The Great American Road Trip: 18 Illinois DestinationsBy Stacey Gregory
Illinois is Chock Full of Good Old-Fashioned American Fun.
There’s nothing quite like packing up the family car and loading the kids up at 3 a.m. to start a grand adventure. In fact, the road trip is as American as apple pie, hotdogs and baseball. We can’t think of a better state to roll through than Illinois. Abraham Lincoln lived here, Frank Lloyd Wright built his only farmhouse here, Route 66 runs through it and so much more. Follow along and discover more places to explore on four wheels.
When most people think of Illinois, their mind immediately jumps to Chicago. There is much to explore in the Windy City. We agree, from the Chicago-style pizza to the Sears Tower to Cloud Gate (commonly referred to as the Bean) in Millennium Park, this is a city you can spend a few days or a week exploring easily. And yet there are many more cities and counties that will welcome you with both unique attractions and tried-and true outdoor adventures.
Chicago’s North Shore
Situated along beautiful Lake Michigan, Chicago’s North Shore offers the amenities of an urban center with a unique vibe. Discover esteemed museums like the Illinois Holocaust Museum (the third largest of its kind in the world), the Skokie Heritage Museum and The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian. World-class attractions such as Chicago Botanic Gardens, splash and adventure parks and sandy fresh-water beaches offer family fun inside and out.
Family-friendly fun is the name of the game in Chicago Southland. Engage in some friendly competition around the go-kart track at Haunted Trails Family Amusement Park. Float the Monee Reservoir in a kayak, pedalboat, rowboat or canoe, or spend an afternoon fishing along the banks. Stay for a few days and hit the links to attempt to sink over 600 holes of golf.
Just on the edge of O’Hare Airport is Chicago Northwest offering nearly endless opportunities for fun. Walk the Arlington Heights Downtown Entertainment District jam-packed with restaurants, shops, wineries and more. Tour the Rolling Meadows Historical Society’s authentic replica of a 1950s-style home just like the Cleavers. Sip award-winning wines at Lynfred Winery in Roselle.
Twenty minutes west of Chicago is the charming small-town of DuPage. Delight in the vast landscape with hundreds of miles of trail and untapped outdoor adventures where inspiring moments happen. Blow your kid’s minds on a free tour of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and learn about America’s premier particle physics laboratory and the accelerator-based neutrino research capital of the world.
The Aurora Area
No need to go to New York for award-winning Broadway musical theater. The Aurora area is home to some of the most beautiful theaters and performance art spaces in Chicagoland. Plus, you’ll find the largest waterpark in Illinois and the largest outlet shopping center, not to mention unparalleled outdoor adventure on and along the Fox River.
Step back in time to Elgin and discover its rich history with early settlements and unique houses. Take one of the unique architectural tours of Victorian-style homes, Sears Catalog homes and other historical treasures. Don’t miss the only farmhouse Frank Lloyd Wright ever designed in his lifetime. Take a break with some rounds of golf, or explore this creative community’s vibrant arts scene for a new outlook on life.
Explorers, adventurers and seekers unite in Rockford where there are things to do for the whole family. Try your sea legs paddleboarding on Rock River, explore the tropics right from the midwest at Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens and watch your kids co-anchor the news at Discovery Center Museum. You can’t miss the chance to meet Jane, the world’s most complete juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex at Burpee Museum of Natural History.
Great Rivers & Routes
There’s only one place in the world where the Mother Road and the Great River Road meet, and that’s in the aptly named Great Rivers & Routes region. This is where you can take in the Mississippi River and all its beauty. Trace Abraham Lincoln’s past along the Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail. Explore a prehistoric native civilization’s left behind mounds at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.
Situated between Lake Michigan and the Illinois River is Illinois’ historic I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor. This region is an outdoor recreational dream offering miles of trails and waterways stretching from suburban Chicago all the way to Starved Rock State Park. Explore Route 66, dine on hearty home cooking or haute cuisine, and try your luck at the area’s gaming venues.
