The Great River Road, Illinois meanders through 550 miles of scenic countryside and is one of the best road trips in the USA. The entire Great River Road stretches for 3,000 miles along the Mississippi River.

The Illinois section is particularly picturesque, and known as the Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Route. It’s a 33 mile long National Scenic Byway and one of the 7 Wonders of Illinois. Visitors to the area can also journey along historic Route 66 during their road trip.

There are many sites of historical interest around the Great River Road in Illinois. From the prehistoric mysteries of Cahokia Mounds to quaint 19th century villages, there’s so much to discover.

Highlights of The Great River Road in Illinois
Highlights of The Great River Road in Illinois

The Great River Road, Illinois

Whilst the Mississippi River itself is a highlight of the Illinois Great River Road, there’s a lot more to this area. From historic attractions in picturesque river towns to great shopping and gourmet dining, you’ll be spoilt for choice.

Here are 19 unmissable sights along the Great River Road in Illinois. They tell the story of these iconic rivers and the people who have travelled along them.

Three rivers come together here: the Illinois, Mississippi and Missouri. That’s why this metropolitan area is known as the Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Byway.

The area is renowned for its hiking and scenic nature, with limestone bluffs and 20,000 acres of forest. There are over a dozen cycling trails in the area, including the 22 mile Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail from Alton to Pere Marquette and the Confluence Bike Trail.

The town of Alton is a Winter home to many eagles, which you can often spot soaring over the Mississippi River.

1. Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower

See where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers converge from the top floor, located 150 feet up. Visitors can find out about the history of the local area and the Corps of Discovery expedition made by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

It was on this site in 1803 that Lewis and Clark set up Camp River Dubois in 1803 to prepare for their journey.

Address: 435 Confluence Tower Dr, Hartford, IL 62048

Opening Hours:
 Wednesday – Friday: 1:00-5:00 p.m, Saturday: 10:00 a.m- 5:00 p.m., Sunday: 1:00-5:00 p.m

2. National Great Rivers Museum

Located at Melvin Price Locks & Dam, this 12,000 square foot interactive museum shows how the rivers shaped the lives of the local inhabitants. Tours of the locks and dam are also available, free of charge.

Address: 2 Lock and Dam Way, Alton, IL 62002
Opening Hours
: 9:00 am – 5:00 p.m daily

Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower
Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower

3. Pere Marquette State Park

With over 8,000 acres of land, this is the largest state park in Illinois. It’s known for its walking trails and is also popular for horseriding and fishing.

4. Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge

A prime spot to observe wildlife, as an estimated 200,000 waterfowl stop here on their bi-annual migration.

5. Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary

3,700 acres of prairie, lowland and wetland habitats make this a magnet for migrating birds.

An eagle on the Great River Road, Illinois, USA
Wildlife in Alton

6. Cahokia Mounds

Explore the remnants of the largest Pre-Columbian settlement North of Mexico, at Cahokia Mounds State Historic SiteThis UNESCO World Heritage Site is also a State Historic Site.

Cahokia was inhabited by prehistoric Indians from around AD 700 onwards. The city of Cahokia had an estimated population of up to 20,000 people, spread over six square miles.

There were originally over 120 mounds on the site, some of which were destroyed by farming. They were mainly used for ceremonial activities, with a few being used for burials.

These days, over 70 historic mounds are visible, spread across 2,200 acres. This makes Cahokia Mounds the largest archaeological site in America.

Monks Mound is the biggest prehistoric earthen structure in the New World. It stands 100 foot tall, with a base of over 14 acres. Visitors can climb to the top and admire the views of the surrounding mounds.

Cahokia Mounds, Illinois
Cahokia Mounds

Cahokia Mounds is also home to Woodhenge. Thought to be a solar calendar, the site was found by chance in the 1960s, during salvage excavations.

It is believed that there may have been up to 5 Woodhenges within Cahokia. They were most likely built between AD 1100-1200. The wooden posts have been added in recent times to recreate how the original site would have appeared.

Several posts line up with the equinoxes and solstices. People still gather here today to experience the Winter and Summer solstices.

There’s also a fascinating 33,000 square foot Interpretive Center on site, with restrooms and a gift shop.

