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Scenic drives in Illinois: 12 amazing scenic routes you must explore

If you’re looking to escape the bustle of the city, pack up the car and set out on one of these scenic drives in Illinois.

Whether you’re cruising the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River or winding through charming towns in the countryside, there are over 57,000 square miles of Illinois roads to explore.

Here are 15 of the best scenic drives in Illinois for you to take on your next road trip.

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Best scenic drives in Illinois

Best scenic routes of Illinois

Start and end point Distance Highlights Best season to drive
Statue of President Ulysses S. Grant in the Galena Grant Park Great River Road – Illinois

Galena in the north and Cairo to the south

550 miles

Year-round
The start of Route 66 in downtown Chicago Illinois Route 66

Downtown Chicago on E. Jackson Boulevard and end at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in Collinsville

300 miles

The entire stretch is filled with kitschy roadside relics, museums, classic midwestern food, drive-in theaters and restaurants, and 1940s charm

Summer and fall
Colorful mural of General Wallace in Ottawa Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway

Ottawa, Illinois to the north and ending in Havana in the south

150 miles one way / 291-mile loop

The River Road Byway is one of the most scenic drives in Illinois because of the astounding natural beauty of its wetland prairies, hardwood forests, woodland seeps, diverse wildlife, and winding river

The River Road National Byway is one of the best scenic fall drives in Illinois but can be enjoyed throughout the year
de immigrant Windmill in Fulton, Illinois Illinois Lincoln Highway

Starts in Frankfort and ends in Fulton

179-mile route

A historic stretch of road that showcases charming towns and communities and the country’s first transcontinental highway

Year-round
Wolf Covered Bridge Knox County Scenic Drive

Knoxville, Illinois to Dahinda, Illinois

58.7 miles

This is a quintessential Midwest scenic drive showcasing the unique culture of rural heritage

Self-guided route is available year-round but the county festival is in October
Grandview Drive Grandview Drive

Located in the city of Peoria, Grandview Drive stretches from Prospect Road to Illinois Route 29

2.5 miles

Dubbed the “world’s most beautiful drive” by President Roosevelt in 1910, Grandview Drive is the shortest on this list but well worth the trip

Year-round
An old windmill Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive

The drive takes you through Fulton County, beginning in Astoria and ending in London Mills

140 miles

There are plenty of attractions along this drive to keep the entire family entertained

Fall – the Spoon Valley Scenic Drive Festival falls on the first two weekends of October every year.
Alto Vineyards Shawnee Hills Wine Trail

Begin in Makonda and end in Murphysboro

40 miles

Venture into the Shawnee National Forest for delicious wine, untouched natural beauty, and some of the best hiking in Illinois

Best enjoyed on a summer evening or when the leaves are changing colors in the fall.
The Ohio River Ohio River Scenic Byway

Begin in New haven and end in Cairo where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers converge

188 miles

From natural splendor, heartland farming, and the vast river to the charming communities that call this region home, the Ohio River Scenic Byway has something for everyone

Year-round
Collins house in Collinsville Historic National Road in Illinois

Marshall to East St. Louis

164 miles

Also known as the “Road that Built the Nation,” Historic National Road was built in 1806 and opened Illinois to settlement

Year-round
Statues where the Lincoln - Douglas debate was held in Alton The Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Route

It begins in Hartford on Illinois Route 3 and New Poag Road and ends in Grafton at Pere Marquette State Park

33 miles

The great meeting of the rivers is the point of convergence for three great rivers: The Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois rivers

Year-round

Scenic Routes of Illinois

Statue of President Ulysses S. Grant in the Galena Grant Park
Statue of President Ulysses S. Grant in the Galena Grant Park

Great River Road – Illinois

  • Start and end point: Galena in the north and Cairo to the south
  • Distance: 550 miles (885 km)
  • Highlights: This expansive route spans the entire length of the state, hugging the Mississippi River to the West as it winds past limestone bluffs and rushing waters.
  • Best season to drive: Year-round

Short description of the drive

The Great River Road is one of the most scenic road trips in the midwest.

Not only does it span the entire state, but this famous road actually begins at Lake Itasca in Northern Minnesota and winds the length of the country as it follows the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

You’ll find historic destinations, UNESCO World Heritage sites, awe-inspiring views, and quaint towns spread throughout the journey.

Galena, the starting point, is well known for its well-preserved 19th-century buildings, ancient ceremonial sites, and delicious vineyards.

The endpoint is in Cairo, an abandoned town that is packed with history.