Illinois South Tourism
Stretching from the Mississippi River east of St. Louis, Missouri, to the Wabash River west of Vincennes, Indiana, is Illinois South. Learn more about Abraham Lincoln at Illinois’ second capital, The Vandalia Statehouse, where the 16th President spent much of his early years as an attorney and state legislator. Find one of 21 statues of Popeye the Sailor Man on the Popeye Character Trail in Chester. Or set sail with the Carlyle Sailing Association at Eldon Hazlet State Park.
Champaign County, Illinois
In the heart of Illinois, find Champaign County. Mosey on through the only drive-thru safari in Illinois at Aikman Wildlife Adventure and get up close and personal with camels, zebras and more. Drop by any number of farmers markets offering locally grown produce and baked goods. During the summer, cool off at the Crystal Lake Park Family Aquatic Center. For year-round water fun, the Urbank Indoor Aquatic Center offers pools and waterslides.
Each year, 19 million travelers who visit Effingham marvel at the nearly 200’ high Cross at the Crossroads that includes a Ten Commandments display surrounding the base and a Welcome Center. Of those travelers, many are car enthusiasts returning again and again to My Garage Museum to see the revolving display of mostly Corvettes and VWs and thousands of collectibles and antiques.
McHenry County, Illinois
Where can you feel the rumble of a 1918 steam locomotive or visit a 1931 castle? That’d be McHenry County! The volunteer-run Illinois Railway Museum is America’s largest operating demonstration railroad. Bettendorf Castle is a hand-built masterpiece from Luxembourg, both right in Illinois. Should you plan to visit in the fall, put 16105 Garden Valley Road, Woodstock in your GPS and discover antiques, crafts food and fun from local rural farms.
Williamson County, Illinois
Southern charm and hospitality are served by the heap fulls in Williamson County. This is where you can catch The Colt World Series, PONY Baseball’s second-longest-running World Series event. Hike the pristine, 44,000 acre Crab Orchard National Refuge, or take the 9-mile auto tour, which highlights wetlands, grasslands and woodlands and the wide variety of wildlife found in these areas. Try to snag a 10-pound bass or 3-pound crappie at one of the great lakes.
In the words of the city’s mayor, Springfield is Abe-mazing; it is the former president’s hometown and all. As such, it’s filled with presidential places to go, including the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, Lincoln Home National Historic Site and the Lincoln Tomb, to name a few. Lake Springfield is the perfect place to board your boat for some fun in the sun. And Knight’s Action Park offers fun for the whole family with a 50-tee driving range, miniature golf course, arcade, go-karts, wave pool and much more.
The Quad Cities packs a powerful punch. The bi-state, Iowa and Illinois family of communities is right on the Mississippi River. Cruises on old-fashioned riverboats and paddlewheel river cruises are plentiful. Free agriculture attractions, including the John Deere Pavilion, John Deere Store, Deere & Company World Headquarters, John Deere Harvester Works and John Deere Historic Site will delight the farmer and tractor lovers in your life.
Galena, Illinois, is a thrill-seekers dream. From bikes to boats and skiing to sledding, this is a year-round vacation wonderland. This is the place where you can race down an alpine slide, soar in a hot air balloon or ride horses. What’s more, over 87% of the buildings in Galena are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so this town is filled with historical treasures.
Lake County Illinois
As its name suggests, Lake County, Illinois, is filled with lakes and that means beaches. Soak up the sun, swim, picnic, surf and much more at Waukegan Municipal Beach. If boating is more your speed, you’ll delight in dozens of parks, docks, rivers and watering holes to choose from along the popular Chain of Lakes region.
There’s much more in store for you on a road trip across Illinois, including some weird, wacky and wonderful spots we didn’t cover here. But that’s what a good road trip is all about, uncovering hidden gems and creating new memories.