The Mississippi River is more than just a river. It’s a riparian thoroughfare that tells the story of a land and its peoples. From its headwaters in northern Minnesota to its southern Louisiana delta, where it deposits water, earth, and legends into the Gulf of Mexico, it cleaves the country, west and east.
The Great River Road follows the mighty Mississippi’s flows almost as erratically as the river itself. This iconic road trip is not one scenic byway; it’s a collection of roads that spans approximately 3,000 miles between ten states.
For 550 of those miles, the Great River Road in Illinois follows the contours of the state’s western border.
From Cairo at the southernmost tip of the state to East Dubuque at the northern end, this scenic byway captures the romance of the magnificent Mississippi River and the history of the river towns that sprung up along its shores.
As you drive, you’ll encounter memories of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who began their western exploration from the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
You’ll find historic sites and scenic overlooks, and reminders of the Underground Railroad and remnants of ancient civilizations.
If you’re ready to drive this piece of the nation’s longest river, start planning with this step-by-step Great River Road Illinois itinerary.
Driving the Great River Road in Illinois
Tips for Driving the Great River Road in Illinois
To navigate when you drive the Great River Road in Illinois, look for signs displaying a pilot wheel with a steamboat in the center.
Plan Your Route: The Great River Road in Illinois spans over 550 miles, with plenty of scenic overlooks, charming towns, and historic landmarks.
Decide in advance which sites you’d like to visit and map your route accordingly. Keep in mind that the road can be navigated either north-to-south or vice versa, starting from either Cairo or Galena.
Take Your Time: While you technically could drive the entire length of the Great River Road in Illinois in a day, you’d miss out on so much of what makes this route special.
Instead, plan to spend at least a few days exploring. Overnight stops in towns like Alton, Quincy, or Galena can break up the drive and offer plenty of local culture and cuisine.
Visit During Off-Peak Times: If possible, try to plan your trip for off-peak times to avoid heavy traffic. Mid-week and outside of peak summer months can often be quieter.
Keep an Eye on the Weather: The Great River Road winds along the Mississippi River, which means that weather conditions can change rapidly. Keep a weather app handy and check it frequently to stay ahead of any potential storms.
Pack a Picnic: You’ll find numerous picnic spots along the route. Stock up on local produce and goodies from roadside stands or local markets and enjoy a meal with a view.
Stay Fueled Up: While there are plenty of towns along the route, there are also stretches of rural landscape where gas stations can be few and far between.
It’s a good idea to fill your tank whenever you’re at half, just in case.
Have Cash on Hand: Some smaller attractions or local vendors might not accept cards, so it’s a good idea to have some cash on hand.
Be Prepared for Different Road Types: The Great River Road includes a mix of different types of roadways, including city streets, rural roads, and highways. Ensure your vehicle is in good working order before you set off.
Respect Wildlife: You’ll be driving through areas that are home to a variety of wildlife. Keep a respectful distance and remember not to feed any animals you might encounter.
Embrace the Detours: One of the joys of road trips is the unexpected. If something catches your eye along the route, don’t hesitate to take a detour and explore. This is a journey, not a race, after all.
Things to do on the Great River Road in Illinois
This itinerary begins at the southern end of the state of Illinois. If you’re driving north to south, start at the end and work your way backwards.
Like the river connects towns, when you follow the Great River Road in Illinois, you’ll connect with other scenic drives, including the Ohio River Scenic Byway, the National Road, Route 66, and Lincoln Highway.
At 279 feet above sea level, Fort Defiance State Park is the lowest point in Illinois. This land at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers was originally the site of Camp Defiance, a strategic location for the Union Army during the Civil War.
The park is not well maintained, but seeing the two rivers converge makes a visit worth it. As you drive through Cairo, stop at the Custom House Museum to get some insight into why this area was so important.
Your next stop on your Mississippi River road trip will be in Thebes. The southern third of Illinois is known as Little Egypt and, like Cairo, this town was named for its Egyptian counterpart.
