Illinois River Road
Here are two things I really love: Fall and Midwest Living magazine. Okay, when I write it down it sounds really dorky, but it’s true. I’ve been reading this magazine since the 1980s or whenever it first came out, and it’s always been just a really reliable resource for travel in the heartland. I’ve taken its travel suggestions many times, followed its recipes, and just basically enjoyed reading about this wonderful place we live: the Midwest.
A few weeks ago I decided I wanted to try a new fall color drive. I feel like I’ve driven most of the scenic byways in Iowa, I was already planning a trip to Minnesota, and I just wanted to go somewhere different, you know? I also didn’t have a lot of time. So I started searching Midwest Living’s online archives to get some ideas and I found this.
It was a story about driving the Illinois River Road, from Havana to Ottawa, Ill. The color looked spectacular, it’s not that far from central Iowa, and there seemed to be a nice variety of things to explore: small towns, state parks, a pumpkin patch, a wildlife refuge or two, and some interesting history. So I took my trusted magazine’s advice and booked two rooms for last weekend and made a plan: I’d drive the first day (a Saturday) as far as Peoria, then do the rest of the drive on Sunday, spend the night at Starved Rock Lodge, and finish up with a hike in the state park on Monday. Dave agreed that it sounded fun and decided at the last minute to come along.
We left Ames Saturday morning and drove through Iowa, all the way down to the southeast corner to Keokuk and crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois. By this time, we were hungry and didn’t see many options along Hwy. 136, our route to Havana, so we stopped at Macomb, home to Western Illinois University. It was game day, but we found an out-of-the-way restaurant serving Greek and Middle Eastern food. I had a falafel sandwich and we continued on our way.
At last we came to Havana, a reasonably cute small town just outside our first destination: the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge.
What a cool place! We took a couple of short nature walks and drove along the Chautauqua levee, which is only allowed a couple of times a year according to the park ranger we met at the entrance. We were very lucky! The “ride the refuge” 8-mile self-guided interpretive auto tour allowed us to see the area up close.
We saw one turtle and a few individual birds – great blue herons, egrets, eagles – but definitely not the huge flocks of migrating waterfowl as I would have liked (no pelicans!). Also, the fall color was disappointing there. But it was still a neat experience.
After that, there wasn’t much to see until Peoria, the largest city on the route. We arrived at our overnight town around 5 p.m. and decided to follow the magazine website’s advice and drive the “legendary” Grand View Drive in Peoria Heights.
Theodore Roosevelt reportedly dubbed this “the world’s most beautiful drive,” and although I’d have to disagree with Teddy on that one, it was, indeed, pretty stunning. I don’t know what I liked best about it: the truly gorgeous old homes on the left side of the road or the dramatic bluff views of the Illinois River on the right. The fall color was also very pretty in this area.
When Grand View Drive ended we found ourselves on North Prospect Road – a charming street lined with shops and restaurants, many of which had sidewalk dining. We strolled up and down, checking menus (and prices! Dave reminded me that the homes we’d just driven past indicated a lot of wealth in this quaint suburb, and the menu prices reflected that).
We found Jim’s Bistro, a restaurant that we not only could afford but that also offered one of my favorite beers from a previous trip: Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold. As I said, sitting that evening on the tree-lined street with Illinois yuppies and their dogs, “The fall color was disappointing. The birds were disappointing. But DORTMUNDER GOLD.”
The food was good, too.
Next morning, after an uneventful evening, a freaky middle-of-the-night hailstorm, and free breakfast at a nondescript Hampton Inn near the Peoria mall, we headed up the River Road. (There are signs to help you follow the scenic byway, by the way, but be aware that the road often does not follow the river.)
We tried to find a trailhead to hike at the Marshall State Fish & Wildlife Area near Chillicothe, touted on the Illinois River Road Byway website as a 3,000-acre wildlife preserve with a 3.25-mile nature trail “coursing through bluff and ravine hardwood forests.” We found the preserve but not the trailhead, so we moved on.
Midwest Living suggested stopping at Boggio’s Orchard near Granville. I love pumpkin patches and I’m a sucker for all those little decorative gourds, Indian corn, apple butter, and all that kind of stuff you find at roadside stands and farmsteads this time of year. Also, I’ve been trying to eat really healthy, but I have to admit I was hoping for an apple cider donut, one of the most delectable food items on the planet.
I was not disappointed. Not only did Boggio’s have tons of pumpkins, they had beautiful baskets of mums for just $8.50 each (too bad we were on the road!), all the other things you’d expect…and probably the yummiest, WARM, melt-in-your-mouth cider donut I’ve ever eaten. I ate the donut, bought three baby pumpkins, and we continued on our way.
Our true destinations for today were twofold: Matthiessen State Park (above/below) and then Starved Rock State Park. Oh, my goodness, we loved both of these places. If the fall color would have been at its peak, these parks would have been akin to paradise.
We hiked pretty much all the trails at Matthiessen’s dells area, to places with fun names like Giant’s Bathtub, Devil’s Paint Box, and Strawberry Rock. Many of the trails are made up of wooden steps or boardwalks.
