Fall Color Along the Illinois River Road
Down by the river
Within easy drives of Chicago and St. Louis, the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway threads through natural areas and past spectacular water views, bluffs and brilliant fall foliage. When travelers start craving the comforts of civilization, the road meanders to places with just the right amount -- welcoming hearths, inspiring art and history, memorable meals, and even locally produced wines.
Click ahead for a peek at some of the places you can see along your journey. At left, a view of the Illinois River unfolds from a bluff at Starved Rock State Park.
The Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway follows both sides of the river, creating a 291-mile loop. Our one-way route hits our favorite spots. From Havana, head north to Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, then backtrack to the river's west side; go north through Peoria and Chillicothe; at Sparland, cross to Lacon, then drive north and east to Starved Rock and on to Ottawa.
Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge
The largest and most visitor-friendly of three national preserves along the Illinois River, Chautauqua spreads across more than 4,000 acres of woods and wetlands. The refuge can harbor more than 250,000 waterfowl and shore birds, including bald eagles. An easy trail leads to observation platforms along Lake Chautauqua. (309) 535-2290; Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge
The largest metro area along the Illinois River has transformed its riverfront, with restaurants and a handful of galleries and shops flourishing beside pretty parks and trails. The area teems with farm stands and crafters' booths during the Riverfront Market on Saturday mornings, spring through fall. The Spirit of Peoria, an authentic turn-of-the-20th-century stern-wheeler, cruises from the riverfront. (800) 747-0302; peoria.org
- Photo by Ginger Crichton.
On Peoria's north side, detour from the scenic byway to the legendary Grand View Drive, which Theodore Roosevelt called "the world's most beautiful drive." The route threads north through neighborhoods to a tree-lined road that climbs into an enclave of mansions along a bluff-top park with views of the river (left). Loop back to restaurants and shops in the Peoria Heights business district. peoriaheightschamber.com
Rows of pumpkins are only part of the draw at this family-owned orchard near Granville (13 miles southwest of LaSalle). The store also features mums, freshly baked pies and doughnuts (apple cider doughnuts are the specialty; pumpkin spice are available on fall weekends). Pumpkins, with painted faces as happy and quirky as cartoon characters, line up on shelves in the front of the store. Bruce Boggio, the artist, says working with preschoolers inspires his work -- they find scary pumpkin faces too unsettling. (815) 339-2245; boggiosorchardandproduce.com
LaSalle Canal Boat Rides
One-hour rides on a replica canal boat give glimpses of travel in the era when the Illinois & Michigan Canal connected the Illinois River to Lake Michigan and ultimately to the East Coast. When the canal opened in 1848, these boats, pulled by mules that plodded alongside the canal, were hailed as a fast, easy alternative to land travel. Today, costumed interpreters add to the experience with tales of the immigrants who dug the canal by hand. Purchase tickets along LaSalle's First Street at the Lock 16 Visitors Center. (815) 223-1851; lasallecanalboat.org
- Photo by Ginger Crichton.
Starved Rock State Park
This remarkable pocket of land along the Illinois River includes 18 sandstone canyons; 14 waterfalls, including some that freeze into glittering walls in winter; abundant wildlife and birds; Belle of the Rock paddleboat excursions; and guided hikes, special events and interpretive programs. The free guided hikes are a great way to see the highlights. Stay in the historic lodge or cabins; the dining room is the place to get your fall comfort food fix. (800) 868-7625; starvedrockstatepark.org
Matthiessen State Park
Next to better-known Starved Rock State Park, 5 miles of trails carve into the mile-long canyon at Matthiessen State Park. You'll find rock formations with imaginative names such as Devil's Paintbox, Wishing Well and Giant's Bathtub. Upper Dells trails—mostly boardwalk, bridges and stairs—take you through fragrant cedar groves on the ridges to beautiful, sometimes dizzying, vantage points. Rocks and waterfalls make the Lower Dells trails a rambler's dream; you're likely to get wet as you navigate over streams and pools. (815) 667-4868; Matthiessen State Park
August Hill Winery
Sip local vintages in a sophisticated setting in Utica. In addition to award-winning wines, August Hill Winery offers artisan cheese and chocolates. Saturday nights tend to be particularly lively, with patrons who come to socialize as much as taste wines. Art on display in the tasting room changes regularly and features everything from blown glass and jewelry to pottery, sculpture and photography. (815) 667-5211; augusthillwinery.com
At the confluence of the Illinois and Fox rivers, Ottawa marks the northeast gateway to the Illinois River Road. A spectacular train trestle bridge crosses the Illinois River near Allen Park and the Old Town business district. Downtown, eight building exteriors have been painted with large murals depicting local history. In Washington Square Park (left), a pretty oasis of towering old trees, statues of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas commemorate the first Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858. (888) 688-2924; cityofottawa.org
Where to eat and stay
Among our favorite places to stop along the Illinois River Road:
Where to eat
--Happy Thought Coffee Also, from-scratch soups and baked goods in Chillicothe. (309) 274-6623; happythoughtcoffee.com
--Two25 We'd go back to this restaurant inside Peoria's Mark Twain Hotel for the cozy atmosphere and nicely prepared salmon. (309) 282-7777; two25peoria.com
Where to stay
--Mark Twain Hotel This sleekly renovated 110-room boutique hotel stands blocks from Peoria's comeback riverfront. (866) 325-6351; marktwainhotel.com
--Mission Oak Inn Amid cornfields, with a small lake out the back door, this inn (pictured at left) feels like a true escape. (309) 370-4083; missionoakinn.com
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® September/October 2010.)