Legends and Lore: Driving the Iconic Great River Road In Illinois

The Great River Road in Illinois is 550 miles of history and scenic overlooks, of small towns and metropolitan cities. Plan your trip with this itinerary.

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 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.

This itinerary is one of dozens of road trips featured in Midwest Road Trip Adventures. Get your copy today!

Driving the Great River Road in Illinois

The MIghty Missippi from the Great River Road in Illinois. Railroad tracks visible with green trees and an island in the  middle of the river.

To navigate when you drive the Great River Road in Illinois, look for signs displaying a pilot wheel with a steamboat in the center.

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 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.

Fort Defiance Park from the top of a small overlook tower

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 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 Courthouse, where Dred Scott was imprisoned
Thebes Courthouse

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.

Statue of Popeye in Chester Illinois

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.

Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site

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 the 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.

Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds
Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds

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. 

Confluence Tower

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.

Camp Dubois, a site where Lewis & Clark camped, in Illinois. Picture of red sign and a cabin in the background.

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.

Elsah Village Hall, a white clapboard building with blue shutters and a bell tower, surrounded by a white picket fence

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.

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.

Sign about the Mormons in Quincy Illinois with a bird sitting on top.

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.

Joseph Smith burial site in Nauvoo, Illinois. Three graves with white clapboard building and log cabin in background.

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.

Also 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. 

Will B. Rolling in Port Byron on the Great River Road in Illinois

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.

Albany Mounds State Historic Site. A path with a sign leading towards mounds.

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.

de Immigrant Windmill in Fulton Illinois. Dutch windmill sits on grass covered berm

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.

Lock and Dam 13

 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.

Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge

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.

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.

Old truck and Sears and Roebuck building on Blackjack Road in Illinois

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.

Sunset over the Mississippi River at Goldmoor Inn
Sunset over the Mississippi River at Goldmoor Inn

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.

Casper Bluff Land and Water Reserve

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.

Beautiful Lake Galena
Lake Galena at Eagle Ridge Resort and 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

List of 58 Things To Do on the Great River Road in Illinois

In geographical order. For links to various places, visit Midwest Road Trip Adventures companion website.

  1. Fort Defiance Park
  2. Custom House Museum
  3. Thebes Courthouse
  4. Elzie C. Segar Memorial Park
  5. Kaskaskia Bell State Historic Site
  6. Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site
  7. Fort de Chartres State Historic Site
  8. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
  9. Lewis and Clark State Historic Site
  10. Confluence Tower
  11. Camp Dubois
  12. National Great Rivers Museum
  13. Melvin Price Locks and Dam
  14. Lyman Trumbull House
  15. Elijah P. Lovejoy Monument
  16. Robert Wadlow Statue
  17. Village of Elsah Museum
  18. Pere Marquette State Park
  19. Grafton Oyster Bar
  20. The Loading Dock
  21. Grafton Winery and Brewhaus
  22. McCully Heritage Project
  23. Center for American Archeology Museum
  24. Villa Kathrine
  25. Quincy Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
  26. Eells House
  27. John Wood Mansion
  28. Quincy Museum
  29. Fort Edwards State Memorial
  30. Historic Nauvoo Visitors Center
  31. Joseph Smith Historic Site
  32. Hotel Nauvoo
  33. Baxter’s Vineyards
  34. Sunset Park
  35. Black Hawk State Historic Site
  36. Hauberg Indian Museum
  37. Refectory
  38. Rock Island Arsenal Museum
  39. Lock and Dam 15
  40. John Deere Pavilion
  41. Will B. Rolling
  42. Albany Mounds State Historic Site
  43. de Immigrant Windmill
  44. Lock and Dam 13
  45. Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge
  46. Shivers Ice Cream Shoppe
  47. Mississippi Palisades State Park
  48. Chestnut Mountain Resort
  49. Goldmoor Inn
  50. Casper Bluff Land and Water Reserve
  51. Horseshoe Mound Preserve
  52. 1826 Dowling House
  53. 1855 DeSoto House Hotel
  54. Galena Brewing Company
  55. Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site
  56. Galena Historic District
  57. Blaum Bros. Distilling Co.
  58. Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa