How to Take an Epic Road Trip Without Leaving Illinois (and Have Fun Doing It)

Dec 27, 2016

If the majority of your Illinois experience consists of spending time in Chicago, you might not realize that Illinois is ... big.

Like, real big. Hundreds of miles north-to-south big.

And "big" generally translates into "awesome road trip potential." And we're not even talking "pack up the family truckster and head to the Wisconsin Dells" road trip. We're all about adding up that exclusively-intra-state mileage.

We've scoured the Land of Lincoln for all the things that we think you should hit the road for this winter and spring, as well as highlighting some of the people and places that make these small towns one-of-a-kind.

Let's check out the view from the road heading from the Quad Cities to Shawnee Forest Country, Galena to Champaign and all points in between. Here's how to take an awesome all-Illinois road trip ASAP.

East Dubuque to Moline: 98 Miles

We start in the far northwest corner of the state to kick off our trip by departing from East Dubuque, taking us through Galena, sometimes called the Driftless Area thanks to its rolling, ridged, river-filled terrain unflattened by the drifting glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. The scenic town is home to an array of cozy B&Bs, such as the Jail Hill Inn, the one-time county jail that now offers six suites in this historic building.

After a trip through Galena's historic Main Street -- the Best Main Street in the Midwest according to Midwest Living magazine -- we head out of town en route to Mississippi Palisades State Park to get a great view of the mighty Mississippi River from the many tall and scenic bluffs along the bank. From there we head through the tiny river town of Savanna down to the Quad Cities and park ourselves for a visit to the John Deere Pavilion in Moline.

Quad Cities to down the Great River Road to Alton: 263 miles

After getting behind the wheel of some of the larger than life farming equipment that powers many a farm around the Midwest, we head to nearby Rock Island for a visit to Navarro Canoe Co., where Bruce and Sue Peterson revived a heritage brand from California and placed it near the banks of the Mississippi where they hand-craft canoes made from wood, fiberglass and Kevlar.

From there we spend the day driving the Great River Road down to Alton, just north of the St. Louis area. Stop along the river bank at the Camp River DuBois State Historic Site -- and walk in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, who journeyed from Illinois to explored the uncharted Louisiana Purchase. A quick drive over to the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower and you can see for miles around -- including into neighboring Missouri.

After that, we cap off the drive passing the striking Native American Piasa Bird, dating back to the late 1600s and painted on the grand scale of the limestone bluffs. Just a couple blocks down the road, we stop in for refreshment at Alton's Old Bakery Brewing Company, a new brewery built into a historic 1800s-era bakery building (hence the name) and the state's only 100%-organic beer company. Beers range from grapefruit IPAs and coffee lagers on the light side all the way up to hefty barleywines and stouts.

Cahokia to Collinsville to the state's southern border: 160 miles

Continuing south, our next destination takes us to an extremely rare site of the remnants of an ancient Native American city.

Cahokia Mounds, about a half-hour south of Alton, is the site of a city that was at one time larger than London. With dozens of man-made mounds that date back to the 1100s, the site is estimated to have a population that peaked around 20,000 people but was mostly abandoned by the 1300s. Today you can visit the on-site museum and take guided tours including ones that climb the 100-foot-high Monk's Mound, the largest man-made earthwork in North America.

From there, you can drive just a few minute east to Collinsville to view the Brooks Catsup Bottle, which is one of those classic midcentury roadside attractions -- it's a giant water tower that looks like a big bottle of ketchup. After getting your fill there, we head further south toward the Kentucky border, but not without stopping along the way in Ava to visit Scratch Brewery.

Yes, we've already sent you to one brewery, but Scratch is one of the handful of farm-based beermakers in the nation using foraged ingredients in their beers -- we dare you to find another brewery that brews using tree bark, maple sap or green tomatoes grown in their very own garden.

From there, we head even further south around the Ohio River to Metropolis, Illinois, which claims itself as the "hometown of Superman." The annual Superman Celebration takes place each summer (June 8-11, 2017), but in winter and spring you can still visit the Super Museum and take a photo in front of the 15-foot-tall Superman statue in Superman Square.

Shawnee to Casey, aka: Forest to Mailbox: 190 miles

After taking some Superman selfies we head back up to the Shawnee National Forest and its famous Garden of the Gods that features massive sandstone rock formations spread out over 3300 acres of forest.