Address:  30 Ramey St. Collinsville, IL 62234

Opening Hours: Interpretive Center Hours – Wednesday-Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm, grounds from dawn to dusk

Woodhenge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Illinois

7. Amazing Illinois Restaurants

There are over 50 restaurants in the Alton region of Illinois, from farm to table to fine dining. Some of our favorites that we’ve personally tried include:

  • The Loading Dock – with a fantastic location overlooking the Mississippi River, this is more than just a restaurant. There are lodgings, regular live music, a monthly Flea Market and ice skating in Winter.
    401 Front St, Grafton, IL 62037
  • Fast Eddie’s Bon Air – going strong since 1921, and known for its beer and live music.
    1530 E 4th St, Alton, IL 62002
  • Weezy’s Route 66 Bar & Grill – packed with Route 66 memorabilia, it’s a great spot for horseshoe sandwiches.
    108 S Old US Route 66, Hamel, IL 62046
  • Gentelin’s On Broadway – this local favourite has a lovely view of Clark Bridge and does amazing Martinis, steak and seafood.
    122 E Broadway, Alton, IL 62002
Gentelins on Broadway, a fantastic restaurant in Alton, Illinois
Restaurants in Alton

8. Family Activities

There are lots of great activities for families around the Great River Road, Illinois, Here are a few that are sure to appeal to kids and big kids alike!

  • Grafton Zipline – 9 lines including the Baby Bear, the Limestone Leap and the Soaring Eagle.
     600 Timber Ridge Lane, Grafton Illinois”>IL
  • Raging Rivers Waterpark – experience the 500 foot dual Cascade Body Flumes, Endless River, Runaway Rafts, Shark Slide and unique Swirlpool.
    100 Palisades Parkway, Grafton, IL 62037
  • Splash City Family Waterpark – 7 slides an Aqua Climb Wall, Monsoon Mountain and more.
  • 10 Gateway Dr., Collinsville, IL 62234
  • The Loading Dock Ice Rink – open from 17 November
    401 Front St, Grafton, IL 62037

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9. Pink Elephant Antique Mall

The Route 66 Mother Road meets the Great River Road in Illinois. There are some incredible Route 66 attractions to enjoy in this part of the world.

The Pink Elephant Antique Mall features a larger than life pink elephant, a male swimmer and other quirky statues, this huge antiques centre also has a 1950s style diner.
908 Veterans Memorial Dr, Livingston, IL 62058

The Pink Elephant Diner in Illinois, USA
Pink Elephant Diner

10. Weezy’s on Route 66

Dating from the 1930s, this roadside diner is popular for its Midwestern specialties. Try their famous fried chicken or their catfish plate.
108 S Old US Route 66, Hamel, IL 62046

11. World’s Largest Catsup Bottle

Built as a water tower in 1949, it’s 170 foot tall and featured in the Twilight saga movie, Eclipse.
305 Railroad Ave, Collinsville, IL 62234

The world's largest catsup bottle in Illinois, USA
World’s largest catsup bottle

12. Lewis & Clark State Historic Site

This popular Illinois attraction features a full scale replica of Camp Dubois, where Leiws and Clark prepared for their iconic 1804 expedition. There’s also a cutaway keelboat, revealing how they packed for their travels, five exhibition rooms and a replica Settler’s Cabin.

13. Historic Elsah

The whole village of Elsah is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its 19th century stone houses. This section of the Great River Road has beautiful scenery.

14. Piasa Bird

This mythical creature was painted onto the limestone cliffs by Native Americans and discovered in 1673 by Father Jacques Marquette in 1673. A replica is on display at Piasa Park, near Alton.

Historic Elsah village, Illinois
Historic Elsah and the Piasa Bird

15. The Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail

This is another must-see on the Great River Road. It takes you on a tour of 11 major historical sites in Alton, Illinois. In 1837, the publisher Elijah  Lovejoy was killed by a mob opposed to his anti-slavery views.

The Lovejoy Monument commemorating his bravery is the tallest monument in the state of Illinois. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held their seventh and final debate in Alton, focused on the issue of slavery. Over 6,000 people came to watch it.

During the Civil War, the region of Alton played an important role in helping slaves to escape on the Underground Railroad. It wasn’t an actual rail track but a term for the escape route to the North.

US Senator Lyman Trumbull was an Alton resident who co-authored the 13th Amendment which ended slavery in the United States. His former home is one of the many interesting sights along the Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail.

Abraham Lincoln in Alton, Illinois
The Lovejoy Monument

There are several other famous locals who have played an important part in the history of the area.