There are festivals and celebrations happening every month of the year along the Great River Route.

Each event showcases the unique history or culture of the hosting town.

For example, there are the Fulton Dutch Days in May, the Cahokia Native American Holiday Market in Collinsville during the month of November, and the Eagle Ice Festival in Alton in January.

What people are saying about this drive

We were most recently there and counted 40 bald eagles on our drive. Fantastic day or weekend trip.

My wife and I drove through and the beauty is amazing. The river looked very beautiful, and the leaves were changing colors.

The start of Route 66 in downtown Chicago.
The start of Route 66 in downtown Chicago

Illinois Route 66

  • Start and end point: Downtown Chicago on E. Jackson Boulevard and end at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in Collinsville.
  • Distance: 300 miles
  • Highlights: The entire stretch is filled with kitschy roadside relics, museums, classic midwestern food, drive-in theaters and restaurants, and 1940s charm.
  • Best season to drive: Summer and fall

Short description of the drive

Route 66, otherwise known as Main Street of America or Mother Road is one of the original and most famous highways in the United States and one of the most scenic byways in Illinois.

It originally ran from Chicago all the way to Los Angeles, California. These 2,500 miles (4,000 km) were the primary route for those who migrated west in the early-mid 1900s and are filled with history.

While no longer an official highway, Illinois still celebrates its 300-mile stretch with restored 1940’s gas pumps, quirky museums, and eccentric art and memorabilia on one of the most historic drives in Illinois.

If you’re unfamiliar with this period in history, we suggest you do a little digging to have the full immersive experience.

What people are saying about this drive

Driving on this old road, with some replicas of old signs and vintage billboards, took us back in time –we could imagine what it was like to drive Route 66 a hundred years ago.

A must-see for everyone. It has nostalgia, nature, and just a good old road trip feel. This road really holds some of America’s most fascinating history.

Scenic Drives in Northern Illinois

Colorful mural of General Wallace in Ottawa
A colorful mural of General Wallace in Ottawa

Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway

  • Start and end point: Ottawa, Illinois to the north and ending in Havana in the south
  • Distance: 150 miles one way / 291-mile loop
  • Highlights: The River Road Byway is one of the most scenic drives in Illinois because of the astounding natural beauty of its wetland prairies, hardwood forests, woodland seeps, diverse wildlife, and winding river.
  • Best season to drive: The River Road National Byway is one of the best scenic fall drives in Illinois but can be enjoyed throughout the year.

Short description of the drive

Enjoy the slow-moving waters of the Illinois River, the roadside stands selling fruits and vegetables, and the cultural history of the Native Americans, French explorers, and American settlers that built their communities around this river.

This scenic drive on the Illinois River is the perfect place to park and immerse yourself in the surrounding natural beauty.

From red and yellow trees to roads dusted with vibrant leaves, this is an incredibly scenic fall drive in Northern Illinois.

The route offers loads of recreational activities such as biking, hiking, camping, and picnicking as well as activities like fishing, horseback riding, and boating.

Make sure to check out the event calendar to see what kind of special activities are happening along this beautiful drive in Illinois.

Insider tip: Ottawa is considered as being the heart of Starved Rock county.  If you have time and love hiking we would advise you to spend one or more days in this amazing state park. Here you can find more info about planning a trip to Starved Rock.

If you are looking for more hikes in Northern Illinois, click here. 

What people are saying about this drive

The River Road National Scenic Byway showcases Illinois’ natural wonders and they’re truly breathtaking.

So beautiful in fall. The red, yellow, and orange leaves on the trees are straight from a postcard.

de immigrant Windmill in Fulton, Illinois
“De Immigrant” windmill in Fulton

Illinois Lincoln Highway

  • Start and end point: Starts in Lynwood and ends in Fulton
  • Distance: 179-mile route.
  • Highlights: A historic stretch of road that showcases charming towns and communities and the country’s first transcontinental highway.
  • Best Season to drive: Enjoy year-round

Short description of the drive

The Lincoln Highway was the first highway in America to be paved all the way across the state in the early 1900s.

Originally, the Illinois portion was an attempt to make it easier for farmers to get their crops to the markets but then began to draw in travelers in automobiles.

The route spanned the entire width of the state because it was part of the larger highway system that ran from New York to California.

The history and cultural significance that is now preserved along the route makes the Lincoln Byway one of the best scenic drives in Northern Illinois. 

