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Illinois Scenic Drives: Great River Road

View Enlarged Image This map will guide you along Great River Road.

Experiencing the Mississippi River from Great River Road for the first time is a memory few can forget. The awe that many people feel toward this river may come from the power of a flood or the beauty of a golden sunset that reflects off the still winter waters and turns graceful steel bridges into shimmering lines of color.

Looking out over the river, it is almost impossible to comprehend the complex layers of history that have been acted out along its banks. From the large communities of the Hopewell Indian culture (the most complex society in North America that existed from approximately A.D. 700 to 1400) and early French colonial settlements and fortifications to the frightened, cautious, and optimistic eyes of slaves seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad, this corridor has played a role in many of this continent's most dramatic hours. Today 15 percent of the nation's shipping passes through the river's complex system of locks and dams, yet such commercial activity occurs under the spreading wings of the newly thriving American bald eagle.

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It is from the Great River Road that most visitors and residents understand and define their relationship with the Mississippi. It is from this road that the historic sites and cultural artifacts of the area can be accessed, from Native American mounds to the Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) temple. The beautiful Mississippi bluffs tower over the byway as permanent sentinels for the great river. Whether directly along the banks of the river or winding through the vast flood plain miles from the water, the Great River Road links resources, people, and history.

Archaeological Qualities of Great River Road

A little-known treasure trove of archaeological sites, the Illinois Great River Road has several places for visitors to discover pieces of the past. Among the archaeological qualities that can be found along this road are burial mounds of Native Americans that lived along the river. The mounds, many of which were built more than 2,000 years ago, are representative of Native American religious practices and reverence for their ancestors. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site near East St. Louis and Collinsville has been designated as a United Nations World Heritage Site. Among the most fascinating of the archaeological structures on the Great River Road is Monk's Mound, a 100-foot-tall, four-tiered platform that took 300 years to build.

In addition to Native American sites, many villages on the byway offer a taste of archaeology in their preservation of the not-so-distant past. Many villages, such as Maeystown, Galena, and Nauvoo, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These villages often re-create the lifestyles of the first settlers along the Great River Road for visitors who want to know more about the nation's past. With both Native American heritage sites and historic sites of the earliest European settlers, the Great River Road offers opportunities for you to discover America's archaeology all along the way.

Qualities of Great River Road

Some of the first people to settle along the banks of the Mississippi River were Native Americans. These nations were embedded in a culture that held the utmost respect for nature and the resources of the land. Their inextricable connection to the land can be seen in the burial mounds they left behind, as well as in museums and monuments.

Since the habitation of the first cultures in the area, several other cultures have passed through the Illinois Great River Road area, and some have stayed permanently. During the 1800s, the now-historic communities along the Great River Road were settled for reasons that ranged from gold rushes to religious freedom. The people who live in these communities maintain a distinct place on the byway, with their styles of architecture and inventiveness. Today, the culture of the Great River Road embodies the relaxed hometown pace. The towns and villages along the byway offer you a change of scenery and a chance to slow down. These towns are often small and full of rich historical detail that influences cultures even today.

Qualities of Great River Road

As an area that has enraptured American Indians, explorers, and settlers, the Illinois Great River Road holds pieces of the past that are intriguing to today's visitors. Since 1938, the road has been protected and enhanced in order to preserve the scenic and historical qualities found along it. The heritage of the native nations of the Sauk and Fox Indians remains prevalent in many places along the byway.

You can find historic architecture in several of the towns along the road: Nauvoo, Quincy, Alton, Belleville, and Cairo allow you to experience the Great River Road as the settlers of nearly 200 years ago did. These cities all have their share of historic places and buildings that are full of Civil War tales and pioneer stories. As a passage on the Underground Railroad, the river represents a piece of African-American history as well. The river itself holds a story of steamboats chugging up the river. It represents the ingenuity of inventors and engineers in the earliest days of travel. The river is the lifeblood of the area that has drawn so many people to its shores.

