Essential RV Illinois:
The Top Destinations
in the Prairie State
by Andrea Neff
From small towns to big cities, flat plains to towering cliffs, trickling streams to gushing waterfalls, Illinois is teeming with diverse natural beauty. This gorgeous plains state—rich in agriculture and United States history—is sure to impress any traveler looking for intrigue between the coasts. Here are a few of our top picks to help you enjoy all of the 400 miles of RV sightseeing Illinois has to offer.
The Windy City
It’s hard to call your trip complete without stopping by the state’s largest tourist attraction, the Windy City. Chicago is home to over 2.7 million residents who offer their thousands of restaurants, hundreds of parks and bike paths, and miles of lakeside beaches for your recreation. See downtown from a bird’s-eye view at the top of the Navy Pier Centennial Ferris wheel or indulge in your taste for finer things while shopping on the Magnificent Mile. Another must-see is the Chicago Botanic Garden, one of the world’s greatest living museums with the largest membership of any garden in the United States. On East Adams Street, near the Art Institute of Chicago, you’ll find the sign marking the beginning of Historic U.S. Route 66. If followed, Route 66 will take you south through several Illinois towns, exiting the state at St. Louis. While there is no traditional RV camping within an hour drive of Grant Park, McCormick Place on 31st Street is a little known secret for overnight dry camping, placing you just one mile from the park and directly across from Lakefront Trail.
Chain O’ Lakes
A stone’s throw from Chicago, Chain O’ Lakes State Park provides excellent opportunities for boating, fishing, hunting and water skiing without straying far from the city. Grass, Marie and Nippersink Lakes form a natural boundary for the park, connected to the rest of the “chain” of seven lakes by the Fox River—offering plenty of water to go around. If solid ground is still more your style, Chain O’Lakes hosts many hiking, biking and equestrian trails. RV accommodations also keep you close to the water, especially at Grass Lake Marina and RV Park on the eastern shore.
City of Gardens
The banks of the Rock River are home to Rockford, one of the state’s largest cities after Chicago. But it’s much more than a concrete jungle — today it’s called the “City of Gardens,” aptly named for its many parks, tree-lined streets, riverside trails and lush surrounding forests. Other hot spots for greenery include the Anderson Japanese Gardens — considered one of the top two Japanese gardens in the Western world — and the Klehm Arboretum & Botanical Gardens. Rock Cut State Park sits outside the northeast corner of the city, and RV camping is available next to a glistening lake.
Alive with History
This tiny town has thankfully preserved much from its 19th century roots, including Ulysses S. Grant’s home, campaign headquarters and family leather shop. (It would seem the area has always been fertile ground for future presidents—Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home is located about 90 minutes away in Dixon.) Stop into one of its many museums, or watch as history comes alive during one of the town’s reenactments, full of characters in costume ready to interact with you. Its historic downtown provides the perfect setting for outdoor music, food and drink on spacious decks and patios. RVs are welcome at Palace Campgrounds, complete with pool and plenty of shade.
Great River Road
Heart of America
With Galena as its northernmost point in Illinois, the Great River Road includes over 550 miles of exploration along the state’s natural western border—the Mississippi River. Moline, part of the Quad Cities Metropolitan Area shared by Illinois and Iowa, is a great next stop on the journey south. Moline was once called the “Plow City” as home to John Deere, inventor of the steel plow, and present world headquarters for his farm machinery empire. Stay at Fisherman’s Corner and catch a great spot for your rig right alongside the river. Nauvoo is our next must-see destination with over 1.5 million visitors per year engaging in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its movement during the 1840s. A large section of the town is composed of original and restored 19th century buildings, engaging guests in historical activities, nightly storytelling performances and live music. Nauvoo RV Park is the perfect place to camp and get a bite to eat on-site at Peter’s Place. Our last highlighted stop is Quincy, known for Dr. Richard Eell’s House and its pivotal role as part of the Underground Railroad. This historical landmark shares the spotlight with German-style architecture and appreciation for the arts with its Muddy River Opera Company, Quincy Community Theater and the Great River Film Festival. Stay at Driftwood RV Park and “let the river unwind you!”.
Located in Savanna, the Mississippi Palisades State Park is characterized by coursing rivers and the intriguing rock formations they forge. The word “palisade” is used to describe steep cliffs along a river, and this park certainly lives up to its name with towering, lofty bluffs plunging into caves of limestone. Its beautiful, scenic views overlooking the Mississippi River are unmatched, and may fool you into thinking you’ve entered another state entirely. Camping is a breeze while visiting, with 241 Class A and B sites and RV accommodations at Seven Eagles Resort and Camp, Spring Lake Campground and Timber Lake Resort.
The Illinois Valley
Small Town Gem
Tucked neatly into the curves of the Illinois River, the valley plays host to two of the state’s most popular state parks — Starved Rock and Matthiessen, known for their diverse terrain and rich history. Visitors can easily spend days exploring several miles of spectacular canyons and waterfalls in summer, or spot some wildlife in the sky during Eagle Watch Weekend in winter. Learn about local Native American history at Starved Rock’s visitor center, take a ride on the I&M Canal boat, or sign up for a tour of the ancient Hegeler-Carus Mansion. Stay at the LaSalle-Peru KOA if you’re searching for some family-owned hospitality and an opportunity to fish, golf or shop at the small towns nearby.
Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive
Bursting at the seams with color in autumn, especially the first weekends in October, the Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive in Fulton County is perfect for sightseeing from the comfort of your RV. This 100-mile stretch through central Illinois will take you from the dam on the Spoon River at Bernadotte, to the London Mills boat dock, and the Ellisville Opera House. Enjoy what the farming communities have to offer at the Annual Fall Festival, featuring local vendors offering a variety of food, antiques, flowers, crafts and other goods made straight from the heart. RV camping is recommended at the Galesburg East Campground to the north, and Canton Lakes Campground to the south.
Land of Lincoln
The state capital is the perfect place to dive headfirst into Illinois history and simultaneously acquaint yourself with the 16th president. Springfield is majorly a time capsule for the life of Abraham Lincoln—from the home he shared with his wife and family for 17 years, to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, to his tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery. Springfield is a highlighted stop on Route 66, named the “quintessential American road trip,” where visitors can get a bite of the “original” hotdog on a stick at roadside Cozy Dog Drive In and see parts of the original road near Carpenter Park. The city is also bordered by Lake Springfield, and the Springfield KOA Journey can be found on its outskirts, just off the beaten path.
Tribute to the Past
As the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico, the sprawling Cahokia City of the Sun historic site stands as a window to agricultural society. Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas, is one of 120 mounds visitors can climb and explore. This site’s gorgeous, serene hills double as great workout terrain and educational landmarks. The best part? Admission is free for the whole family! RVs are welcome nearby at the quaint and friendly Cahokia RV Parque.
Shawnee National Forest
Shawnee celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2019, and still stands as the only national forest in the entire state. Its miles of cyprus trees spread across the southern tip of Illinois, welcoming travelers to a shaded oasis of camping, hiking and fishing. Swim at Pounds Hollow and relax on its sandy shore, or walk at The Garden of the Gods and enjoy breathtaking views all year round. Be sure to seek out Burden Falls, one of the highest in Illinois, for a must-have photo op. The Lake Glendale Recreation Area is centrally located within the forest and includes RV camping accommodations.