Thebes was the county seat from 1846 until 1859, and the Thebes Courthouse has overlooked the Mississippi River since 1848.
The sandstone building, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, is the home of the Thebes Historical Society; visitors can see one of the mid-nineteenth-century courtrooms where Lincoln practiced law.
The building’s wayside exhibit claims that Dred Scott—a slave whose lawsuit for freedom lasted a decade and became a landmark US court ruling—was “imprisoned here in the dungeons” during his fight for freedom.
Don’t be surprised if you start craving spinach as you near Chester. The creator of Popeye, Elzie Crisler Segar, was born in this town and based many of his characters, including the “Sailor Man,” on people he met during his childhood.
See a bronze statue of Popeye at the Elzie C. Segar Memorial Park, and look for Wimpy, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and others throughout the town.
Take a quick detour over the Mississippi at the Chester Bridge to visit the Kaskaskia Bell State Historic Site. When the bell was cast in 1741 by King Louis XV of France, Kaskaskia was on the east side of the Mississippi River, but flooding caused the river to shift in the late 1800s, eventually making Kaskaskia the only Illinois town west of Old Muddy.
The town was the capital of the Illinois Territory from 1808 to 1819, and was briefly the original capital of Illinois state before the center of government moved to Vandalia.
Back on the east side of the river is the Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site. Built around 1759 by the French, it became an important stop for George Rogers Clark during the Revolutionary War.
Today, only earthworks remain of the fort itself, but there’s an overlook and picnic site, a large campground, and Garrison Hill Cemetery, which contains the remains of many of Kaskaskia’s early settlers.
Continue your French Colonial history lessons at Fort de Chartres State Historic Site. The site was the location of four successive French forts and is four miles west of Prairie du Rocher.
The National Historic Landmark is a reconstruction of portions of the last fort and contains a restored powder magazine, believed to be the oldest building in Illinois, according to the official website.
Farther north in what is now Collinsville, Illinois, is what was once the largest city in North America. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is the location of a pre-Columbian city that covered six square miles.
Seventy of the site’s more than 120 man-made earthen mounds remain, including the largest in the Americas. Called Monks Mound, you can see downtown St. Louis and Gateway Arch from the top.
Occupied from around AD 700–1350, historians estimate that the peak population here was approximately twenty thousand—about the same as London at the time.
When the French arrived in the 1600s, the people who had built the massive mounds were gone and the Cahokia tribe had taken up residence.
Today, Cahokia Mounds is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with an impressive interpretive center that tells the story of the original inhabitants and those who followed.
If you’ve driven the National Road, you’ve probably already visited, since US 40 cuts right through the site.
Lewis and Clark buffs will love the next three destinations. The Lewis and Clark State Historic Site, in Hartford, Illinois, commemorates Camp Dubois.
Also called Camp River Dubois, it’s where the explorers mustered and trained in the winter of 1803–1804 before their search for a western passage.
The site possesses both a replica of their fort and a fourteen-thousand-square-foot exhibit space.
For the next thirty-three miles, you’ll be driving both the Great River Road in Illinois and the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway.
From Hartford to Pere Marquette State Park, this scenic drive celebrates the spot where the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers meet.
Just one mile north on the Great River Road, you can’t miss Confluence Tower. Visitors can take elevators to the top for views of the meeting of the rivers from 50, 100, and 150 feet.
About three miles north of the tower is another Camp Dubois. This smaller site also has a replica of the Lewis and Clark fort, and volunteers occasionally turn it into a living history museum with reenactments of life at the camp.
Following the Mississippi, you’ll reach the National Great Rivers Museum at Melvin Price Locks and Dam—the place to visit for an in-depth look at the Mississippi River.
A US Army Corps of Engineers site, the museum covers everything from the river’s geological and cultural history to its status as a transportation thoroughfare.
Inside are interactive exhibits, and outside you can see how the mighty river is harnessed and watch barges make their way through the locks.
