There’s nothing quite like driving the scenic roads in Illinois. They’ll take you over the fertile farmland, through lush forests, and along mighty rivers. And all the while, you’ll never get bored of the view.
No matter which Illinois scenic byway you choose, you’ll be welcomed by quaint Midwest towns with their charm and hospitality. The vast history of the state is amazing and easy to discover along the way.
You can plan to spend a week or simply take a day trip from Chicago. There’s so much to explore on scenic drives in Illinois that everyone in the family will have fun on the road.
1. Scenic Drives in Illinois: Great River Road (US Highway 20)
- Distance: 550 miles
- Time needed: 11 hours to 7 days or more
The Great River Road in Illinois has everything you could want in an awesome Midwest scenic drive. This national byway travels the length of the Mississippi River from Missouri to Louisiana. In Illinois, this historic roadway does not disappoint.
Besides the great views you’ll have throughout the entire trip, you’ll be entertained nearly every mile of this trip. Starting in Galena to the north, and traveling all the way to Cairo in the south, you’ll come across historical sites, quaint towns, state parks, and wineries where you can easily fill your itinerary.
Everyone in the family will love a visit to the John Deere Pavilion in Milione. Here you’ll learn about the history of this iconic company and see its awesome machines past and present. Kids can even see what it feels like to take the wheel in the driver’s seat.
Get out and stretch your legs along the great river by exploring the beautiful landscape. Definitely make time for Horseshoe Lake and hiking to Inspiration Point in LaRue Pine Hills.
When to go: Summertime brings events and festivals to the Great River Road including Great Galena Balloon Race, Floatzilla, and Fort Chartres Rendezvous.
2. Scenic Drives in Illinois: Historic National Road (Mirrored by US Route 40 & Interstate 70)
- Distance: 167 miles
- Time needed: 2 hours to 2 days
As the first federally funded roadway, the Historic National Road originally ran from Maryland to Illinois. Today, those wishing to drive one of the most scenic roads in Illinois should seriously consider the Historic National Road.
Beginning in Marshall you’ll be treated to gorgeous views, lovely towns, and historic sites all the way to East St. Louis and the great Mississippi River.
Along this great byway are key places to go in southern Illinois. The town of Casey is a super interesting place to visit as it’s home to record-breaking objects including the world’s largest pitchfork, rocking chair, mailbox, and wooden shoes.
Naturally, there are quite a number of historical sites along the Historic National Road. Small towns show their past, including being part of the first interstate, the underground railroad, and even the beginnings of President Lincoln’s political career.
History buffs should definitely check out the Lincoln School Museum in Martinsville and Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville to see the remains of the largest prehistoric city in North America. Covered bridges are a delightful sight, like the Jackson Truss covered bridge in Greenup.
It’s easy to get out of the car and into nature at places like Carlyle Lake and Lincoln Trail State Park.
3. Scenic Drives in Illinois: Historic Route 66 (IL 29 /US Interstate 55)
- Distance: 289 miles
- Time needed: 5 hours to 5 days
Everyone knows the classic Route 66. Idolized in music, movies, and shows, it’s the grand master when it comes to American road trips, lovingly nicknamed the “Mother Road”. Lucky for us, it begins right here in Illinois.
It all started back in 1926 when the Bureau of Public Roads created a way for goods to travel from Chicago to Los Angeles, California. In the last century, this corridor has seen a lot of change including the building up of communities and the development of larger roadways.
Today, there’s still so much to see and do along Route 66. Towns, big and small, take pride in their position on the Mother Road.
Make sure to record your trip at the “Route 66 End” sign in Chicago. You’ll find it at the corner of E. Jackson Blvd. and S. Michigan Ave, steps from the Art Institute of Chicago and Millenium Park. Starting in this great city, Route 66 is an easy day trip from Chicago.
Along the trip, make sure to check out the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac, Paul Bunyon’s statue in Atlanta, and Lincoln Home National Historic Site in the state capital of Springfield.
4. Scenic Drives in Illinois: Illinois Lincoln Highway (US Highway 30, 38, and 2)
- Distance: 179 miles
- Time needed: 6 hours to 4 days
For one of the best scenic drives in northern Illinois, set your navigation for the Lincoln Highway.
The Lincoln Highway has a historic past. It involves the vision of Carl Fisher to create a roadway connecting New York City with San Francisco.