Popular stops along the road include the Paramount Theatre built in 1931, Rochelle Railroad Park with locomotives from the 1920s, and the unique communities that span the rolling prairies and riverfront towns on this scenic route in Illinois.

What people are saying about this drive

An amazing way to travel across the state and immerse yourself in the different cultures and communities across Illinois.

We loved how much we learned at so many of the historical stops.

Read Also:

Here is an overview of more great things to do in Northern Illinois. 

Scenic Drives in Northwest Illinois

Wolf Covered Bridge
Wolf Covered Bridge

Knox County Scenic Drive

  • Start and end point: Knoxville, Illinois to Dahinda, Illinois
  • Distance: 58.7 miles
  • Highlights: This is a quintessential Midwest scenic drive showcasing the unique culture of rural heritage.
  • Best season to drive: Self-guided route is available year-round but the county festival is in October.

Short description of the drive

Guide yourself through Knox County and the 8 rural towns that it comprises.

Travel back in time as you make your way through original one-room schoolhouses, an 1832 log cabin, century-old chapels, and a historic railroad depot.

The Knox County communities have been proudly showcasing their farming communities and their rich history since 1976.

On your drive, you’ll likely see many of these community members on the land working hard on their harvest.

Plan on visiting in October if you want to participate in the county’s annual drive event and witness the activities and entertainment. There you’ll find flea markets, tasty meals like homemade chili or pie, handcrafted art, soaps, furniture, and collectibles.

What people are saying about this drive

We had the best afternoon exploring and even came home with some beautiful handicrafts.

There is so much history and pride in the locals here. I especially loved the Corpus Christi Church in Galesburg which was built in 1832 and is just a beautiful display of architecture.

Scenic Drives in Central Illinois

Grandview Drive, one of the most scenic drives in Illinois.
A grand view from Grandview Drive (photo credits: Randy von Liski)

Grandview Drive

  • Start and end point: Located in the city of Peoria, Grandview Drive stretches from Prospect Road to Illinois Route 29.
  • Distance: 2.5 miles
  • Highlights: Dubbed the “world’s most beautiful drive” by President Roosevelt in 1910, Grandview Drive is the shortest on this list but well worth the trip.
  • Best season to drive: Especially scenic in autumn but it can be enjoyed year-round

Short description of the drive

This remarkable drive offers numerous panoramic views of the Illinois River Valley.

In addition to the stunning natural landscape, this scenic drive is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places along with many of the surrounding homes.

When we say homes, these aren’t your typical cozy houses.

These are prestigious, towering estates that have looked over Grandview since it was built over 100 years ago.

Not only is the drive peaceful and beautiful, but there are also fantastic spots to park, set up a blanket, and have a picnic on a bluff overlooking the river, enjoying the tranquility of the surrounding foliage.

What people are saying about this drive

The views over the Illinois River are beautiful and well worth the drive. However, many of the houses are incredible –some even look like a castle on a hilltop.

Beautiful views! This drive is stunning with the valley on one side and the river on the other. Go at night for the sunset!

An old windmill
Explore the scenic countryside of the Spoon River Valley

Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive

  • Start and end point: The drive takes you through Fulton County, beginning in Farmington and ending in Astoria
  • Distance: 140 miles
  • Highlights: There are plenty of attractions along this drive to keep the entire family entertained.
  • Best season to drive: Fall – the Spoon Valley Scenic Drive Festival falls on the first two weekends of October every year. 

Short description of the drive

The Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive Festival is a must-see every October.

It has run every year since 1968, attracting tourists from all over to drive through 17 little towns and appreciate the local history and culture while being surrounded by fall colors.

You’ll find local businesses and vendors from all over the county delivering amazing food and homemade treats, handcrafted goods, unique art, and plenty of antiques.

Some of the most popular stops along the way include the restored 1891 opera house, the Spoon River Dam, and the London Mills Docks along the Illinois River where visitors can enjoy a picnic or spend time fishing.

What people are saying about this drive

How do you put a rating on something that is just so serene? Priceless.

Beautiful winding river through farm country that’s peaceful and quiet.

Scenic Drives in Southern Illinois

Alto Vineyards
Cheers to amazing sunsets at Alto Vineyards (photo credits: Alto Vineyards)

Shawnee Hills Wine Trail

  • Start and end point: Begin in Makanda and end in Murphysboro
  • Distance: 40 miles
  • Highlights: Venture into the Shawnee National Forest for delicious wine, untouched natural beauty, and some of the best hiking in Illinois.
  • Best Season to drive: Best enjoyed on a summer evening or when the leaves are changing colors in the fall.