One of the most significant stops on the Underground Railroad was Alton. Its location on the Mississippi just upriver from St. Louis made it a crossing point from a slave state into a free state.
Visit the Lyman Trumbull House, a National Historic Landmark, to honor the man who co-authored the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery.
Also in town is the Elijah P. Lovejoy Monument, which commemorates one of the nation’s most prominent and vocal abolitionists; the publisher was murdered by a pro-slavery mob while he tried to protect his printing press.
It’s the tallest monument in the state, but another monument in Alton that’ll make you look up is the Robert Wadlow Statue. Wadlow was the tallest man in the history of the world, and the 8-foot, 11.1-inch statue is life-size.
With its nineteenth-century stone homes along narrow streets overlooking the Mississippi River, picturesque Elsah is the definition of charming. The entire village is on the National Register of Historic Places, and was voted the top scenic spot in Illinois in the Illinois Top 200 project.
Stop at the Village of Elsah Museum inside the Village Hall for a look at this river town’s past.
Grafton is situated where the Illinois River drains into the Mississippi, and it’s got the feeling of a riverboat town.
Summer visitors can take advantage of the zipline and nearby Pere Marquette State Park, the largest state park in Illinois.
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Cold-weather guests will marvel at the plethora of eagles that winter in the area. It’s also a great place to stop for a bite or a drink, with multiple restaurants and wineries.
Dine right on the river at Grafton Oyster Bar or The Loading Dock, and sip on wine or beer with a view at Grafton Winery and Brewhaus.
About forty minutes up the road, take a nature break at the McCully Heritage Project. This nonprofit is a 940-acre nature preserve with trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.
See turtles poke their heads out of their shells, throw a line into the two ponds, pitch a tent at one of the primitive campsites, and have a picnic in the pavilion. There’s also a nineteenth-century log cabin.
Since it’s a nonprofit, bring some cash to drop into the donation box, or donate some money online.
Aspiring archaeologists will want to stop in nearby Kampsville for a visit to the Center for American Archeology Museum.
After that, drive directly west back to the Mississippi, head north for an hour, and if you cross the river, you’ll end up in Hannibal, Missouri, the childhood home of Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain).
Back in Illinois, allow some time in Quincy, because there’s a lot to see in one of America’s Most Artistic Towns, according to Expedia.
Begin at Villa Kathrine, a Moorish mansion that’s not just beautiful, it’s also the home of the Quincy Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The villa has overlooked the river since the early 1900s. Inside is a harem, courtyard, and a reflecting pool, and tours are offered by appointment.
Within the town are four different National Historic Districts, as well as several museums. The Eells House honors prominent abolitionist Dr. Richard Eells, the John Wood Mansion was the home of the city’s founder and the state’s twelfth governor, and the Quincy Museum shows visitors how the movers and shakers of 1890 lived.
Take the spur in Warsaw to visit the Fort Edwards State Memorial. The monument is an obelisk that overlooks three states: Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa.
The memorial was erected in 1914 to commemorate the construction of the fort a century earlier, although the fort wasn’t actually built until 1816–17, so the timing was a little off.
The stretch of Great River Road between Warsaw and Nauvoo is one of the most beautiful parts of this drive. The road hugs the river, and it’s one of the Mississippi’s narrower stretches, so you can practically wave to Iowans.
The Historic Nauvoo Visitors Center, a National Historic Landmark; and the Joseph Smith Historic Site celebrate the Mormon pioneers who bought the town of Commerce in 1839. They renamed it Nauvoo the next year, and by 1844, the population swelled to twelve thousand.
The town’s success was short-lived and tensions increased with neighboring communities as well as within. After Joseph Smith—founder of the Latter-day Saints—destroyed a newspaper that denounced both polygamy and his leadership, he and his brother Hyrum were arrested for inciting a riot.
While the two awaited trial in Carthage, they were murdered by the townspeople. Less than two years later, Brigham Young led the Mormons west.
