For a unique weekend getaway that involves nature, families may find it easiest to just follow the path of the Illinois River and explore the many available options.
In 2005, the Illinois River Road was one of 150 areas across the United States designated a National Scenic Byway by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.
The Illinois River Road extends from Ottawa to Havana, following both sides of the Illinois River, with two spurs that go through Princeton and Canton.
Byway Executive Director Anaise Berry said byways are designated because they possess at least one of six strong and unique qualities that make them tourist destinations: natural, historical, archaeological, cultural, recreational and scenic.
“Our primary quality is nature. We really have taken nature-based tourism and developed that. It’s about getting off the highways and traveling through the local communities,” Berry said.
Berry said this includes shopping at locally owned stores and restaurants, staying at unique lodging facilities such as bed and breakfasts or inns and getting out of the chain businesses or the normal routine.
“Travelers tend to enjoy what we sometimes take for granted. We are trying to attract visitors here, but also get people that live here excited about their own backyard,” Berry said.
Berry lives in Peoria County, but said she travels from Ottawa to Havana and everywhere in between making presentations and meeting people to try to spread the word about the Illinois River Road and the benefits of the Byway.
As of Jan. 1, Berry said they have been managed by the North Central Council of Governments.
Byway efforts were previously managed by the Heartland Partnership until it underwent some organizational changes last year.
“It was sad since we were with them since 2006, but we needed to find a new home. This organization has a similar mission for the region and nothing’s changed,” Berry said.
The Illinois River Road and its “living museum” have brought in more than $1.3 million in federal and state grants over the years.
“To really interpret the region and promote the Byway region, we have to have signs along the roadway, update our website and put out marketing materials to help people understand the connection,” Berry said.
“It’s really about getting people to explore the communities and spend money in them,” she added.
Berry said they welcome any donations and there is a Friends of the Byway program to offer ways for the public to invest in their efforts.
“Our grants typically have match requirements so we need revenue for that along with administrative costs. These donations help us with the task of shedding light on conservation efforts and educating people about the region and the value of the Illinois River,” Berry said.
There are more than 100 designated nature sites along the Byway, all listed on the Illinois River Road website with links and contact information for not only the businesses, but the city’s corresponding Chamber of Commerce and regional tourism organizations.
“We wanted to create a site that was not only easy to navigate, but gave visitors a strong glimpse through photos and video and information of what they’re going to see before they get here. We have a planner on our site to build your itinerary too,” Berry said.
Berry added traffic to the website has seen a considerable increase over the last year, with 96,000 visitors
That list could be growing by leaps and bounds soon too with Berry’s next big task.
“We used some grant funds and started a project last year to start interpreting history and archaeology for this region. We are going after those two designations next,” Berry said.
“I think especially with the history, that part ties in so well with the nature. Every community has a story they want to tell and I think people will explore and we can keep them here longer for a seamless experience,” she added.
Berry said she also sees the Illinois River Road connecting more with small businesses and becoming a resource for them.
“The last thing we want to have happen is someone stop in a gas station or a hotel and hear there is nothing to do in a town. Maybe if Peoria or Havana doesn’t have a certain something, then Ottawa or Princeton has it. We can enlighten these businesses how other communities can impact their own,” Berry said.
Berry added the last thing she wants to see happens is people leaving a community with a pocket full of cash.
“You can zipline in Marseilles. Utica has watersports. The fishing and wildlife watching at the Emiquon Preserve in Lewistown is amazing and there are 7,000 acres of wetlands. Ottawa has skydiving. Hennepin has a huge observation tower. There’s quite a bit available,” Berry said.
Starved Rock State Park is what Berry refers to as the crown jewel on the Illinois River Road.
“They get 2.2 million visitors every year. If we could just get a small percentage of that number to continue along Interstate 80 and keep exploring, we would be set,” Berry said with a laugh.
“This area really has so many treasures,” she added.
For more information or to plan an adventure along the Illinois River Road, visit illinoisriverroad.org or contact the Ottawa or Peoria Riverfront visitors’ centers.