Top 10 Scenic Drives in Illinois

When many people think of Illinois, metropolitan areas like Chicago come to mind. There is, however, so much more to the state, and natural beauty abounds in its many rivers and tree-lined roads. It is also a region deeply steeped in Americana and history, with historic sites of interest peppered throughout the state and beautiful old buildings in quiet towns. Explore the region for yourself and find little-known treasures, perhaps using one of our favorite Illinois scenic drives as a starting point:

No. 10 – Great River Road

Great River Road Illinois
Flickr user: Dave Herholz

Starting Location: East Dubuque, IL
Ending Location: Cairo, IL
Length: 543 miles
Best Season to Drive: All
See this drive on Google Maps

This lengthy scenic drive is best undertaken when travelers have a weekend or more to explore the many sites along the way. It snakes alongside the Mississippi River and is rich in Native American and Underground Railroad history. Stopping in Galena, where Ulysses S. Grant once resided, is a must for the old Victorian-style buildings, and Pere Marquette State Park affords exquisite river views.

No. 9 – Wabash River Wines

Wabash River Wines Illinois
Flickr user: darius norvilas

Starting Location:  Lawrenceville, IL
Ending Location: St. Francisville, IL
Length: 12 miles
Best Season to Drive: All
See this drive on Google Maps

There are five wineries in the Lawrenceville area and this route begins at Lasata Wines, just off the Wabash River. Enjoy views of the water on the drive, and consider stopping to dip toes or wade a bit to cool down in the summer months. The Wabash Cannonball Bridge in St. Francisville is a good spot for photos, with its sweeping river valley scene.

No. 8 – Ocean to Ocean Drive

Ocean to Ocean Drive Illinois
Flickr user: Jim Grey

Starting Location: Chrisman, IL
Ending Location: Hume, IL
Length: 12 miles
Best Season to Drive: All
See this drive on Google Maps

This drive may not really take travelers from one ocean to another – or really any ocean at all – but it is a small segment of what was once a transcontinental highway. Today, this area is characterized by historic buildings and small town charm, and stopping to explore the varied shops along the way makes for a pleasant morning or afternoon.

No. 7 – Knox County Scenic Drive

Knox County Scenic Drive Illinois
Flickr user: David Wilson

Starting Location: Galesburg, IL
Ending Location: Maquon, IL
Length: 19 miles
Best Season to Drive: All
See this drive on Google Maps

During the first two weekends of October, visitors flock en masse to this sleepy area for a car tour of Knox County, but the route is open to solo tours throughout the year. Two one-room schoolhouses and a 19th-century log cabin wait to be explored. In Galesburg, check out the Corpus Christi Catholic Church, built in 1832, that is known for its neo-Gothic architecture.

No. 6 – Shawnee Hills Wine Trail

Shawnee Hills Wine Trail Illinois
Flickr user: Juan Pablo González

Starting Location: Makonda, IL
Ending Location: Murphysboro, IL
Length: 17 miles
Best Season to Drive: All
See this drive on Google Maps

With 12 award-winning wineries near this route, there is ample opportunity to stop and sample local wines. When not imbibing, try a hiking trail in Giant City State Park out to the Giant City Stone Fort Site, a stone fort from the prehistoric era. In Lake Murphysboro State Park at the opposite end of this route, take a dip in the warmer months or just enjoy the view of the water.

No. 5 – Illinois River Road

Illinois River Road
Flickr user: Rachel Gardner

Starting Location: Ottawa, IL
Ending Location: Havana, IL
Length: 123 miles
Best Season to Drive: All
See this drive on Google Maps

This particular scenic byway showcases the region’s wide biodiversity from Illinois’ hardwood forests to wetlands to – of course – the Illinois River. Stop at Bennett's Terraqueous Gardens to forge a deeper connection with nature and look at native flora and fauna up close. Geocachers will especially delight in the 90 different caches to be found along this route that draw attention to hidden treasures and historical sites of interest.

No. 4 – Spoon River Valley

Spoon River Valley Illinois
Flickr user: Kirk Kittell

Starting Location: Waterford, IL
Ending Location: London Mills, IL
Length: 42 miles
Best Season to Drive: All
See this drive on Google Maps

When Edgar Lee Masters of Lewistown, IL wrote the Spoon River Anthology, it elevated this region following the river to national fame, and travelers often stop to see the author’s family home. Stop in Ellisville to see Illinois’ smallest library and the restored 1891 opera house. The docks in London Mills are a prime place to fish or just picnic alongside the river.

No. 3 – Historic Route 66

Historic Route 66 Illinois
Flickr user: Mike Gassmann

Starting Location: Chicago, IL
Ending Location: East St Louis, IL
Length: 300 miles
Best Season to Drive: All
See this drive on Google Maps

It’s known as I-55 today, but it travels right where the Illinois portion of iconic Route 66 once lay. Tons of unusual landmarks and photo opportunities are along the way, including the Cow in the Corn Sculpture in downtown Lincoln and the world’s largest catsup bottle in Collinsville. Mainly, just enjoy traversing the most famous road in America like so many others have throughout much of the nation’s history.

No. 2 – Historic National Road

Historic National Road Illinois
Flickr user: Jasperdo

Starting Location: East St Louis, IL
Ending Location: Marshall, IL
Length: 166 miles
Best Season to Drive: All
See this drive on Google Maps

Also known as “The Old Pike” or “The Road That Built the Nation,” this route was approved in legislation by President Thomas Jefferson in 1806 as the only road built entirely from federal funds. Today, in Effingham lies a 198-foot cross travelers can see from afar, which is the largest cross structure in the world. In Teutopolis, stop to meander in the Teutopolis Monastery Museum, which once was home to Franciscan friars, or see Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in New Salem.

No. 1 – Ohio River Scenic Byway

Ohio River Scenic Byway Illinois
Flickr user: Michael

Starting Location: Golconda, IL
Ending Location: New Haven, IL
Length: 72 miles
Best Season to Drive: All
See this drive on Google Maps

It takes about four hours to drive this route without stops, but travelers will want to allot more time in order to check out a few point of interest. The Cherokee Indians’ Trail of Tears passed through Golconda, where this route begins – or ends when traveling the opposite direction. Stop at Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee National Forest to see and photograph the unusual geological formation of Camel Rock and hike some of the trails there for outdoor adventure.

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