You can stay near the historic attractions at Hotel Nauvoo, located in an 1841 residence, and visit Baxter’s Vineyards, the oldest winery in Illinois.
The Quad Cities (actually five cities, not four) straddle the Mississippi River, and comprise Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa; and Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline in Illinois.
If you are near this area in the evening, stop at Rock Island‘s aptly named Sunset Park.
Also in Rock Island is Black Hawk State Historic Site where, in addition to enjoying hiking trails, visitors can view exhibits at the Hauberg Indian Museum that tell the history of the Sauk and Meskwaki peoples.
On site is the Refectory, which highlights the Civilian Conservation Corps, the group that created the hiking trails and much of the Watchtower Lodge, as well as planted many of the trees that shade the park today.
To the north of town, on Arsenal Island, is the Rock Island Arsenal Museum—the second oldest Army museum after West Point.
The nearby Mississippi River Visitor Center, also on the island, gives spectators an excellent view of Lock and Dam 15. In Moline, see the history of farm machinery at the John Deere Pavilion.
Thirteen miles north, take time for a quick photo op in Port Byron with Will B. Rolling, a thirty-foot cyclist atop a penny-farthing bicycle.
Speaking of bikes: if you brought yours with you, take a spin with a side of archaeology at Albany Mounds State Historic Site, twenty minutes past Port Byron.
The site was the location of a large Native American community around two thousand years ago who buried their dead in earthen mounds.
Despite the loss of several mounds due to farming, construction, and excavation, this location remains the biggest Hopewell culture mound group in Illinois.
You can’t miss the Dutch heritage in Fulton: the town has its own authentic windmill. Built in the Netherlands expressly for Fulton and dedicated in 2000, de Immigrant Windmill overlooks the Mississippi atop a berm on the flood control dike.
It’s a working mill and visitors can buy stone-ground flour in its gift shop.
As you drive around town, you’ll see signs for Lincoln Highway, which passes through Fulton on its east–west journey across the United States.
North of town, Lock and Dam 13 has an observation deck, picnic tables, and a boat ramp.
With more than 240,000 acres in four states over 261 miles, the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is a sprawling habitat for birds, fish, and other animals.
You can see a portion of this Global Important Bird Area on the next leg of your Great River Road trek, north of Ayers and south of Savanna.
Its location within the Mississippi Flyway, a migratory corridor for waterfowl and shorebirds, makes it a birding hot spot. Fishing is allowed and there are canoe access points.
If you’re traveling during summer and in need of a frosty treat, stop at Shivers Ice Cream Shoppe in Savanna. You can’t miss it: there’s a pair of giant double-scoop waffle cones right on Main Street.
Work off your dairy indulgence with a hike in Mississippi Palisades State Park. You’re now in the Driftless Area, a rocky terrain of limestone bluffs and ravines that the glaciers missed.
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The 2,500-acre park has fifteen miles of trails and is a National Natural Landmark. If you’re short on time (or energy), there are easily accessible lookout points.
As you continue north, keep an eye out for Blackjack Road. This Great River Road Spur is a fun drive, with two lanes winding and curving through the hilly landscape to some of the region’s most scenic spots.
Chestnut Mountain Resort is a playground overlooking the Mississippi with ziplines, segway tours, a river cruise and an alpine slide. In the winter, it’s known for skiing and snowboarding, and has almost twenty ski runs.
The inn has on-site restaurants, an indoor pool, and a sauna, among other amenities.
A little farther up Blackjack is the more intimate Goldmoor Inn, a romantic bed and breakfast that’s known for its fine dining and amazing sunset views over the Mississippi.
A short detour leads to Casper Bluff Land and Water Reserve, which protects the Aiken Mound Group, a collection of fifty-one mounds dating back to AD 700, including the last known remaining thunderbird effigy in Illinois.
Near Galena, you can see for fifty miles on a clear day from Horseshoe Mound Preserve.
It’s located four hundred feet above the Mississippi, providing views of Galena just a few miles away, as well as Iowa and Wisconsin.