Qualities of Great River Road

Among the bluffs and rolling hills of the Illinois Great River Road area, you can observe wildlife and nature at its fullest. The lands surrounding the byway are home to white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, ducks, and geese. Supported by the rich natural resources that abound in the river area, these creatures can be seen throughout the drive. During the fall, the trees along the byway exhibit a beautiful spectrum of color, providing a fringe of brightness along the river. By the time winter sets in, there is a new visitor to the Great River Road. The American bald eagle arrives in late November, and by late December, hundreds of these magnificent birds are roosting in the rocky walls of the bluffs overlooking the river. Travelers come from miles around to watch them dive and soar in the air above the bluffs.

All along the banks and bluffs of the river, you will enjoy many interesting sights. At one point on the Illinois Great River Road, you will see a formation known as Tower Rock. This formation is an isolated mass of limestone that divides the river in half. In the areas surrounding the river, you'll also find lakes, wetlands, and swamps that provide their own style of natural beauty.

Qualities of Great River Road

On and around the river, you have places to go and different ways to get there. Hikers and bikers find riverside trails attractive, while other travelers may prefer to enjoy a pleasant afternoon on a riverboat. Ferries, canoes, and even old-fashioned steamboats give you a closer view of the greatest river in the nation. To see more of the communities on the byway, you may enjoy a trolley tour or a park area, as well as museums and historical buildings. Museums and monuments to the past are sprinkled along the road to give you a sense of what came before on the Great River Road.

Other forms of fun can be found on the byway as well. More than 75 golf courses help you track your progress along the byway by greens. Travelers who would like to test their luck can try a riverboat casino. Communities all along the byway offer numerous stops for antique shoppers who are looking for a piece of Illinois' past to take home with them, and if antiques aren't enough, plenty of novelty shops and gift shops abound. For the hungry traveler, many restaurants along the byway are sure to suit your fancy. Entertainment is an element of the byway's recreational offerings, too. Many towns host musicals, dinner shows, and old-fashioned theater experiences.

Chances to enjoy the outdoors along the Great River Road come often. In addition to the Shawnee National Forest, 29 state recreation and/or conservation areas are available along the route of the Great River Road. The Mississippi Palisades State Park and National Landmark offers phenomenal views to and from the bluffs (palisades) along the Mississippi River. The facilities for tent and trailer camping, fishing, cross-country skiing, and ice fishing are top notch.

The Big River State Forest is a 2,900-acre facility dedicated to demonstrating sound forestry practices. Firebreaks and a fire tower afford breathtaking views and hikes. Nearby, camping, hiking, and river and lake fishing are available at Delabar State Park. In the south, Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area is one of the loveliest places to hike, camp, hunt, and boat. Horseshoe Lake is a quiet, shallow lake lined with cypress and tupelo gum and wild lotus. You can find places for bird-watching and exploring wetlands, and canoeing along the river is a widely recognized source of recreation all along the byway.

Find more useful information related to Illinois' Great River Road:

  • Illinois Scenic Drives: Great River Road is just one of the scenic byways in Illinois. Check out the others.
  • Galena, Mol­ine, Quincy, Cairo: Find out what there is to do in these cities along Great River Road.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Illinois? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.

Highlights of Great River Road

Scenic forest views are visible  from Great River Road.
Scenic forest views are visible  from Great River Road.

The Mississippi River itself is a natural phenomenon that few visitors to Great River Road will forget. This body of moving water presents a picture of the forces of nature at work with their surroundings. Perhaps one of the prettiest sights you will see along the byway is the great waters of the Mississippi River flanked by the glacier-carved bluffs at the river's edge. Along the byway, observe scenic vistas and bluffs that overlook the river:

Erosion from glacial movement has left unique formations of rock in the riverside topography. Feast your eyes on the rich architecture that has been a part of this area's history. From grand courthouses to historic bridges, sights all along the byway complement the natural beauty of the Great River Road. In the summer, the fields along the byway are adorned with wildflowers. During the fall, several communities host festivals celebrating the season, and the drive along the byway becomes even more scenic with every leaf that dons its fall color. And keep in mind that a sunset on the Mississippi River is a sight not to be missed.

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When traveling the Moline-to-Nauvoo section of the Illinois Great River Road, consider using the following itinerary.

