Illinois boasts seven National Scenic Byways – roads that are less travelled and boast significant archeological, cultural, historic and natural attractions. Here’s a look at two – Historic Route 66 and the Great River Road. Both offer natural beauty and a look back at days gone by.
Get Your Kicks On Route 66
In 1926, Route 66 became the federal highway connecting Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California passing through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona along the way. Today, only three states from the original route (Illinois, New Mexico and Arizona) have been designated as part of this National Scenic Byway. The Illinois portion links 90 communities over 643 kilometres, joining urban Chicago with the Illinois’ heartland, preserving memories of an era when the car was king and the road was filled with adventure.
Threatened with extinction following the introduction of US 55, there is renewed interest in this legendary highway, nicknamed The Mother Road. With an abundance of local colour and quirky sites, family-friendly attractions, restored diners and restaurants, classic cars and memorabilia, amazing architecture and year-round festivals, the passion for Route 66 has endured. Some highlights:
Central Illinois Tourism Development OfficeChicago: Buckingham Fountain, built in 1927 in Grant Park, is the starting point of Route 66. The legendary Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant, built in 1923, was inducted into the Route 66 Hall of Fame in 2002.
Joliet Region: ‘Route 66 Experience’ Joliet Area Historical Museum, located at the intersection of Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway, the “Crossroads of America”, features classic Route 66 themes. Visitors have a blast at the Launching Pad Drive-In and Gemini Giant statue. Established in 1960, this restaurant is home to Gemini Giant, a huge statue with a space helmet and rocket ship.
Pontiac Region: Pontiac is a major stop on the Mother Road and is home to a number of attractions including the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame & Museum, International Walldog Mural and Sign Art Museum, Livingston County War Museum, 21 colourful outdoor wall murals, nine Looking for Lincoln Story Trail exhibits, five Route 66 Heritage wayside exhibits, an historic downtown shopping area, a selection of historic homes and a great selection of restaurants and lodging options.
Opening in July, the Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum and Resource Center houses antique and classic cars, and a library relating to the Pontiac and Oakland automobile brands, a remarkable collection of oil cans and Pontiac dealer artifacts. There are also walking tours, quaint parks and a stunning nature preserve. Pick up a Pontiac VIP button for special discounts and benefits from local merchants.
Lincoln Region: The refurbished Palms Grill Café was originally in operation from 1934 to the late 1960s. Bunyon’s Statue Giant was made to advertise auto service along Route 66, the Railsplitter Covered Wagon, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “World’s Largest Covered Wagon”, and Dixie Truck Stop, the oldest truck stop in Illinois, serving travellers since 1928.
Illinois Office of TourismSpringfield Region: Springfield celebrates the life of President Lincoln. Attractions include Lincoln’s Tomb, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the Illinois State Capitol, Shea’s Gas Station Museum (a Route 66 landmark with gas station and oil company collectibles) and the Cozy Dog Drive-In (originator of the corn dog on a stick).
Litchfield Region: The Ariston Café is said to be the oldest restaurant on Route 66. And kids will love Henry’s Ra66it Ranch a quirky attraction with trucking and highway memorabilia and all things related to rabbits – Volkswagons and the furry kind. Soulsby’s Service Station, one of the oldest filling stations on Route 66, is maintained as an historical and educational attraction. And Art’s Motel and Restaurant, open since 1937, still welcomes travellers today. The original classic neon sign has been restored by the Route 66 Association.
East St. Louis Region: The Chain of Rocks Bridge marks the end of the Illinois portion of Route 66. Originally a motor route, the bridge is now used for walking or biking over the river to Missouri. Weezy’s Route 66 Bar & Grill has been open since the late 1930s going by the names ‘tourist Haven’, ‘Village Inn’, ‘Earnie’s Roadhouse’, and ‘Scotty’s’. The dining room has a Route 66 theme. The 51-metre Brooks Catsup Bottle Water Tower is the world’s largest catsup bottle.
For more information on historic Route 66 go to www.illinoisroute66.org
Riding The Great River Road
Named by National Geographic as one of the top 50 scenic drives in the world, The Great River Road follows the Mississippi River through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. The Illinois section is the state’s largest National Scenic Byways and represents four centuries of history and heritage, painting a picture of America’s evolution. This 885-kilometre route on Illinois’ western border offers breathtaking views and majestic landscapes. The Great River Road is the perfect destination for a weekend trip or an extended journey where travellers can explore, play, shop, or simply unwind.
Galena: Step back in time in hilly European-style Galena, where fine mansions and commercial buildings are home to quaint bed and breakfasts, antique shops and restaurants.
Fulton: Fulton’s famous ‘De Immigrant’, the only working Dutch windmill in Illinois and one of only two in the US, was designed, manufactured and assembled in the Netherlands, then transported to Fulton and reassembled by Dutch craftsmen. The 27-metre tall windmill is fully operational.
John Deere PavilionMoline: Celebrate the region’s agricultural heritage at the John Deere Pavilion, which showcases modern-day and vintage farming machinery. Climb aboard a combine or stroll among the interactive kiosks that tell the story of farming. The John Deere Store offers toys, clothing, artwork and antiques. Visitors can also take a sightseeing trip on the Celebration Belle. Another highlight is the Quad City Botanical Center with its sun gardens tropical trees and plants.
Illinois Office of TourismNauvoo: Pioneer days on the river and the tumultuous history of Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints come alive in Nauvoo’s many museums and exhibits, the majestic Mormon Temple and the town’s crafts shops, restaurants and winery.
Quincy: Visit the John Wood Mansion, the Villa Kathrine, and the East End Historic District all showcasing grand homes from the 1850s. History buffs head to the Lewis & Clarke Interpretive Centre in Hartford.
Grafton: Pere Marquette State Park, the largest in Illinois, is named for Father Jacques Marquette, one of the first European Explorers to enter the Great Rivers Region.
Illinois Office of TourismCollinsville: World Heritage Site Cahokia Mounds, in Collinsville, contains the remains of an ancient city founded by a Mississippian culture that flourished from 700 to 1400, and then vanished. Visitors explore the state-of-the-art interpretive centre, take tours and climb Monk’s Mound, the largest prehistoric earthen mound in the New World.
Ellis Grove: Examine the footprint of the fort built to protect Kaskaskia, which became Illinois’ first state capital, and admire the home of the state’s first Lieutenant Governor, Pierre Menard, a classic example of French Colonial architecture.
Praire Du Rocher: Explore Fort De Chartres, built in 1753 as the seat of government for the French colony in Illinois.
For more information on the Great River Road visit http://www.greatriverroad-illinois.org/