To see the natural beauty of Illinois, take a drive on the Great River Road. Rolling hills, prairie-dotted plains and limestone bluffs provide relaxing places to unplug, experience nature and reconnect with friends and family. From rock climbing, hiking, biking and equestrian trails to fishing, boating, camping and gorgeous views, some of the best recreational opportunities in Illinois are along the byway.
Just north of Savanna, Mississippi Palisades State Park offers forested bluffs and rock palisades overlooking the Mississippi River. The towering limestone formations offer a range of technical climbing routes and classic top rope climbs. With more than 150 established routes, climbers of any skill level can fill a day or a weekend. If you prefer hiking, the extensive trail system covers 15 miles, leading to 6 river overlooks.
Encompassing more than 8,000 acres, Pere Marquette State Park is the largest state park in Illinois. Bike rentals, horseback riding, hiking, nature viewing and fishing are only some of the activities offered here. Each winter, the park becomes a hub for bald eagle watching. Weekends are filled with bald eagle interpretive programs led by site naturalists.
Near Makanda, Giant City State Park boasts breathtaking natural beauty, cultural history and numerous opportunities for outdoor recreation. On the park’s namesake nature trail, hike among the “Giant City Streets,” consisting of massive blocks of sandstone that formed 12,000 years ago.
Whether you’re looking for a relaxing walk or a challenging hike, state parks and recreation areas along the byway offer the perfect opportunity to enjoy nature. Pomona Natural Bridge, located near Pomona in Shawnee National Forest, offers a moderate, .3-mile hike to a 90-foot sandstone arch. This quick hike is suitable for all ages. Hike across the top of the formation for stunning views. Take the path less traveled at Trail of Tears State Forest near Jonesboro. This hidden gem in the Ozark Hills offers more than 40 miles of hiking opportunities among the densely wooded, rugged hills.
If cycling is your passion, travel the Great River Trail between Rock Island and Savanna. This paved 60-mile path is part of the larger 10-state Mississippi River Trail. Beginning in downtown Galena, travel the Mississippi River backwaters along the Galena River Trail. This crushed limestone path leads to forested areas, historic sites and scenic views of Galena. The extensive trail system of Madison County is known as the MCT (Madison County Transit Bike Trails). Take a day or weekend to navigate this cycling paradise. With more than 120 trail miles connecting communities and urban areas, this is one of the most extensive bikeways in the country. If you’re looking for a unique off-road cycling experience, take the pedestrian bridge to Sylvan Island near Moline. Thistechnical singletrack playground winds through a 35-acre island in the middle of the Mississippi River.
Camping areas abound along the byway. Many sites at Thomson Causeway Recreation Area offer abundant shade, level concrete pads for RVs and views of the Mississippi River. This location also provides a boat launch and access to the Great River Trail. Illiniwek Forest Preserve in Hampton is another favorite camping area. The preserve has access to the Mississippi River for boating, as well as opportunities for biking and hiking along the Great River Trail. Plus, it’s a short distance to attractions in the Quad Cities.
If you enjoy the outdoors, but roughing it isn’t your style, stay in a lodge or cabin rental along the byway. Rent a cabin near Giant City Lodge in Makanda, and take in views of the lush, rolling forest of the Shawnee Hills. Made of multi-hued sandstone and white oak timber by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the lodge features a great room with a massive native stone fireplace and a restaurant featuring mouthwatering fried chicken dinners. Spend the night in the lodge or cabins at Pere Marquette Lodge and Conference Center. Also built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the lodge’s 700-ton stone fireplace makes a great place to warm up after a fall color hike or a picturesque backdrop to a friendly game of chess on the life-size game board.
Fishing is one of the most popular activities along the byway. In the Mississippi River, almost 120 species of fish, including small and largemouth bass, catfish, walleye, bluegill and crappie, await the bait of even the most novice angler. Some of the best largemouth bass fishing on the Mississippi River can be found in Pool 19 between Hamilton and Gulfport. Access to the river can be gained at boat launches in Hamilton, Nauvoo and Dallas City. There are also ample fishing opportunities in waters off the river. Lake Carlton at Morrison-Rockwood State Park is considered a prime fishing location by locals. During the summer months, anglers hook walleye, bass and muskie, but the fishing doesn’t stop with the arrival of winter. If you’re willing to brave the cold, ice fishing on Lake Carlton will bring in panfish, walleye and sauger. A few miles northwest of Murphysboro, Kinkaid Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area is home to one of the premier muskie lakes in Illinois. It’s also known for producing large crappie, including the 2017 state record that weighed in at 4 pounds 8.8 ounces.
Ever consider exploring the outdoors on horseback? If you’re headed to Shawnee National Forest and want to bring your trusty trail partner along, visit Johnson Creek Recreation Area near Murphysboro. This location is one of only a few Forest Service campgrounds in Shawnee National Forest that accommodates equestrian camping. At Big River State Forest in Keithsburg, equestrians can make use of designated trails, scenic gravel roads and fire lanes equaling more than 60 trail miles. The forest also has 35 campsites to accommodate equestrians and their horses.
If you’re a birder, there’s no better place to be than along the Mississippi River. Each spring and fall more than 300 species of birds migrate along the Mississippi Flyway from their breeding grounds in Canada to their wintering habitat in the Gulf of Mexico and South America. A prime location to view some of the 200,000 birds that journey along this portion of the flyway is at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers at Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge. Here, viewing platforms and scopes bring an assortment of waterfowl and songbirds into focus. Located near Thomson, Ingersoll Wetlands Learning Center at the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is an ideal place to photograph a bald eagle, sandhill crane or trumpeter swan. Other native species found here include the ornate box turtle, river otter and prickly pear cactus.
Hiking, biking, climbing, riding, fishing, boating, camping—you name it—an amazing outdoor getaway awaits along the Great River Road!