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Cruising Along the Great River Road in Illinois

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The Great River Road in Illinois is one of the longest stretches of the entire route. Along hundreds of miles, you’ll find history, nature, entertainment, and a surprising number of farms. Like many trips down the Great River Road, the Illinois portion is partnered with two other states: Iowa and Missouri to its west. I greatly enjoyed my time cruising along the Great River Road in Illinois, so I’m sure you will too once you make the trek. It’s also a great way to make a road trip from Chicago to St. Louis as well!

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Sights Along the Illinois Great River Road

Northern Illinois

The first stop on you should consider making on your journey down the Great River Road in Illinois is Havencrest Castle. I’ll start by noting that tours of the home are only available on weekends in May and October. Fortunately, these are probably the two best times of the year to make this trip! Outside of these times of year, the home is closed because it is still lived in and worked in to this day. This magnificent mansion was built back in the 1870s by the founders of the local paper, the Savanna Times Journal. This makes it not only fun for old home enthusiasts, but also local history buffs too!

Havencrest Castle is a great stop on the Great River Road in Illinois
Havencrest Castle is absolutely gorgeous!

What’s a trip along the Mississippi River if you don’t check out a river boat! When you make it to Moline, Illinois, consider checking out Celebration River Cruises. They have a huge variety of cruises including dinner cruises, themed lunch cruises, a dueling piano cruise, and more! What better way to spend a little time on the water than relaxing on a river boat and soaking up some sun.

On the south side of Rock Island, Illinois you’ll find the Black Hawk State Historic Site. The over 200 acre site features miles of hiking trails, many along the Rock River. It’s also an educational stop where you can learn about the Sauk and Meskwaki peoples. It’s always important to remember that the lands we live on now were not ours originally. Blending the history and natural beauty of a park like this is a great way to spend a couple hours.

Greater St. Louis Area

The Greater St. Louis area is home to a wealth of American history. One of the defining aspects of our history is the exploration done by Lewis and Clark. Camp River Dubois is where they began their epic journey into the unknown (to Americans/Europeans). The state park features a huge interpretive center, reconstructed settler’s cabin, and other historical exhibits. If you’ve ever been to Fort Clatsop in Oregon, then this is a great place to book end Lewis and Clark’s historic sites.

Cahokia Mounds are one of the key historical sites along the Great River Road in Illinois
Cahokia Mounds are an awesome stop for your trip!

Just to the south of the first site in the St. Louis area is Cahokia Mounds. This mound site represents the pinnacle of mound building culture that we are aware of. It’s speculated (and fairly well accepted) that Cahokia Mounds was once home to a city larger than London in the 13th Century. Unfortunately, the importance of this place wasn’t recognized until about a hundred years ago. The remaining mounds are well preserved and deserving of a visit on your Great River Road trip in Illinois.

Getting away from history, take the opportunity to visit the National Great Rivers Museum. This museum is dedicated to the history of the Mississippi River. However, it’s defining feature is the adjacent lock and dam. You can tour Melvin Price Lock & Dam #26 on Wednesday through Saturday. There aren’t many places on the Mississippi River where you can tour a lock/dam, so take advantage of this one if you’re here and have got the time!

Southern Illinois

Once you get south of St. Louis, most of the major attractions along the Great River Road in Illinois have come and gone. However, if you’re continuing your journey south, then make a stop in the town of Chester, Illinois. This small town on the river is the home of E.C. Segar, the creator of Popeye the Sailor Man. The town is full of small statutes commemorating the characters of these comics. They are a fun little diversion and a must see if you’re a big Popeye fan.

Go ahead and dip your toes in the waters of two mighty rivers!

The final stop (literally) on the Great River Road in Illinois is Fort Defiance State Park. This little park is located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. You can walk right down to where the waters meet. The park is a also a great place to do a little fishing. When we made our stop here on our big road trip, there were a couple kids who caught a HUGE catfish right from the shore!

Where to Stay on Along the Way

A road trip like this one gives you plenty of options for where to stay along the way. If you’re making this part of a road trip from Chicago to St. Louis for instance, you might want to stay in a hotel midway there. Alternatively, this could just be another part of a big Great River Road trip like we took, so a few nights of camping can maximize the adventure. I’ve got a few great suggestions for each option, so feel free to mix and match!

Hotel Suggestions

If you’re making a stop before getting to the Quad Cities, then you might as well make it a good one. The Goldmoor Inn is a simply stunning hotel. The rooms are fabulous and well-appointed. The views over the Mississippi River are even better.

The rooms and cottages at the Goldmoor are perfect for a romantic getaway!

The first night you’ll probably spend driving down the Great River Road in Illinois is in the Quad Cities area. Go ahead and keep on the Illinois side of the river with a night in Moline. The Stoney Creek Hotel is just a stone’s throw from the river. It’s got a really neat, rustic vibe that definitely makes it a fun stay for the whole family.

Once you’ve made it to St. Louis, you’ve got a ton of options to consider. For those wanting to stay away from downtown, The Green Tree Inn in Elsah is a perfect option. It’s in a quiet little town, just a couple blocks from the river. The rooms are all unique which is exactly what I’d expect at a mom and pop kind of place. It’s also still really easy to get into downtown St. Louis!

Some of the rooms at the Hyatt have direct views of the arch!

