It’s no secret that the area around Galena is packed with adventure, but who knew getting from one great activity to another could turn into a fun-packed Illinois getaway?
Well, we do.
My wife Patricia and I have made a hobby of exploring the highways and byways around Galena Country, and boy have we made a great find. Besides the history; the lovely scenery; the bountiful fertility of the region giving rise to wineries, farm-to-table dining, fun-packed U-pick orchards, pumpkin, strawberry and sweet corn destinations, half the fun is just in getting there.
Even the road names bring adventure and fun to mind: Blackjack Road, Stagecoach Trail, Elizabeth Scales Mound Road and of course the main artery itself, the Illinois Great River Road.
How did we decide to drive? That’s easy; everywhere you go turns into a classic Illinois road trip. One day we were driving to Galena Cellars Vineyard along Stagecoach Trail. The sky was a deep blue, the windows were rolled down, Patricia sailed her hand out the window.
As the name suggests, the two-lane road was originally a stagecoach route connecting Galena with Chicago. But now it connects Galena with the beauty of the whole region. We always enjoy visiting Galena Cellars, but the Stagecoach Trail also gives access to Apple River Canyon State Park, a wonderland of canyons and rugged rock formations great for hiking.
If a particular destination isn’t on the agenda, there aren’t many options better than Blackjack Road, which winds southward out of Galena down to Savanna. Along the way you’ll pass Hanover (site of Whistling Wings, a mallard duck hatchery), Blackhawk and Marcus, not to mention Hanover Bluff Nature Preserve and Palisades State Park. The smooth blacktop curves gracefully through countryside gradually getting nearer the Mississippi River. If you time it right, you can end your day watching the sun go down over the Big Muddy at Savanna.
Belly-fluttering elevation changes and a bushel basket of curves make Elizabeth Scales Mound Road an exciting drive east of Galena. You’ll find the little town of Elizabeth along US Highway 20, where this road branches north and connects about 12 miles away with Stagecoach Trail.
Nearby is the 1,200-feet high Charles Mound, the highest point in the state. So vistas abound, taking in rolling country, beautifully maintained farms and rural cottages perched on manicured properties. The best part? Doing the road one way is just half the fun—it’s a new and different experience retracing your drive the other direction, and one you’ll enjoy just as much.
Getting its start in East Dubuque, a US Highway 20 road trip launches you into Illinois’ Great River Country, rolling along beside the inlets and estuaries of the Mississippi River before arriving in Galena. The downtown area here is meticulously preserved in its historical state, and there are plentiful things to do—Grant Park, the Ulysses Grant Home, a three-state view from Horseshoe Mound, and the Blaum Brothers Distillery.
Below Galena, the US 20 rolls along inland out of sight of the river, but there is still plenty to see. Wooded countryside fills your view, interspersed with neat farmsteads and regular roadside produce stands, in season. A great stop is at Tapley Woods Conservation Area.
Here, the Illinois forest crowds in close to the roadside, and low speeds and open windows will treat you to birdsong and the buzz, drone and plaintive croaks of a myriad of insects and hopping residents of the wood’s vernal pools. Hop out of the car and snack at one of the picnic tables, then try a hike. There are spots where the trail breaks clear of the woods and opens on views of miles of undulating Illinois landscape, some under cultivation, some nearly pristine and natural. For the stout of heart, there’s a narrow rope suspension bridge to cross and zip line adventures.
But no road trip in the region would be complete without a journey down the Illinois Great River Road, one of the most scenic drives in Illinois. The road has its northern source near Galena before tracking the Mississippi River all the way to Cairo, at the far south end of the state.
But the Galena end of the highway yields to no other area in its River Road attractions. There is just nothing like the breathtaking views of America’s surging central artery of a river from the wooded bluffs and banks above it, and sometimes rolling right along just above the waterline. It’s a world of natural beauty, where white-tail deer plunge into the roadside underbrush, duck families toddle across the highway, and gangly great blue herons launch awkwardly, but fly away in graceful good order. Bird watchers add to their Life Lists at every casual stop along this natural migratory flyway, and the sharp-eyed will spot the telltale white heads of bald eagles soaring above the tree line.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see some of the several stern-wheeler paddleboats plying the river down below, just like in old times. And the long lines of barges being carefully shepherded up and downstream by powerful tugs are a fascinating sight to see.
Note: The Great River Road uses different specific highways to stay close to the river and access great attractions. Keep an eye out for the Great River Road logo on signs—a green icon of a riverboat pilot’s wheel—to keep you on the designated scenic byway.
If there’s one problem we have on any of these Galena-area road trips, it’s remembering that there is no hurry. As the paved two lane scrolls into view, and our guidebooks clue us in to some new highlight just around a few more curves, sometimes we hurry to get it all in.
And that’s where Patricia always brings it back to basics, one hand out the window, playing airplane just like a kid.
“Slow down,” she says. “We’re already there.”