The Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway is a grassroots effort connecting people to the treasures of the Illinois River Valley.
This year marks an important milestone for the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway, as it celebrates 10 years of grassroots support branding and developing the 10-county byway region as a nature tourism destination. Established by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, the National Scenic Byway Program (referred to as America’s Byways®) is a grassroots program designed to recognize, preserve and enhance selected corridors throughout the United States.
Note the key word in that description: “grassroots.” It is indeed the support of the grassroots that truly “grows” a scenic byway. It’s this dedicated group of volunteers, organizations and more than 40 communities that had a passion for the beauty and natural resources of the Illinois River Valley and saw opportunities to impact tourism, economic development and our quality of place. They helped the Illinois River Road earn its designation in 2005, and continue to carry out worthwhile initiatives that benefit the entire region.
Windows to the Natural World
With a strong grassroots foundation, byways connect people and places with the great outdoors, providing windows to the natural world and doors to nature-based experiences that they otherwise would not seek out—or even know about. “Byway corridors like the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway are providing opportunities to enhance connections between automobile, transit, bicycle and pedestrian options… by linking together primary roads with scenic, recreational, historic, cultural and natural area destinations,” says Jim Klein, byway consultant and principal of Lardner/Klein Landscape Architects.
Efforts are made to not only attract visitors to the region for its natural resources, recreational opportunities and vibrant communities, but to educate them along the way. Through its website (IllinoisRiverRoad.org), advertising, interpretive materials, kiosks and programs, the Illinois River Road creates an emotional and intellectual connection to the remarkable natural resources and communities that make the Illinois River Valley unique and worthy of its designation as one of America’s byways. Whether exploring important conservation sites and unique bird and plant life, or searching for any of the 90 geocaches placed throughout the region, the Illinois River Road helps visitors discover and learn about what truly makes this place special and keeps them coming back.
Byway travelers are helping to strengthen and grow our regional economy, too. These visitors look to get off the beaten path, seeking authentic community and regional experiences that include shopping in locally-owned stores, dining in locally-owned restaurants, purchasing art and products made here, and experiencing the culture, history and “flavor” of our communities. Typically spending more than the average visitor, byway travelers and nature tourists are important to both urban and rural communities in the byway corridor.
So what’s next for the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway? Interpreting the region’s rich history and archaeological finds is well underway, as the organization works to develop a plan that will help illuminate and connect disparate destinations and sites along this important heritage corridor that hold special historic and cultural meanings. With the help of byway consultants and that essential grassroots input from those who live and work in the Illinois River Valley, the plan will weave together a coherent experience from the existing variety of messages and stories to identify new sites that recognize and interpret historic events in a thematic way, having meaning that resonates throughout the byway experience. Soon, the Illinois River Road will relate aspects of its history much the way it has with the region’s natural assets—through themed itineraries and interpretation in various forms.
What are you waiting for? Get out and explore your backyard—the beautiful Illinois River Valley. Find out for yourself what truly makes it special and worth bragging about. Experience the local shops, restaurants, artists, markets, nature sites, history and cultural events that visitors find so compelling. iBi
Anaise Berry is executive director of the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway. For more information, visit illinoisriverroad.org.