16. Miles Davis Statue

The iconic jazz musician was born in Alton in 1926 and his statue on Third Street in Downtown Alton is the only memorial to him in North America. This lifelike sculpture was made by Preston Jackson and based on a photograph of the performer.

117 W 3rd St, Alton, IL 62002

Miles Davis statue, Alton, Illinois
Miles Davis statue

17. Robert Wadlow Statue

The world’s tallest man, Robert Wadlow measured 8 ft. 11.1 inches tall and was known as the Gentle Giant. The statue commemorating him is lifesize and can be found opposite the Alton Museum of History and Art.
2810 College Ave, Alton, IL 62002

The world's tallest man statue in Alton, Illinois, USA
The world’s tallest man

18. Grafton Winery

There are some fantastic local wineries, including The Winery at Aerie’s Resort, Grafton Harbor Floating Winery and Mary Michelle Winery.

Grafton Winery specializes in Chardonnel, Vidal and Vinoles grapes. Two great locations including Grafton Winery & Brewhaus in downtown Grafton and Grafton Winery The Vineyards overlooking its own lake, with an events space that’s popular for weddings.

Great River Road winery in Illinois, USA
Illinois wineries

19. Supernatural Alton Sights

Alton is known as one of the most haunted small towns in the USA. It’s not known why but the region’s history of epidemics and Civil War may have a part to play. The limestone rock on which much of Alton is built, is also believed by psychics to have paranormal properties.

Milton School is said to be haunted by a little girl named Mary, whilst The First Unitarian Church has a piano that some report having seen play by itself.

The McPike Mansion is considered to be the most haunted place in Alton. The owners, Sharyn and George Luedke, open it for cellar tours and it certainly has a very unique atmosphere.

There are several guided tours of haunted Alton on offer and you can download a free Haunted Alton app on the Visit Alton website.

McPike Mansion, Alton, Illinois
The McPike Mansion

Great River Road Accommodations

There are over 20 guest houses, inns and hotels in the area close to the Great River Road, Illinois. Some that we can personally recommend are:

Beall Mansion – voted best B&B in Illinois, this historic mansion is filled with antiques. There’s complimentary parking and a free chocolate buffet for guests too.
407 E 12th St, Alton, IL 62002

Beall Mansion, Alton, Illinois
Beall Mansion

Best Western Premier Alton – the only full service hotel in Alton, with complimentary high speed WiFi, spacious rooms and a swimming pool.
3559 College Ave, Alton, IL 62002

Tara Point Inn & Cottages – with fabulous views of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, this charming B&B features a games room and cosy rooms and cottages.
1 Tara Point Drive, Grafton, IL 62037

Pere Marquette Lodge and Scenic Overlooks – tucked away in Pere Marquette State Park, the lodge has a historic Great Room, excellent restaurant and lodge rooms as well as log cabins.
13653 Lodge Blvd, Grafton, IL 62037

Pere Marquette Lodge, Grafton, Illinois
Pere Marquette Lodge

When to Make a Great River Road Journey

If you have an interest in birds, then late December to the middle of February is a great time to see American bald eagles. There are many eagle watching tours on offer and the Alton-Audubon Eagle Festival takes place in the first week of January.

Spring and Summer are also popular seasons in which to visit, with many fairs and outdoor events taking place along the river. Those lucky enough to visit in Fall will experience spectacular foliage.

Getting to The Great River Road, Illinois

Passing through ten states, The Great River Road begins at Lake Itasca in Minnesota and ends in the Gulf of Mexico. There are 9 interpretive centers along the route, with the first at Rock Island and the last on Washington Avenue, Cairo.

By Plane

  •  Lambert St. Louis Regional Airport (STL) – 35 minute drive

By Train

  • Amtrak – serves several towns in the area, including Alton and Quincy

By Car

  • The Great River Road is designated by white signs with a green wheel logo. Why not take a scenic drive along the Illinois section of Route 66, from Chicago through Joliet, Pontiac and Springfield, finishing on the Great River Road.

We hope that you’ve found this guide to the Great River Road interesting and that it’s inspired you to travel along it yourself.

You may also enjoy these beautiful places in Illinois:

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Great River Road

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This Illinois Great River Road trip was arranged in association with Enjoy Illinois and Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau.

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1 thought on “The Great River Road, Illinois: 19 Must See Attractions”

  1. What a great overview! And I lovelovelove your picture with the Robert Wadlow statue – so cute!

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