Several weeks ago, as I was enjoying the view of the scenic Illinois River Valley from the terrace of the Country Club of Peoria, I got into a conversation with a young law student who is interning for a judge in town. “I had no idea how beautiful the view is from here,” she exclaimed. “I’m from Chicago and just didn’t realize that Peoria was so beautiful!”
This is not an unusual reaction from first-time visitors to the Peoria area. When President Theodore Roosevelt paid us a visit on October 10, 1910, he famously marveled at the same valley view when he dubbed Grandview Drive the "World's Most Beautiful Drive."
Cutting right through the heart of the region, the Illinois River is one of our community’s most distinctive treasures. In addition to being a platform for transportation and commerce, it is a mecca of natural beauty and recreational opportunities, stretching 273 miles southwest across the state, from near Joliet to its confluence with the Mississippi River 25 miles northwest of St. Louis.
Officially designated in 2005, the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway is an ideal means for tying together all of the unique historic, cultural and recreational destinations that central Illinois has to offer visitors and residents alike. A treasure trove of small businesses, art galleries, museums and recreational hot spots line this 291-mile circular path, stretching from Ottawa in the north to Havana in the south, with Peoria as the central hub. The River Road offers a peaceful escape from the hustle of our daily lives, an opportunity to roll the windows down or open the sunroof, sit back, and enjoy the ride.
Illinois’ four presidential trails blaze similar pathways through the villages and cities of importance to the lives of Lincoln, Grant, Reagan and Obama. This is, of course, the Land of Lincoln, and nowhere is his legacy more evident today than in the central part of the state, where nearly every town, big or small, has a Lincoln tale to tell. Outside of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California, the best place to learn about our 40th president is at his alma mater, Eureka College, about which President Reagan declared, “Everything that has been good in my life began here.”
I remember riding the train at Wildlife Prairie State Park some years ago with its founder, Bill Rutherford, and listening to his dream for the future of the park. His passion and dedication to preserving our area’s native prairie habitat was truly a gift to the visitors and residents of central Illinois—one that continues to give and give.
And yet, from state parks and nature centers to museums and bike trails, it’s easy for longtime residents to take its beloved sites for granted. In recent state budgets, we’ve seen just how fragile the funding stream is for many of these jewels of central Illinois. That’s why we need to get out there, take advantage of our region’s unique amenities and become tourists in our own backyard. When it comes to central Illinois, there is so much to explore, whether you’re a long-time resident or here on your first visit. And remember, it’s not just the destination, but the journey itself, that produces memories to be cherished for a lifetime. iBi