A word of caution before you enter Galena: you may never want to leave. As you pass stately mansions and enter downtown through open floodgates.
Those floodgates were once a necessity, but now serve as a look into the town’s past. You’ll see why it’s considered one of the most charming small towns in America.
Main Street is filled with great restaurants, unique boutiques, and historic buildings. You can tour the 1826 Dowling House and stay in the 1855 DeSoto House Hotel, Illinois’s oldest operating hotel.
There are multiple wineries in the area—several with downtown tasting rooms—and Galena Brewing Company serves up craft beer.
Across the Galena River, you’ll see Grant Park and, just down the street, the mansion for which it’s named. Ulysses S. Grant was from Galena, and after he returned from the Civil War, the town gave him a home.
The Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site is a National Historic Landmark and is open to visitors. It’s part of the Galena Historic District, which has more than one thousand contributing properties.
Before resuming your journey, head east on US 20 for a stop at Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. , then go a little farther for a few rounds of golf, a pontoon ride on Lake Galena, and some farm-to-table dining at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa.
The northernmost town on the Great River Road in Illinois is East Dubuque.
The toughest part about reaching this community is deciding whether you want to continue west across the Mississippi into Iowa, or if you want to go north into Wisconsin—each state has its own section of the Great River Road.
I hope this itinerary helps you plan your own Great River Road Illinois adventure.
With 58 places to see and things to do (and more), you can pick a few, or choose to see it all! They don’t call this scenic route “great” for nothing.
Great River Road in Illinois Map of Towns
Great River Road Illinois Itinerary
Fort Defiance Park: A historically significant site, this park in Cairo, Illinois was once a Civil War fort. It’s located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and offers stunning views.
Custom House Museum: This museum in Cairo, Illinois, is located in a former U.S. Custom House, Post Office, and Courthouse, and showcases the rich history of the region.
Thebes Courthouse: Built in the mid-19th century, this historic courthouse in Thebes, Illinois, has a unique architectural style and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Elzie C. Segar Memorial Park: Located in Chester, this park is dedicated to the creator of Popeye, Elzie Crisler Segar, who was a native of the town. The park features a statue of Popeye and other related memorabilia.
Kaskaskia Bell State Historic Site: The site houses the Kaskaskia Bell, also known as the “Liberty Bell of the West.” It’s a symbol of the early days of American independence.
Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site: A scenic park located on the Mississippi River that also has remnants of a historic fort from the 1700s.
Fort de Chartres State Historic Site: This site houses a historic French fort, first constructed in the 18th century. The site offers historical reenactments, interpretive programs, and a museum.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site: An UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s home to the remains of the most sophisticated prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico.
Lewis and Clark State Historic Site: Commemorates the point of departure of the Lewis and Clark expedition, with a museum that focuses on the explorers’ time spent in Illinois.
Confluence Tower: This tower, located in Hartford, Illinois, offers stunning views of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
Camp Dubois: The winter camp of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1803–1804 before their departure to the West.
National Great Rivers Museum: A museum that focuses on the Mississippi River’s role in shaping the region, offering exhibits on the river’s ecosystem, industry, and culture.
Melvin Price Locks and Dam: A working lock and dam that offers educational exhibits and guided tours.
Lyman Trumbull House: A historic house museum of U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull, who helped draft the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Elijah P. Lovejoy Monument: Monument dedicated to Elijah P. Lovejoy, a newspaper editor who was murdered by a mob for his abolitionist views.
Robert Wadlow Statue: This statue pays homage to Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in recorded history, who was born and raised in Alton.
Village of Elsah Museum: This museum offers exhibits showcasing the history and culture of the village of Elsah.
Pere Marquette State Park: The largest state park in Illinois, offering plenty of recreational activities such as hiking, fishing, camping, and bird watching.
Grafton Oyster Bar: A popular seafood restaurant in Grafton, Illinois, known for its fresh oysters.
