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The Great River Trail is a breathtaking journey along more than 60 miles of the Mississippi River in northern Illinois. In places, the paved trail follows the former spur route of the Chicago, St. Paul, Milwaukee and Pacific Railroad.
Elsewhere, it’s a mix of low-traffic rural roads, dedicated bike lanes, and riverfront trails running atop flood levees. It’s part of the 500-mile Grand Illinois Trail network in the north; in the south, it traces the American Discovery Trail, which crosses the country with a mixture of trails and on-road routes.
Starting in Savanna, you’ll head south through several small towns with traditions still steeped in river culture before reaching the industrial center of the Quad Cities, which includes Rock Island and Moline. Many opportunities exist for browsing antiques, enjoying catfish dinners, and viewing river traffic. Camping and lodging are available for overnight trips. Leaving Savanna, the secluded route rolls across the sand prairie, past nature preserves and farmland to Thomson. Watch for signs that direct you onto quiet local roads from the paved trail.
Farther south, in Fulton, an unusual sight greets you: a Dutch windmill that will make you feel as though you’ve been transported to the Netherlands. It’s no wonder; the structure was originally built there and then transported here to be reassembled by craftsmen.
About 8 miles south in Albany, take a short detour through the Albany Indian Mounds State Historic Site and view dozens of earthen burial mounds that date back more than 2,000 years.
The trail runs alongside IL 84 (Great River Road) most of the way to Cordova, where it meanders through town on local streets. After less than 2 miles, the rail-trail picks up again and closely follows Great River Road for 4 miles into Port Byron, a charming river town visible from the trail’s riverbank course. Most of the corridor here is shared with an active rail line, offering a fine example of a safe rail-with-trail relationship.
Three miles downriver is Rapids City, where blue herons, gulls, and other waterfowl are plentiful.
As the Great River Trail crests a levee 4 miles south in Hampton, you get a glimpse of Campbell’s Island, the site of the Battle of Rock Island Rapids during the War of 1812. Just ahead on the left, the John Deere manufacturing plant marks the beginning of the trail’s urban section. Traveling atop the levee affords majestic vistas of the bridges over the Mississippi River connecting the Quad Cities.
After 5.5 miles, you’ll reach Moline. Follow the bike route signs to navigate through the city. Consider stopping at the Quad Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau at Bass Street Landing Plaza on Moline’s waterfront. Looking across the slough as you return to the trail, you can see Arsenal Island, home to the historic Rock Island Arsenal, still in operation by the U.S. Army. It also was a prison camp for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
Leaving downtown Moline, the route stays up on the riverbank and crosses under the Centennial Bridge as you enter the city of Rock Island. The industrial skyline dominates the landscape for most of the final 7.5 miles to Sunset Park, where a large marina and extensive river views provide a fitting end to this scenic path.
To reach the trailhead in Savanna from I-80, take Exit 1 for IL 84. Head north on IL 84 for 41.5 miles, and turn left onto Chicago Ave./US 52. In 1.1 miles, turn left onto Broderick Dr. at the intersection with Main St. Follow signs to "Bike Trail Access and Savanna Trail Car Museum."
The Cordova trailhead is on Main Ave. From SR 84 (Great River Road) turn west on Main Ave. and take a left on 11th St. The parking lot is in the park on the right. You will not see the trail; from the parking lot, head left (north) on 11th St., turn left again on 2nd Ave. and then look for the green bike route signs.
To reach the trailhead at Sunset Park in Rock Island: From I-280, take Exit 11B and merge onto IL 92 E/Centennial Expy. In 1.5 miles, take the 31st Ave. exit and, at the end of the ramp, turn left onto Sunset Lane. Follow the roadway 0.6 mile into the park; look for parking on the right.
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