We navigated bridges and trails to canyons, waterfalls, and ridges – a total of just 3.2 miles but such an exhilarating experience!
Breakfast seemed a very long time ago, so we went to the nearby small town of Utica to find some lunch. It turns out that Utica is a charming little town with a number of places to eat. Just cross the river bridge and avoid the tourist area and you’ll find yourself in a quaint downtown. We ate at Duffy’s Tavern in a historic building on the corner.
We spent the rest of the day exploring – with several hundred other visitors – Starved Rock State Park. What a gem of a place this is! We hiked and hiked and hiked – to Starved Rock, Lover’s Leap, French Canyon, LaSalle Canyon, and along the scenic river trail. We climbed up and down LOTS of stairs.
A bit of Starved Rock history: It gets its name from a Native American Legend that involves a battle by two tribes, one of which took refuge on a great rock (above). After many days, the warriors died of starvation. (I never promised it was going to be a fun story.) Flooding from a melting glacier some 17,000 years ago carved out the many exposed rock canyons. The entire park comprises some 2,630 acres.
Waterfalls can be found in 14 of the 18 canyons. We loved the French (above) and LaSalle (below) Canyon waterfalls, and we met a hiker from Chicago who says he comes every winter to see the frozen waterfalls, which he says are really spectacular.
We loved the hikes. They’re well marked and offer glorious views of the river and canyons and other geological wonders. Like Matthiessen, there are a lot of stairs and bridges and boardwalks. And a lot of fellow hikers. But it was really awesome. Dave and I took pictures of each other through the waterfall at LaSalle Canyon:
We hiked until we were very tired (Dave’s Fitbit said we’d walked 24,000 steps) and very hungry. I’d booked a room at the Starved Rock Lodge some weeks before, and we had spotted the lodge up on the bluff as we’d hiked (below), so I was anxious to get checked in.
The big, rambling lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It’s a pretty neat place, with a lodge wing and hotel wing (a confusion they could easily clear up by calling the whole place the lodge), a great hall, large dining room, lounge, wrap-around veranda, and also a number of private cabins.
We checked in (first to a tiny room on the third floor of the lodge wing with such a small bed that I could not imagine two adult humans fitting in it, and then to a much larger room for an extra 10 bucks in the hotel wing); I showered off the day’s sweat and grime, and we headed to the lounge for a much-deserved beer.
It was such a nice night (did I mention that it was a balmy 80 degrees today?) we opted to sit on the veranda overlooking the park, and we ordered food and drinks and – if you don’t mind drinking beer from a plastic cup and swatting annoying little black bugs while you eat – had a nice, relaxing end to our otherwise exhilarating day.
We settled in to our room, and I fell asleep even earlier than usual, only to be awakened at around midnight by a fire alarm. I groggily pulled some jeans and a sweatshirt over my pajamas and we went to the main lobby, where we sat for half an hour or so with similarly clad and groggy people until we were cleared to go back to our rooms. (The fire alarm, it turned out, was caused by someone starting a fire in an unventilated fireplace, along with a few sparks on the carpet.)
The next morning we got up early and hit the trail, because although it felt like we had hiked every trail in Starved Rock the day before, we had not. Not by a long shot. So we headed out to hike the trails that were to the west of the lodge. We had an inauspicious start, walking in circles for about half an hour before ending up right back where we started (I blame my interrupted-by-fire-alarm sleep for my inability to read a trail map), but once we got on the correct trail, we quickly found Aurora and Sac Canyons and finally came to the end of the trail: St. Louis Canyon. The whole thing took only about 40 minutes and was a lovely way to start the morning.
After that, we showered and ate breakfast in the main dining room, with its vaulted wooden ceilings and huge windows. I ordered coffee and blueberry pancakes and was not disappointed.
We’d met a photographer in St. Louis Canyon who said we must hike in the Illinois Canyon area – on the far east end of the park – before we left. So we drove our car to find a parking area that would allow us easy access to the trailhead. Only a few people were on those trails – it was a Monday – so it was really nice to explore the Council Overhang, Ottawa Canyon, and the Illinois Canyon area mostly on our own.
We did not make it to the very end of the trail because we would have had to cross a stream three times and decided we didn’t want to have wet feet all the way home.
By late morning, we were on I-80 heading toward Iowa. We opted not to stop in Ottawa, a town that seemed like it might have been fun, because we needed to get on the road.
Looking back on the experience, I would definitely return to the Starved Rock/Matthiessen State Parks area and would stay again at Starved Rock Lodge. I’d probably go back to Utica and maybe explore Ottawa a bit. I’d go later in October for better color, preferably during the week to avoid the crowds. To the good folks at Midwest Living, I say: I do not recommend driving the rest of the Illinois River Road. It just wasn’t that great, and it added many, many hours to our weekend exploration. Just drive across I-80 and get yourself to those terrific parks as fast as you can, that’s what I recommend.
Here’s a parting shot of just a splash of fall color in Starved Rock: