You may already know that Illinois has several nicknames, including the Land of Lincoln (also its state slogan) and The Prairie State, but did you also know that popcorn is its official snack food, the eastern tiger salamander the state amphibian, and the monarch butterfly the state insect?
These are just a few of the interesting details you can learn while you’re enjoying your trip to this Midwestern state. Bordered on the east by Indiana, Iowa and Missouri to the west, and Wisconsin to the north, Illinois is crisscrossed with seven of America’s Byways, some of which begin and end within the state borders and others that continue on to other states.
Organized as a territory in 1809, Illinois entered the Union in 1818 with 102 counties. The state has a landmass of 57,918 square miles, which includes 186 public use areas, such as state parks, memorials, forests, and conservation areas. The highest point is Charles Mound at 1,235 feet, and the lowest is the Mississippi River at 279 feet. And if you want more interesting Illinois facts and figures, you can find them here!
Note: Before heading to Illinois, check the Illinois Department of Public Health website, the Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau’s updates to the COVID-19 crisis in Illinois, and the state’s Coronavirus Response website for the latest coronavirus updates, since there may be travel restrictions in place. Also, know what the health guidelines are in the various locales and bring along plenty of PPE (personal protective equipment), including masks.
Illinois River Road
At 291 miles, the Illinois River Road is the longest of the scenic byways that begin and end within the state’s borders. Divided into two sections—the northern and the southern—the byway is in the north-central part of the state, and takes approximately seven hours to drive. It provides visitors with the opportunity to view farmlands, wildlife, and barges carrying commodities up and down the river. And if you are looking for some “fresh from picking” produce, the numerous roadside stands are bound to have whatever fruit or vegetable you are craving.
The Illinois River Road website lists the unique attractions, activities, and events (although COVID has impacted scheduled events), as well as sample tour routes and video tours. Visit this page for information about the visitor’s centers serving the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway and the Illinois River Valley region.
Other Scenic Drives in the State
The Lincoln Highway, dedicated in 1913, has the distinction of being the first transcontinental road for automobiles in the United States. It’s also the only state on the entire Lincoln Highway route to achieve the designation as a National Scenic Byway. At nearly 179 miles, it takes about five to six hours to visit the entire byway, from its eastern portal at Lynwood to its Mississippi crossing at Fulton. The Lincoln Highway Association has an online map to allow you to browse every mile of the Lincoln Highway, information about points of interest, and details about the history of the Lincoln Highway.
Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Route
It may be only 33 miles in length, but you’ll want to allow two days to enjoy the Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Route—an environmental treasure named one of the “Seven Wonders of Illinois” that includes 18th Century river towns, islands, and forest-covered limestone bluffs. Located at the convergence of the Mighty Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers, the byway winds west and north, with four regions to explore: the northwest, the northeast, the southwest, and southeast. Download the Byway Guide for more information about exploring the byway.
Ohio River Scenic Byway
The Ohio River Scenic Byway is a history-rich byway that hugs the banks of the Ohio River, offers an almost continuous view of the water, and includes three states on its route: Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. And while you may be traveling in a modern vehicle, the trip will take you back into history, from when Native Americans inhabited the land through the time of western settlement and onward through times of industrialization. At 188 miles, the Illinois portion is the shortest section of the entire 943-mile byway, following the southeast border of the state and ending where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi, but even that stretch has plenty to view and enjoy.
Great River Road
The Great River Road covers 2,069 miles and travels south from Minnesota, through Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The 550-mile Illinois portion borders the state on the west, offering incredible views that will inspire your imagination and showcase the fertile land that feeds the country. In the past, the Great River Road was also more than a way to travel. It also offered a path to freedom for African-Americans who escaped via the Underground Railroad. Now visitors traversing the Illinois section of the Great River Road can explore history, enjoy festivals, and spend time outdoors thanks to a wide range of recreational opportunities.
Historic National Road
The Historic National Road was the nation’s first federally funded interstate highway, opening the nation to the west and becoming a corridor for the movement of goods and people. Its 824-mile length runs from east to west, crossing through six states: Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois; with 164 miles of it within the Illinois border. The National Road Association of Illinois website has tour ideas, along with a list of communities you’ll travel through and videos on YouTube highlighting hidden towns along the Illinois National Road.
Historic Route 66
Last but far from least on the list is Historic Route 66. Also called “The Mother Road,” the 1,408 miles of Route 66 travels through four states—Arizona, Illinois, New Mexico, and Oklahoma—with each section offering something unique to see. The Illinois portion covers 300 miles, beginning in downtown Chicago, progressing on to Joliet, Bloomington, Springfield, and Litchfield until it ends in Collinsville. For more about Route 66, visit the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway website.