For those actually wanting to stay downtown, the world is your oyster. While you’ve got a plethora of options, check out the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at The Arch. There is absolutely no way to stay any closer to the St. Louis Arch than here. You can book rooms here that give you a breathtaking view of the Arch any time of day, but especially at sunrise. No chance to get disappointed here.

Campgrounds to Consider

The more adventurous (or outdoorsy) among you, might prefer to simply camp your way down the Mississippi River. Just like with hotels, there are a fabulous array of options for camping (or RVing too)!

Just north of Savanna, Illinois sits Mississippi Palisades State Park. The park campground boasts over 240 camp sites, most of which also have electric hookups. It’s also a wonderful place to spend some time outside hiking, fishing, boating, or even rock climbing! It’s easily a spot you can setup camp and explore the surrounding area from.

If you’re taking the RV for this road trip, make a stop at Sturgeon Bay Park and Campground. It’s operated by the City of New Boston, a quaint town on the banks of the Mississippi. The nightly rates are really great, and it’s about midway to St. Louis from Dubuque. While most of the other campgrounds listed are also RV friendly, this campground is really more intended for those with an RV and not just tent camping.

Pere Marquette Lodge during the fall is an amazing place to stay while traveling the Great River Road in Illinois
Pere Marquette has beautiful fall colors (and a neat lodge as well!)

Pere Marquette State Park is one of the best places to enjoy fall foliage during your trip down the Great River Road in Illinois. This lovely location is situated along the Illinois River. The campground has over 80 sites that are perfect for bird watching, or a home base for a quiet hike along the bluffs. It’s also only an hour from St. Louis.

Undertaking the full road trip means you’re heading south of St. Louis. A quiet and often bypassed campground to consider is at Fort Kaskaskia. This historical site is part of one of the earliest French settlements in the region. It’s located right against the Mississippi River as well. Stay a night or two here and take some time to visit the towns of Ellis Grove and Chester.

The Best Food Down the Great River Road in Illinois

This will certainly not be an exhaustive list of the best food along your trip, but by definitely my recommendations for delicious eats. Whether you’re doing a road trip from Chicago to St. Louis, or making the grand journey, these places will surely fill your belly.

I happen to be a huge fan of German-American food. So when the Bier Stube came across my radar, I knew it was going to be good. They serve hearty German staples, including seven different kinds of sausage. The location in Moline features a beautiful outdoor biergarten. Hard to beat a relaxing brew, tasty sausage, and fine friends you’ll find here on the Great River Road in Illinois.

Beasley Fish in Grafton is the epitome of a mom and pop shop. Sitting right off the Great River Road and just a couple blocks from the river, the fish doesn’t get much fresher. The fried fish is their specialty, and in particular you gotta grab some of the scored buffalo side. It is super crispy and definitely a great choice for fish lovers.

Just a little ways down the road, you can stop in to one of the most iconic bars along the way. Fast Eddies Bon Air has been a staple in Alton for over 100 years. This bar began as an establishment own by Anheuser Busch, but they had to sell it in the 1930s. Fast Eddies has established itself as not only the premier bar in the area, but a destination all of its own. The menu is basic bar grub, so it’s all about the atmosphere when coming here (something you’ll get plenty of).

The final food stop requires a bit of a detour off the road, but it’s 1000% worth it. 17th Street BBQ in Murphysboro, IL is world famous for its BBQ. Having been featured on the Travel Channel, Food Network, and more, 17th street is legendary. Some claim it has the best ribs in America, and while I won’t stake out that claim myself I’ll encourage you to check it out on your trip.

Tips For A Successful Great River Road Trip

For any road trip to be a success, you need to put some planning into it before you get started. Fortunately, I’ve already got a post that’ll cover planning a road trip that you can check out! So beyond those tips, there are a few others we should consider when you’re getting ready to hit the Great River Road in Illinois.

The first tip is to have a goal. While this might seem obvious on the outside, it will really influence what you’re seeking while you’re out there. If it’s a destination trip (calling back to that Chicago to St. Louis idea), then you’ll want to be more deliberate with how to spend your time. For instance, pick one or two things on the way. Alternatively, if your goal is all about the journey, then you’ll want to have short driving days to maximize time on the ground.

The second tip is to explore the small places. One of the defining features of a trip like this are all the locations you simply drive by on the way. Stop to enjoy the overlooks of the river or a roadside attraction if you find one. There is so much more to see on a trip like this that it’s really impossible to capture all of the ideas in a single blog post.

Finally, disconnect yourself from distractions. Give yourself the opportunity to connect with the road, the people who live along it, and the history in this land and water. The journey down the Great River Road in Illinois can be a long one, so respect the time it might take. Don’t short yourself, because I guarantee you’ll regret it if you do.

What to Do When You Finish Your Trip

The best part of driving the Great River Road in Illinois is the fact it’s just a small part of a much larger picture. Illinois is the centerpiece of the entire trip down the Mississippi. It’s super easy to connect your trip to Iowa’s best road trip (also on the Great River Road), Wisconsin’s best scenic drive, or even the southern parts of the trip through states like Kentucky and Tennessee. Thanks to the fact that its also a great drive between two major cities, the trip is super repeatable. Even if you miss something the first time, just come on back and do the whole drive again!

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