The Loading Dock: A waterfront bar and grill in Grafton, Illinois, that offers delicious food, live music, and beautiful views of the Mississippi River.
Grafton Winery and Brewhaus: A local winery and brewery with a fantastic view of the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.
McCully Heritage Project: A nature preserve in Kampsville, Illinois, that offers hiking trails, picnicking spots, and historical and archaeological sites.
Center for American Archeology Museum: A museum in Kampsville dedicated to showcasing the archaeological history of America.
Villa Kathrine: This Moorish-like Villa situated on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Quincy, Illinois, serves as the official Tourist Information Center for the area.
Quincy Area Convention and Visitors Bureau: Provides information and resources about the Quincy area.
Eells House: A historic Underground Railroad site and museum in Quincy.
John Wood Mansion: The historic mansion of Quincy’s founder, John Wood.
Quincy Museum: Offers exhibits on Quincy’s local history, as well as nature and science exhibits.
Fort Edwards State Memorial: A monument in Warsaw, Illinois, commemorating a fort that once stood on the site.
Historic Nauvoo Visitors Center: A place to learn about the town’s significant Mormon history.
Joseph Smith Historic Site: The home of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement.
Hotel Nauvoo: A historic hotel known for its buffet-style dining.
Baxter’s Vineyards: Illinois’ oldest vineyard, offers wine tastings and events.
Sunset Park: A beautiful park in Rock Island with a stunning view of the Mississippi River.
Black Hawk State Historic Site: Contains numerous archaeological sites and hiking trails.
Hauberg Indian Museum: Located within the Black Hawk State Historic Site, it exhibits artifacts and replicas of the tools, clothing, and lifestyle of Native American tribes.
Refectory: The dining hall of a monastery or boarding school, located in Rock Island.
Rock Island Arsenal Museum: The second oldest US Army Museum, its exhibits present the history of Arsenal Island.
Lock and Dam 15: One of the most scenic lock and dam facilities on the Mississippi River, located in Rock Island.
John Deere Pavilion: A museum in Moline, Illinois, showcasing John Deere’s innovative contributions to agriculture.
Will B. Rolling: A giant cyclist statue in Port Byron, Illinois, a nod to the annual cycling event held in the town.
Albany Mounds State Historic Site: This site was once a major Native American community and is the largest group of Hopewell culture mounds in Illinois.
de Immigrant Windmill: A fully functioning Dutch windmill in Fulton, Illinois, that grinds grain into flour.
Lock and Dam 13: A major Mississippi River lock and dam facility located near Fulton, Illinois.
Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge: A 261-mile refuge known for its diverse wildlife, particularly birds.
Shivers Ice Cream Shoppe: A delightful ice cream shop in Savanna, Illinois.
Mississippi Palisades State Park: A park located in Savanna, Illinois, known for its unique rock formations and spectacular views of the Mississippi River.
Chestnut Mountain Resort: A popular resort in Galena, Illinois, offering a variety of recreational activities.
Goldmoor Inn: A charming bed and breakfast in Galena, known for its fine dining and stunning sunset views over the Mississippi River.
Casper Bluff Land and Water Reserve: A reserve in Galena, home to the Aiken Mound Group, a collection of ancient mounds.
Horseshoe Mound Preserve: Offers hiking and unique views of the Driftless area.
1826 Dowling House: Galena’s oldest house, offers guided tours that provide a glimpse into the area’s history.
1855 DeSoto House Hotel: Illinois’ oldest operating hotel, located in downtown Galena.
Galena Brewing Company: A local brewery offering a variety of craft beers.
Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site: A well-preserved home where Civil War General and President Ulysses S. Grant lived after the Civil War.
Galena Historic District: A National Historic Landmark, it’s known for its well-preserved, 19th-century buildings.
Blaum Bros. Distilling Co.: A popular distillery in Galena, Illinois, that offers tours and tastings.
Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa: A luxury resort in Galena offering golf, a spa, and outdoor activities.