Although the formation of the road began in 1913, lack of funding made it impossible to pave the full road. Instead “seedling” miles were paved along the way with the hope that local governments would value the coast-to-coast road and fund its completion. It worked! You can learn more about it at the Lincoln Highway National Headquarters in Franklin Grove.
In Illinois, the Lincoln Highway crosses the entire state, starting in Lynwood in the east and traveling all the way to the great Mississippi River in the town of Fulton. You’ll be treated to one of the best scenic drives in Illinois, passing beautiful farmlands and natural landscapes.
You’ll love stretching your legs in the Lowden-Miller State Forest and checking out the animals at the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge. Everyone in the family will love spotting the bison in Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
Don’t miss the original “seedling” mile in Malta. It was the very first one laid for America’s Lincoln Highway.
5. Scenic Drives in Illinois: Illinois River Road (Route 29 and Route 26)
- Distance: 291 miles
- Time needed: 7 hours to 4 days
Illinois River Road is an absolutely lovely drive that goes from Ottawa in the north down to Havana in the south. Forming a gigantic loop, half of the road hugs the east side of the river bank and the other the west. That way you can drive nearly 300 miles with a different perspective at every mile.
With Ottawa just over an hour from downtown, the Illinois River Road is a perfect day trip from Chicago.
Everyone in the family will love exploring the Starved Rock State Park. There are plenty of hiking trails for every level and the 14 waterfalls in the park are a great reward. In Peoria, you’ll have fun at the Wildlife Prairie State Park and the Peoria Zoo.
Don’t miss the history present in Princeton. Visit the Lovejoy Homestead to learn about its significance in the Underground Railroad.
6. Scenic Drives in Illinois: Meeting of the Great Rivers (State Route 3, 143, and 103)
- Distance: 33 miles
- Time needed: 1 hour to 2 days
With a name like Meeting of the Great Rivers, it’s kind of explanatory. Yes, this drive will take you to the place where the great Illinois River and Missouri River meet the great Mississippi River. What you won’t get from just the name is that this is one of the best Illinois scenic byways.
Although shorter than other scenic Illinois roads on the list, Meeting of the Great Rivers is one not to pass up. You’ll love traveling north from Hartford through quaint towns like Elsah, Wood River, Alton, and Grafton. Each has a scene not to miss.
Definitely make a visit to the Lewis & Clark National Trail Site in Hartford. The preservation of the village of Elsah feels like you’ve stepped back in time.
7. Scenic Drives in Illinois: Ohio River Scenic Byway (US Highway 62 and 146)
- Distance: 188 miles
- Time needed: 2 hours to 3 days
You may guess that the Ohio River Scenic Byway should be in the state of Ohio. But in fact, this beautiful drive is one of the wonderful Illinois scenic roads. You’ll be treated to the beautiful landscape that defines the southern border of the state along this magnificent river.
One of the best aspects of the Ohio River Scenic Byway is that it takes you through the Shawnee National Forest, one of the best places to go in southern Illinois. The whole family will love hiking the oak-hickory forest with its incredible geological formations. In the forest don’t miss the Garden of the Gods or the Pomona Natural Bridge.
Other must-do’s on this beautiful scenic drive in Illinois are visiting the Cave-in-Rock State Park and the historic town of Golconda.
8. Scenic Drives in Illinois: Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive
- Distance: 140 miles
- Time needed: 2 hours to 2 days
In the heart of Illinois is Fulton County and the Spoon River Valley. Although this wonderful farming community is not technically a byway, it’s still a great place to explore.
The Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive Fall Festival was created in the 1960s to generate enthusiasm for visitors to enjoy the area. Since then, folks have enjoyed the drive and activities during 2 weekends in October.
Today, you’ll find pumpkin picking, homemade pies, jams, and crafts for sale. If you can’t make it in October, don’t worry! You’re welcome to visit the Spoon River Valley any time. It’s really one of the most delightful drives in Illinois.
Pro Tip: Check out the Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive Fall Festival’s website for more info.
More On Road Tripping Illinois & The Midwest
Whenever you plan to hit the road in Illinois, here are some essential tips to help you with your journey:
- Always check weather conditions before you set out, especially in winter; visit Getting Around Illinois for the latest information from the Illinois transport department.
- Looking for more inspiration beyond Illinois? Check out our round-up of the best scenic drives in the Midwest; plus, we’ve got detailed guides to hitting the roads in Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa and many more in our scenic driving guides to the United States!
- Never forget a road-tripping essential again! Get your family and your vehicle organized and ready for hitting the road with our road trip checklist (with a printable PDF checklist you can tick off as you go!)
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