If natural wonders like steep rock faces, "hoodoo" rock chimneys and miles of hiking trails don't impress you, head through fun-named small towns like Eldorado and Clay City, up to the man-made wonders in Casey, Illinois. This is the home of Jim Bolin, who helped put his town on the map by crafting things like the world's largest wind chimes, golf tee, rocking chair, knitting needles, pitchfork, wooden shoes and the world's largest mailbox.

To Springfield, then Shirley: 57 miles

From here we drive back over to Springfield because ...

You can't do an epic Land of Lincoln road trip without visiting iconic Illinois landmarks like Abraham Lincoln's home, the Lincoln Presidential Museum, Old State Capitol and Lincoln's Tomb.

Honest Abe's hometown is also the place to experience other notable cultural sites like Cozy's Drive-In (the purported creator of the corn dog) and any number of places to enjoy Springfield's famous Horseshoe sandwich, an open-faced offering topped with French fries and cheese sauce you'll only find in the Illinois capital.

From here, it's time to take the Mother Road -- famed Route 66. Departing Springfield, we are headed straight up to the small town of Atlanta, where you can stop for award-winning pie at Palm's Grill and look at the 19-foot-tall Paul Bunyon Hotdog Statue next door.

Head north straight up to Shirley, home of Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup. While much of the nation's maple syrup comes from northeastern states like Vermont and New Hampshire, right in central Illinois is where the Funk family still makes 2000 gallons of sirup (yes, they spell it that way) a year in the same way they made it starting in 1824.

Shirley to Bloomington to Peoria: 52 miles

From Shirley, it's a short hop up Route 66 to Bloomington. Try to time your trip around lunch or dinner, so you can stop at Epiphany Farms, which takes produce from their 20 acres as well as from other local farmers and bring them literally farm-to-table at their three restaurants. Tours can be arranged during the growing season starting in May, so for now we recommend reserving a table at the more formal Epiphany Farms Restaurant, the casual Anju Above or their Old Bank Restaurant & Bar with American comfort food just outside of town in LeRoy.

After that (plus a trip to Steak 'n Shake --– the first one opened in nearby Normal in 1934), we head from Bloomington up to Peoria for a visit to the Caterpillar Visitors Center and Museum. Caterpillar is one of the state's largest employers, and their home base offers exhibits about the history of the company, a virtual ride in a massive Caterpillar mining truck, a 3D visualization center where you can view how the company creates its products and numerous machines from the company's past.

Peoria to Rockford (with a winery between): 139 miles

We're making our way back to the lands north of I-80 ... but just before we cross that line of demarcation and since we've already stopped at a couple breweries, why not a winery? In Utica, the Illinois Sparkling Co. uses grapes only grown in Illinois to make five different kinds of sparkling wine using the same traditional method of winemaking that vintnters in France use to make Champagne. But they don't call it Champaign -- that's the home of the University of Illinois.

By this point, we're ready to stretch our legs, so a quick 10-minute drive takes us from winery to waterfall at Starved Rock State Park. The park includes trails as short as 15 minutes, or as long as a full day's worth of hiking. The big natural draw here is the seasonal waterfalls, which visitors splash around in during the summer months. In the winter, the waterfalls become impressive columns of ice -- popular for ice climbing.

Straight north of Starved Rock is a city whose quite-underrated art scene is worth a visit: Rockford. A walking tour through the city's downtown area will reveal a dozen public art installations including works from internationally renowned sculptors and stone artists. You'll also discover Symbol, a 30-ton steel sculpture from artist Alexander Liberman that has become a de facto emblem of the city, set along the banks of the Rock River.

If you're looking for something a little more contemporary, the Rockford Art Deli, serves up clothing, shirts, patches, pins and also features a space for live performances.

Back into Chicagoland

This has been quite a haul, but since we're this close to Chicago, we might as well make note of some other places close to the city. You can round out your trip with a drive to Plano past the famous Farnsworth House, to Wilmette to admire the giant Bahá'í temple, or any number of the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Oak Park or up through Niles past the Leaning Tower of Pisa replica.

And if at this point you're wondering where to find the famous "spindle" of cars, aka the car-kabob that you remember from the beginning of the Wayne's World movie ... you missed it. Berwyn took it down in 2008.

Thankfully, we've given you plenty of other options above.

Start planning your own Illinois road trip with these tips and recommended hotels.

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