The area in Northwest Illinois called the Driftless area is also called the Land the Glaciers Forgot due to its high bluffs and land of rolling hills along the Mississippi River. In geological terms, the 10,000-square mile area is called that because of the absence of glacial drift. This stretch of land also reaches into northeastern Iowa and southwestern Wisconsin. Most of the Prairie State is known for its flatlands, so this area is renowned for its scenic beauty and is a great weekend getaway from the Chicago or Madison areas.
How long? The itinerary starts in Galena, Illinois, which is approximately three hours from Chicago, Illinois and a little under two hours from Madison, Wisconsin. It ends in the town of Fulton, Illinois. The route itself is around 100 miles and can take a little over two to three hours if you stop and explore. This can easily be a one-day road-trip depending on how long it takes you to get there.
Time of Year? The most beautiful time of year would be in the Fall, especially as the leaves begin to turn. However, it is popular year-round.
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Illinois Driftless Area Itinerary
Start in Galena
Galena was a 19th-century boomtown that was the site of the first major mineral rush in the United States. Most of the town has been preserved as a living history museum. You can find a charmingly restored brick and limestone mansions and the main street that still reflects the historical architecture of the area. The Galena History Museum is a great place to start your tour of the town. Other attractions include the Belvedere Mansion, Dowling House, or Old Market House. The outside of the Vinegar Hill Lead Mine is also interesting, but I think it’s closed now so you can’t go inside.
The drive from Galena to the village of Scales Mound follows the Stagecoach Trail. As you drive this route, you will find a collection of carefully preserved houses and businesses near and in the village of Scales Mound. The town started as a tavern (Scales Mound Tavern) in 1830 and had one of its first schools in 1831. The present town was started in 1853 and 90% of the town is on the National Register of Historic Places. Go two miles northeast of town for Charles Mound, the highest spot in Illinois at 1,234 feet. Access to the Charles Mound is limited due to it being on public property; public access is limited to the first weekend June through September.
Continuing the Stagecoach Trail, you will pass the town of Apple River and find the Apple River Canyon State Park, a 1,907-acre park with limestone cliffs and deep ravines. It is an excellent place to go bird watching and to trace the river along the babbling stream. The pitted canyon walls are carpeted with mosses and lichens and rare ferns.
Right outside of Elizabeth, Illinois, pause at the Long Holly Scenic Outlook for a scenic view of the county of Galena and Jo Daviess. You can see the visible crest of Charles Mound to the northeast with green hills and shade trees can be seen all around. It’s not someplace that you need to linger, but it does have picnic tables, shelters, and restrooms.
Hanover, IL 61041
This nature preserve is the first dedicated preserve to represent the Illinois portion of the Driftless Area. The preserve covers 1,100 acres. The large forest areas are a great place to see the scenic wonders of the geological landscape. Trails and parking are available on S. Hanover Hill Road.
Your next stop will be the stunning Mississippi Palisades State Park, a 2,500-acre park with tree-lined bluffs along the Mississippi River. The park is rich in Native American history, and if you follow the routes on the southern part of the park (search for the Mississippi Palisades National Natural Landmark and enter from the south end), you will find an easy walking trail to oversee the area. There are twelve miles to the top for the more experienced hikers; many of which trace the old paths followed by the Native Americans of the past.
This little island is situated on the Mississippi River and is a peaceful spot for wildlife viewing, camping, or picnics. It is adjacent to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, so you can easily see many water-loving creatures that live on this sandbar. There are also miles of walking and hiking trails if you feel the need to get out and shake off the long drive.
If you’ve ever wanted to view the sight of a barge locking across the Mississippi River, you can do so at No. 12 from a visitor’s observation platform. From here, you can watch the ships enter and exit the Lock, including tugboats that push the barge down the river. In the winter months, there is also a high likelihood of seeing the multitude of Eagles that are in the area.
Heritage Canyon, with its smithy and one-room schoolhouse, lies at the north end of the town of Fulton. The 12-acre nature walk has wooded structures dating back to the 1800s. You can find these structures by looking for the numbered yellow arrows on the brick paths.
This authentic working windmill is a great place to finish your tour along the Mississippi River and the Driftless Area. The windmill was manufactured and pre-assembled in the Netherlands and then constructed on the flood control dike in Fulton, Illinois. You can also visit the Cultural Center and see some Dutch Culture first hand.
If you’re making the trip in August, you can go on down to Port Byron for the Port Byron Great River Tug Fest along the banks of the Mississippi.