Road trips in Illinois might lead to nostalgic finds (and modern surprises) down Route 66—or to destinations like Galena, with both outdoor rec and small-town charm; southern Illinois, with natural beauty like the rocky Garden of the Gods; or Springfield, the state's capital, with both serious history lessons and lighthearted Americana.
On the Galena River in northwest Illinois, this town's century-old buildings now house shops, galleries, wineries and restaurants. Beyond Main Street, find water sports, golf and other active outings. And you'll have no shortage of choices for places to stay—in a town of 3,500, guest beds reportedly outnumber locals. Select from award-winning B&Bs, luxury properties with spas and budget-priced alternatives.
This classic road trip symbolically begins at Chicago's Buckingham Fountain and continues for 300 miles southwest through Illinois (or about 435 miles if you take all the original side roads). It crosses the Mississippi River outside St. Louis and heads west to Santa Monica, California. Much of the Illinois section runs a few yards from Interstate-55, but in towns along the way, the road feels more like the two-lane sojourn that lives in memory. Experience both small-town charm in places like Pontiac and Joliet as well as the amenities of larger cities such as Springfield.
Nature draws travelers to this region of the state, where the Shawnee National Forest contains seven wilderness areas and the must-see ancient sandstone cliffs and rock formations of Garden of the Gods. Area parks, lakes and trails promise more active adventures. Hike through towering rock formations at Giant City State Park in Makanda, paddle around 1,000-year-old cypress trees in the Cache River State Natural Area, or bike the 45-mile Tunnel Hill State Trail from Harrisburg to Karnak. Wind down at breweries, restaurants and lodgings in small towns across the area.
The 33-mile Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway connects Pere Marquette State Park to river ports such as Grafton and Alton on the eastern edge of Illinois. Museums, antiquing, birding, biking and ziplining fill a getaway—and you're right across the border from St. Louis, Missouri, too. Scope out bird species at Audobon Center at Riverlands, float through the air on the new Grafton Sky Tour and check out 12 miles of trails at Pere Marquette park.
Springfield delivers both serious history lessons and lighthearted slices of Americana. But the city where Lincoln lived is known for informative sites that put a relatable face on a larger-than-life figure. Immersive galleries at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum portray key moments in his life; at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site, a reconstruction of the town Lincoln lived in for six years, interpreters chronicle frontier life.
A visit to this metro along the Illinois River should start at the revitalized RiverFront. Take a sightseeing tour aboard the Spirit of Peoria, a replica 19th-century riverboat, then learn more about the region at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. North of downtown, Grandview Drive winds past historic homes and overlooks of the Illinois River Valley.
In the middle of farmland 90 miles southwest of Chicago, Starved Rock State Park offers a surprising change of scenery: 18 sandstone canyons formed by glacial melt. You can easily spend a full day here, starting or ending your visit with a night in Starved Rock Lodge and Conference Center.
In Ottawa, 10 miles east, bronze status and plaques at Washington Square Park commemorate the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, in 1858. Learn about more local history through murals on eight downtown buildings. Ottawa is also the northeast gateway for the Illinois River Road, a National Scenic Byway that follows the water for 150 miles southwest to Havana.