Length: About 110 miles.
When to go: Popular year-round, but most beautiful in autumn.
Not to be missed: Annual eagle watches: Albany, Fulton, Galena, and Rock Island. Nouveau Wine Festival, November, Galena.
Nearby attraction: Mt. Carroll (historic 19th-century town), nine miles east of Savanna on Rte. 52/64.
Further information: Illinois Bureau of Tourism, 100 W. Randolf St., Chicago, IL 60601: tel. 800-226-6328, www.enjoyillinois.com.
Geologists call this part of Illinois the Driftless Area or the Land the Glaciers Forgot. Stopping short of the eastern bank of the Mississippi, the great sheets of ice that elsewhere flattened the Prairie State left untouched the high, commanding bluffs that overlook the river and mile after mile of rolling hills and farmland.
Setting out from East Dubuque, the drive breezes southeast via Rtes. 20 and 84 to Galena, a 19th-century boomtown beautifully preserved as a living museum. Perched above the Galena River, a Mississippi tributary that once carried lead ore to market, Galena (Latin for “lead”) was a bustling port in the middle of the 19th century. Ultimately, however, the mines played out, the river silted up, and railroads undercut the price of river shipping.
Since then time has stood still for Galena, and today’s visitors are nothing less than grateful. Charmingly restored brick and limestone mansions are now bed-and-breakfast inns, and Main Street is lined with antique stores and galleries. When touring the town, be sure to visit the Galena History Museum, and don’t miss the Belvedere Mansion, the limestone Dowling House, Old Market House, or the handsome brick mansion that Galena presented to adopted son Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on his triumphant return from war in 1865. Six miles north of town, visitors don hard hats for a tour of the Vinegar Hill Lead Mine, hosted by a descendant of the Irishman who staked his claim there in 1822.
2. Scales Mound
From Galena the drive follows the well-marked Stagecoach Trail, climbing rugged hills to Scales Mound. A fascinating collection of preserved frame houses and period commercial structures including the Warren Community Building, Scales Mound is on the National Register of Historic Places. Two miles northeast of town, at the Wisconsin border, is Charles Mound—a modest 1,235 feet, it’s the highest spot in Illinois.
3. Apple River Canyon State Park
Continuing east on Stagecoach Trail past the town of Apple River, the route turns south on Canyon Park Road to 300-acre Apple River Canyon State Park. Here the air is filled with the charming sounds of a babbling stream, and the sky echoes with the trills of many different kinds of songbirds. Rare bird’s-eye primrose grows from crevices on sheer limestone cliffs that soar high above the river as it winds through a lush landscape laced with hiking trails. Mosses and lichens carpet the pitted canyon walls, as do rare ferns, relics of the preglacial era, which survived in this untouched zone.
4. Long Hollow Scenic Overlook
After driving south to Rte. 20 and then two miles west just past Elizabeth, pause at the Long Hollow Scenic Overlook. The pagoda-like tower there affords a fine view of the surrounding countryside: to the northeast lies the just visible crest of Charles Mound, while below, the green hills roll away in soft velvet folds that generations of farmers have embellished with shade trees, tall grain and silage silos, trim white farmhouses, and red-sided, steep-roofed barns.
Turning south on Rte. 84, the drive soon arrives at Hanover, home to Whistling Wings’ duck hatchery, where visitors can view ducklings through glass windows. This self-proclaimed Mallard Capital of the World husbands more than 200,000 ducks a year.