Short description of the drive

The Shawnee Hills Wine Trail features 11 family-owned wineries and vineyards surrounded by the lush splendor of the Southern Illinois landscape.

Each of these wineries has its own styles, techniques, and grape varieties that create wonderfully delicious and unique flavors.

In addition to wine, the drive is filled with trails, creeks and lakes, small cabins, and sprawling orchards.

While this region of southern Illinois definitely can feel off the grid, there is no shortage of restaurants offering tasty meals after a day of driving, hiking, or wine tasting.

Here you can find a list of more southern Illinois wineries.

What people are saying about this drive

You don’t have to go to Napa to enjoy great wine, scenic beauty, musical entertainment, and a friendly atmosphere.

The wildlife and foliage on the drive is absolutely beautiful and the wine is a plus!

The Ohio River
The Ohio River (photo credits: Bethany Joyner )

Ohio River Scenic Byway

  • Start and end point: Begin in New haven and end in Cairo where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers converge.
  • Distance: 188 miles
  • Highlights: From natural splendor, heartland farming, and the vast river to the charming communities that call this region home, the Ohio River Scenic Byway has something for everyone.
  • Best Season to drive: Enjoy year-round

Short description of the drive

The Ohio River has a rich history and river culture.

Along this route, you’ll learn the fascinating history of Lewis and Clark and other explorers who stopped along this route, as well as the tragic history of the Native Americans and the Trail of Tears that passed through Golconda.

There are also loads of other historical tidbits along the route ranging from Civil War heroes, river pirates, and more.

You will also pass several beautiful state parks including Cave-in-Rock and Fort Massac State Park.

Read Also:

Read more about these and other Southern Illinois State Parks here.

To celebrate the people and customs of this region, the riverside towns are known for hosting a variety of festivals and events with art, music, and loads of food.

What people are saying about this drive

Beautiful river views and very peaceful.

Lovely small communities and towns in farm country with something new around every bend.

Collins house in Collinsville
Collins house in Collinsville (photo credits: Charles Lewis – Historic National Road Illinois)

Historic National Road in Illinois

  • Start and end point: Marshall to East St. Louis.
  • Distance: 164 miles
  • Highlights: Also known as the “Road that Built the Nation,” Historic National Road was built in 1806 and opened Illinois to settlement.
  • Best Season to drive: Year-round

Short description of the drive

Along the route are twenty-one stops that are meant to create “emotional archeology” so that visitors can learn about and connect to the communities, histories, people, and customs of each individual town along the route.

Not only will you connect with these stories, but you’ll have the opportunity to do so while enjoying great food, fun attractions, and lively festivals.

You’ll see where Lincoln’s political career began, take pictures with giant bottles of catsup, and experience historical wonders such as the Cahokia Mounds, the largest prehistoric site north of Mexico where Mississippi natives were living 1,000 years ago.

Statues where the Lincoln - Douglas debate was held in Alton
The place where the Lincoln – Douglas debate was held in Alton (photo credits: ksablan)

The Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Route

  • Start and end point: It begins in Hartford at the intersection of Illinois Route 3 and New Poag Road and ends in Grafton at Pere Marquette State Park.
  • Distance: 33 miles
  • Highlights: The great meeting of the rivers is the point of convergence for three great rivers: The Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois rivers.
  • Best Season to drive: Year-round

Short description of the drive

This byway was recently named one of the “Seven Wonders of Illinois” because of the stunning bluffs, mighty rivers, abundance of historical sites, and quaint villages.

Each community has its own contribution, but one of the most scenic drives is in Alton, Illinois which is known for its historic homes that are perched on the bluffs overlooking the river.

Insider tip: If you enough time we would advise you to spend a weekend in Grafton. Read this post in which we share the best things to do in Grafton. For an overview of amazing wineries in Grafton, click here. 

Hikers should check out the Pere Marquette Outer loop. An incredible hike in southern Illinois.

What people are saying about this drive

I’ve traveled much of the U.S. and I’ll rank this drive as one of the more scenic I’ve ever taken.

Fabulous views and thrilling curves with the rivers right beside you. Simply a refreshing, beautiful drive no matter the time of the year.

Conclusion

Each of these routes is so much more than a simple drive through Illinois.

They capture rich history, unique landscapes, and feature the fascinating but often overlooked communities that cherish and celebrate these scenic routes. 

See our web story that accompanies this post.