As the days of summer wane and crisp mornings ease us into autumn, Mother Nature pulls out her palette and paints the landscape with fabulous reds, yellows, oranges and purples of the season. As the leaves turn, many hearts will be compelled to wander the myriad scenic color routes across the state looking for those breathtaking views and majestic landscapes that are sure to soothe the soul.
From northern points to the southern tip of Illinois, there is much to be seen. Whether you prefer to drive, walk, hike, canoe, bike or travel via horseback, there are miles of color whichever direction you turn, and you may stumble upon fall festivals during your travels.
The Great River Road
On the western edge of Illinois, the Great River Road in Illinois snakes its way for more than 550 miles along the mighty Mississippi. It is the oldest and longest of America’s National Scenic Byways. The colorful hues will greet you as you meander through quaint small towns and pass magnificent bluffs overlooking the river. The road is a popular destination for motorcyclists, and those on bicycles, from around the globe.
From Galena, in the northwest corner, down to Cairo on the southern tip, the sights will welcome you to stop and rest a bit. You’ll pass Mississippi Palisades State Park north of Savanna, with its rich American Indian history and wide variety of wildlife, including waterfowl, white-tailed deer, red fox and more. It’s a hiker’s delight.
As you travel south, there are numerous visitor centers, historic sites and state parks including Big River State Forest in Henderson County and its 1.5-mile Lincoln Hiking Trail that commemorates Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 march through the area. Just north of Grafton is Pere Marquette State Park, the largest state park in Illinois with 8,000 acres waiting to be explored. Sitting at the convergence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, it offers guided fall tours and equestrian trails with magnificent views.
Farther south is the National Great Rivers Museum in Alton, and the historic sites of Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, Fort de Chartres at Prairie du Rocher, the Pierre Menard Home and Fort Kaskaskia in Ellis Grove, and the Cairo Custom House Museum in Cairo.
If you want to know all that is available, consider downloading the Drive the Great River Road app at https://experiencemississippiriver.com/app.
Ohio River Scenic Byway
At the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in Cairo, this byway offers views of the rolling hills of southern Illinois and the Ohio River Valley. It passes through the eastern part of Shawnee National Forest and offers numerous recreation areas such as Cave-in-Rock State Park, Garden of the Gods, Little Grand Canyon, Rim Rock Trail and Pounds Hollow Recreation Area.
You will find breathtaking views of cliffs and rock formations, and amazingly beautiful fall colors will greet and draw you deeper into the forest. Garden of the Gods, on the eastern portion of the park, offers spectacular views from atop the sandstone formations formed millions of years ago.
Little Grand Canyon proves that Illinois is more than flat land. The 3.6-mile Little Grand Canyon Trail starts easy but quickly drops off and gives hikers a sweeping view of the
Mississippi and Big Muddy Rivers. The more adventurous can take the 365-foot trail down to the floor of the canyon under the forest canopy and past emerald moss-covered rocks and waterfalls.
Cave-in-Rock, once home to pirates, robbers and thieves, offers a 55-foot-wide awe-inspiring cavern mouth which leads down to the Ohio River. It is one of the most visited attractions in southern Illinois. Weary hikers can camp at the park which also offers boat ramps.
For more information on the Ohio River Scenic Byway in Illinois, go to enjoyillinois.com.
Spoon River Valley
Located in Fulton County, in the central part of the state, Spoon River Valley runs from London Mills south and east where it joins the Illinois River. It became better known due to Spoon River Anthology, the work of Edgar Lee Masters, whose former home still stands in Lewistown.The drive winds travelers over 100 miles of scenic routes through parts of Peoria, Fulton and Mason counties. For the fiftieth year, the annual Spoon River Drive will be held the first two weekends of October. The event sees thousands meander through more than 17 villages which tempt you with local food, arts, crafts and flea markets.
More about the Spoon River Drive can be found at www.spoonriverdrive.org.
Just a short trip east will take travelers to Petersburg, which also has ties to Edgar Lee Masters and is his final resting place in Oakland Cemetery. East of Petersburg is Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, which has a living history village and 10 kilometers of wooded hiking trails.
If you enjoy seeing fall colors from aboard a canoe or kayak, then the Embarras River in east-central Illinois may be just what your spirit needs. A tributary of the Wabash River, it starts in Champaign and flows south through Villa Grove, Camargo, Charleston, Greenup, Newton, Ste. Marie and Lawrenceville before draining to the Wabash River. There are plenty of areas to pull over and fish, or just enjoy the sounds of the water as you appreciate the beauty of nature’s majesty.
Go to www.paddling.com and enter Embarras River for information.
Starved Rock State Park
Starved Rock State Park boasts of waterfalls in 14 of 18 of its vertical moss-covered canyons and offers 13 miles of hiking trails that are sure to produce awe-inspiring moments full of the colors of fall. Located in Utica, along the south bank of the Illinois River in northwestern Illinois, hikers can venture out on their own or take guided hikes through canyons, tree-covered sandstone bluffs, and fascinating rock formations. During October, the park offers fall color trolley tours.
Magnificent color views can be seen from the Illinois River overlook, and the park has a cultural history which includes a Native American legend of a band of Illiniwek who died of starvation atop the 12-foot sandstone butte, giving the park its name. More information about lodging, trails and more can be found at the website www.starvedrockstatepark.org.
If you enjoy hues of autumn, there are abundant opportunities across the state as the cool temperatures first change the leaves in northern Illinois. Mother Nature then slowly sweeps her paintbrush down the state, creating a striking palette in every direction. Whether you want to make a weekend trip or just hop in the car for a spontaneous drive, Illinois has much to offer.