Moline: Both the past and present of the world-famous John Deere & Company operations are centered in Moline, where you begin your tour. At the John Deere & Company Commons, catch historic trolleys to other Deere sites, tour the John Deere Pavilion with interactive displays of historic and modern farm equipment, and visit the John Deere Store. The Deere Administrative Center, Deere corporate headquarters, lies on the outskirts of Moline. This building, designed by Eero Saarinen, and grounds are widely regarded as masterworks of architecture and landscape architecture. The Deere-Wiman House and Butterworth Center are mansions built in the late 1800s by Charles Deere. Guided tours of the homes and gardens are available.

Rock Island Arsenal: Rock Island Arsenal lies on spectacular Rock Island in the Mississippi River directly in front of the John Deere & Company Commons. Visitors to the island can visit Historic Fort Armstrong (1816-1817), the Rock Island Arsenal Museum (with exhibits of military equipment and small firearms), and other historic structures. The Rock Island Arsenal is the largest weapons manufacturing arsenal in the country. Located next to Lock and Dam 15, the largest roller dam in the world, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi River Visitors Center features an observation deck for towboats and birds. The visitors center has displays about Upper Mississippi geography, ecology, and the lock-and-dam system. It is also a designated Great River Road interpretive center.

Black Hawk State Historic Site: Two miles south of Rock Island lies the next stop on the tour, Black Hawk State Historic Site -- a wooded, steeply rolling 208-acre tract. American Indians and 19thcentury settlers made their homes here, but the area is most closely identified with the Sauk nation and the warrior-leader whose name it bears--Black Hawk. The site, which is also noted for its many natural features, is managed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The Hauberg Indian Museum, located in the lodge constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, interprets the culture of the Sauk and the Mesquackie. Nearly 175 species of birds and 30 species of wildflowers, as well as a prairie restoration, can be observed here. Dickson Pioneer Cemetery is where many early settlers are buried. Picnicking and hiking are also available.

Big River State Forest: Following the byway along the Mississippi River for another 50 miles, you arrive at the 2,900-acre Big River State Forest. The forest lies in Henderson County, six miles north of Oquawka, where gas and food are available. The area's oldest pine plantation, the Milroy Plantation, with towering red, white, and jack pines lies within. The forest is a remnant of a vast prairie woodland border area that once covered much of Illinois. Two endangered plants, penstemon and Patterson's bindweed, are found here. A prominent landmark in the forest is its fire tower, located at the headquarters area and accessible to the public at nonemergency times. Sixty miles of firebreaks interlace Big River State Forest, which are used by hikers, horseback riders, and snowmobilers. Tent, trailer, and equestrian camping sites, boat launch, picnic areas, hunting, stables, and scenic drives are available.

Delabar State Park: Located on the Mississippi River about 4.5 miles south of Big River State Forest and 1.5 miles north of Oquawka, the 89-acre Delabar State Park offers quality outdoor experiences for anglers, hikers, campers, and More than 50 species of birds have been sighted in the park, making it a destination for bird-watching, too. Picnic areas, playground facilities, tent and trailer camping, trailer dumping, hiking trails, river and lake fishing, boat launching, ice fishing, and ice skating are available in the area.

Nauvoo: This tour of a short section of the byway terminates about 45 miles south of Delabar State Park in Nauvoo. The town is located at a picturesque bend in the river at Hancock County. Nauvoo was settled by Joseph Smith and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) and served as the religious, governmental, and cultural center of the church from 1839 until Joseph Smith's death in 1844. Two visitor centers interpret the remaining town sites. The LDS Visitor Center features costumed hosts, interpretive displays, a sculpture garden, and tours of 25 Nauvoo town sites. The Joseph Smith Visitor Center, run by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (RLDS), features displays, an informative video, and access to the grave site and homes of Joseph Smith and family. In late 1999, the LDS church began rebuilding the historic limestone temple destroyed in the late 19th century. Nearby Nauvoo State Park features recreational opportunities. The wine and cheese traditions of the French Icarians, who came to Nauvoo after the LDS church, are still pursued.

The Illinois section of the Great River Road gives an overview of the complete timeline of American history. From the Underground Railroad to the westward movement of the Mormons, this section of the byway tells it all.

Find more useful information related to Illinois' Great River Road:

  • Illinois Scenic Drives: Great River Road is just one of the scenic byways in Illinois. Check out the others.
  • Galena, Moline, Quincy, Cairo: Find out what there is to do in these cities along Great River Road.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Illinois? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.