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.
5. Mississippi Palisades State Park
There’s no toe-dipping to be had in the water along this stretch of the Mississippi, where the banks rise steeply from the river to form a magnificent row of tree-lined bluffs looking out to the west. Experienced climbers can sometimes be seen scaling the sheer cliffs from below, and hikers can travel some 13 miles of trails at the top, many of which trace old Indian paths through the dense growth. In spring visitors can pluck fresh watercress from spring-fed streams or hunt morel mushrooms amid the riot of wildflowers topping the palisades. Though the Great River Road (which runs on either side of the river along most of this drive) hums with traffic nearby, the park is home to such wild creatures as muskrats, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and pileated woodpeckers.
From the Savanna–Sabula Bridge at Savanna, an impressive vista sweeps out over the wide Mississippi, punctuated here and there by a waterbird skimming the surface or an eagle circling overhead. Constructed of 1930s metalwork resembling that of an old toy Erector Set, the bridge joins the town of Savanna and the midriver island community of Sabula, Iowa. Farther downstream a diked-off portion of the river known as Spring Lake offers fishing and bird-watching. Continuing on Rte. 84, the drive heads south through flattening plains. Just outside of Thomson you can buy a slice of fresh watermelon grown in moist, sandy soil near the Mississippi.
7. Thomson Causeway Recreation Area
Situated adjacent to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, this little island (managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) is a peaceful spot for picnicking, camping, and wildlife viewing. Bring your binoculars and be on the lookout; you might see great blue and lesser herons, egrets, beavers, painted turtles, and other water-loving creatures that reside on this appealing sandbar.
8. Lock and Dam No. 13
One spectacle that rivals the river itself is the sight of a great Mississippi barge “locking through” at one of the 29 locks built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between Minneapolis and Granite City, Illinois. At No. 13 you can view the process from a visitors’ observation platform.
At the north end of Fulton, a riverside town named for the inventor of the steamboat, lies the model pioneer village of Heritage Canyon, complete with smithy and one-room schoolhouse. Before ending at Rapids City, the route stops off at Port Byron, an 1828 steamer town where the Mississippi River Tug Fest is held every August, with teams at either end of a rope stretched across the river—a unique annual celebration of the mighty Mississippi.
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