive displays. Ascend the 154 steps to the top terrace of Monks Mound and catch a glimpse of the Gateway Arch across the river.
Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park & Gateway Geyser
Across the river from St. Louis, this beautiful park has a phenomenal two-tier observation deck that allows visitors to take in wonderful views and is home to the Gateway Geyser, the largest fountain in the U.S. It shoots water up to 630 feet – the exact height of the Gateway Arch across the river. The geyser erupts every day at noon and lasts about 10 minutes.
Old Chain of Rocks Bridge
For one of the best views of fall foliage on the Great River Road, take a stroll or a bike ride across the Old Chain of Rock Bridge that stretches from Madison, Ill. to St. Louis, Mo. Once you’re in the middle of the bridge, the eye can see beautiful fall colors for miles. It’s a great spot for photos of the river, birds and vintage Route 66 memorabilia on the bridge.
Stumpy’s Spirits and Distillery
Not far off the Great River Road lies Stumpy’s Spirits and Distillery in Columbia. You can tour their farm-grown production process and experience the custom designed and built distilling system. You can watch everything from cleaning grain right off the family farm to mashing, fermenting, distilling, barreling and bottling.
Chester Welcome Center and Popeye & Friends Character Trail
A scenic bridge overlook near the Chester Welcome Center provides an amazing view of the Mississippi River. Afterward, drive into town to find the Popeye Character Trail. A statue of Popeye the Sailor Man has overlooked the Mississippi River in Segar Park for 30-plus years. Enjoy the search for granite statues of Popeye characters placed throughout Chester. Learn Popeye history and check out Spinach Can Collectibles.
A short drive from Columbia, Red Bud is home to Lieferbrau Brewery. Lieferbrau has a large patio and is a great place to bask in the lovely fall weather.
Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site
One of the best places to take in wonderful fall colors is from Fort Kaskaskia. Bring your camera to capture the beautiful colors from the blufftop where the fort once sat.
Bald Knob Cross
One of the largest crosses in the U.S., it stands at more than 111 feet and is surrounded by Shawnee National Forest. Illuminated at night, it can be seen over 7,500 square miles atop the most prominent elevation in southern Illinois near Alto Pass.
Giant City State Park
The park, located near Makanda, has breathtaking natural beauty and includes a variety of outdoor recreation opportunities. Giant City Lodge, also built by the CCC, has views of the lush, rolling forest of the Shawnee Hills, a native stone fireplace and a restaurant known for its mouthwatering fried chicken.
Shawnee Hills Wine Trail and Orchards
Set in the scenic countryside of southern Illinois, experience 11 unique wineries along a 40-mile trail. Southern Illinois is also known for its peach and apple orchards. Enjoy the charming towns and local restaurants as you explore all the area has to offer.
Fort de Chartres State Historic Site
Experience French Colonial Illinois history at the stone fort, built in 1753 near Prairie du Rocher. It includes the restored powder magazine believed to be the oldest building in Illinois. The museum sits on the foundation of an original fort building and houses exhibits detailing its vast history.
Tour de Shawnee
Biking along the Great River Road near Thebes, the Tour de Shawnee is a popular bike ride each October through southern Illinois fall colors.
On the western side of Shawnee National Forest near Wolf Lake, this area is famous for the biannual snake migration across LaRue Road at the base of the bluffs, adjacent to LaRue Swamp. Take your pick of breathtaking views. Look down from the heights of Inspiration Point Trail for panoramic views and the Mississippi River valley and Big Muddy bottomlands. The view from below, on Muddy Levee Road, shows the towering 300-foot cliffs topped with trees displaying a kaleidoscope of autumn colors.
Horseshoe Lake State Fish & Wildlife Area
Near Miller City and Olive Branch, this area may remind you of the Deep South with its bald cypress, tupelo gum, swamp cottonwood trees and wild lotus. Fishing, nature viewing, picnicking, camping, hiking and biking are available.
Cairo Custom House Museum
Completed in 1872, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It was established as a Civil War and local history museum and houses the desk used by Gen. U.S. Grant while stationed in Cairo during the Civil War and a Lewis and Clark exhibit.
This historic home in Cairo offers tours and holds special events throughout the year. The 14-room mansion is full of history and includes many original 19th century furnishings. Historians provide guided tours.
Explore greatriverroad-illinois.org to order a free guide to the Great River Road and all it has to offer.