Illinois Scenic Drives: Great River Road

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.

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.