The cities and towns that stretch along the Illinois River between Ottawa and Havana form the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway. As a board member of this organization, I’m fortunate to know about the wealth of things to do along this 291-mile route—including historical spots, scenic habitats, and unique shops and restaurants—that form a rich collective of unique experiences.
There are many obvious places to visit in the Greater Peoria area: the Peoria RiverFront Museum, Caterpillar Visitors Center, Bass Pro Shop, Peoria Zoo and Wildlife Prairie Park, just to name a few. While the following bucket list won’t address these major attractions—or include grand life goals like “run a marathon” or “visit the Eiffel Tower”—they are enriching experiences your entire family can enjoy... and they’re all less than an hour’s drive away.
Lacon & Chillicothe
With a bridge over the river connecting east and west byway routes, Lacon offers friendly, small-town charm. Johnson Grove Park Disc Golf Course, a nine-hole course located off Rt. 26 just south of Rt. 17, is free to the public. Complete with hand-carved tees at every hole, it’s a disc golf and art exhibit at the same time.
Nearby, the largest portion of the Marshall State Fish & Wildlife Area houses primitive and full hook-up campsites, a boat launch and a 3.25-mile trail system that climbs through bluff and ravine hardwood forests—home to woodpeckers and woodland warblers. As you drive through town, you can't help but notice the war memorial on the front lawn of the Marshall County Courthouse that includes a plaque, flagpole and a Chrysler military tank.
Down the road, Chillicothe’s historic downtown offers a nice selection of antique stores, quaint restaurants and two museums. Visitors can enjoy the Historical Society Museum (open the first Sunday of each month and every Wednesday, 1 to 4pm) and the Rock Island Railroad Museum (open Sundays, 1 to 4pm), with its caboose, historic artifacts and railroad memorabilia.
Commuters along Rt. 29 have undoubtedly passed by the Chillicothe Recreational Area, not realizing it offers primitive campsites overlooking scenic lakes, plus fishing rights for overnight campers and members. If you have an adventure lover in the family, check out the Chilli Paintball Pits for an action-packed session of paintball battles.
Peoria & East Peoria
If you’ve only used Grandview Drive as a thoroughfare, it’s time to pull over! This meandering drive has several overlooks where you can stop the car and take in panoramic, scenic views of the Illinois River. At its base is an impressive, 25-foot-tall, recently-restored World War Soldiers & Sailors of Averyville Monument.
Make this year the year you finally take a sightseeing cruise on the Spirit of Peoria! The paddleboat—powered solely by its large, red paddle and adorned with two tall, fluted stacks—evokes images of days gone by when such vessels dominated the Illinois River. Additional peeks into the past can be found at Wheels O’ Time Museum, with its interactive displays of cars, toys, clocks and more that all ages will enjoy. The museum is easily found by the large locomotive displayed on its front lawn.
As you cross the river into East Peoria, take a moment to appreciate the scenic bluffs that overlook the Illinois River, providing a marvelous view of the central Illinois skyline. Beyond the array of dining and shopping lies Farmdale Reservoir, where visitors can use the trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. Fondulac Farm Park, a quaint recreation of a 1920s-era farm, is open throughout the warmer months and gives children a playful glimpse into the past. Feed the animals, slide down the Silo Slide, and have a snack or lunch in the concession area to round out your visit.
Stop by the sunken gardens at Mineral Springs Park in Pekin on a sunny day to check out the “World’s Greatest” Sundial. At six feet high, this unique and modern steel sculpture creates a complex trio of sundials that provide the time, dates and position of the sun. McNaughton Park is a wonderful spot to observe songbirds, butterflies and wildflowers, as well as some of the most impressive specimens of white oak in the entire Illinois River Valley. Equestrian enthusiasts should visit Rockin’ P Public Riding Ranch, located in the center of McNaughton Park. The ranch offers guided trail rides, pony-on-a-lead rides, hayrack rides, horseback riding lessons, and horse boarding services by appointment.
A full list of everything to see and do along the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway would take pages—but I hope you’ll make some time to explore these hidden gems and check a few off your list! Visit illinoisriverroad.org for more information. PM
Jason Beverlin is deputy director of river conservation at the Nature Conservancy and serves on the board of the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway.