The Best USA Road Trips

Chicago To The Ozarks Road Trip

Chicago To The Ozarks Road Trip
By Sarah Bence

This one-way route takes you through three Midwestern states: Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas.

Start in Chicago and head down along the historic Route 66 to reach St. Louis, the Ozarks National Scenic Riverways, and the Ozarks Mountains. Along the way, you’ll visit four national parks, see some of the Midwest’s best roadside kitsch, and marvel at fantastic natural attractions.

Chicago to the Ozarks road trip route

Approx. distance: 1,000 miles

Duration: 12 days

Suggested route: Chicago, Indiana Dunes National Park, Route 66, St. Louis, Gateway Arch National Park, Mark Twain National Forest, Ozarks National Scenic Riverways, Branson, Eureka Springs, Ozarks National Forest, Hot Springs National Park, Little Rock.

Ozark mountains Arkansas usa

A misty morning in northern Arkansas' Ozark Mountains

The route

Your journey starts in Chicago, Illinois. Take a couple days to explore the city and include a day trip to Indiana Dunes National Park, which is a 45-minute drive south along Lake Michigan’s coast.

From Chicago, travel south through Illinois along the historic Route 66, also called the “Mother Road”. Much of Route 66 has been overtaken by the I-55 highway, but many of the old quirky roadside attractions remain.

Stop at Ambler’s 1940s’ Texaco Gas Station in Dwight, and the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac, before an overnight stop in Lincoln, Illinois, 2 ½ hours south of Chicago. From Lincoln, continue driving south along Route 66 to St. Louis, Missouri. It’s a two-hour journey but take your time to sample the Americana roadside attractions, including a lunch break at Doc’s Soda Fountain in Girard, and a wander through Henry’s Rabbit Ranch in Staunton.

In St. Louis, visit Gateway Arch National Park (a national park since 2018) along the Mississippi River. You’re still in the Midwest, but as you drive south from St. Louis and into the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks you will notice the culture melding with that of the southern US.

At this point you can choose to extend your trip by a few days to visit Lake of the Ozarks, a popular resort reservoir in the Midwest, but perhaps more touristy than other spots on this route.

Otherwise, drive 2 ½ hours south from St. Louis through the Mark Twain National Forest to reach the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Start at the Visitor Center in Van Buren, Missouri, with the option to camp nearby at Powder Mill or Watercress Spring Campgrounds along the Current River. Spend a couple days exploring the rivers, springs, and hiking trails, including Devil’s Well, Welch Spring, and Round Spring.

From here, head deeper into the Ozarks of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. From Van Buren, drive 2 ½ hours on US-60 to Branson, a family-friendly Ozarks town that’s home to an 1880s’ theme park and Dolly Parton’s truly over-the-top Stampede Dinner Attraction.

Drive another hour south-west to Eureka Springs, a much smaller Ozarks town known for its natural springs. Splurge on a stay at the historic 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa and visit natural sights such as Basin Spring Park and Onyx Cave.

From Eureka Springs it’s a four-hour drive south to Hot Springs National Park, the last national park of the route. Along the way, stop for hikes and scenic views in Ozark National Forest and Ouachita National Forest. Camp at Gulpha Gorge Campground and spend your last couple of days exploring the historic bath houses, thermal springs, and hiking trails, before making the hour-long drive to Little Rock, Arkansas, and the end of your trip.

Highlights

Indiana Dunes National Park

Easily reachable from the Windy City, Indiana Dunes National Park was originally a national lakeshore, until it was redesignated as a national park in 2019. The park includes 15,000 acres of sand dunes along Lake Michigan, as well as hiking trails through wetlands, prairies, and forests.

Gateway Arch National Park

This national park in St. Louis, Missouri, is home to the tallest arch in the world – 630 feet tall and 630 feet wide. You can take a tram to the top of the arch for views across St. Louis and the Mississippi. The arch has become a defining image of St. Louis, and a symbol of the city’s and President Thomas Jefferson’s roles in the country’s westward expansion.

Ozark National Scenic Riverways

In 1964 the Ozark National Scenic Riverways in Missouri became the first protected river system in the National Park Service. In addition to the Current and Jacks Forks Rivers, the area is also known for its karst topography which includes surprisingly blue springs, and cave systems.

Hot Springs National Park

The hot springs in this area of Arkansas have long been known for their medicinal properties, first by Native American tribes including the Quapaw, Choctaw, Caddo, and Cherokee. In 1832 the area became federally protected and in 1921 it was officially designated as a national park. You can hike through 26 miles of forested trails, and relax in the thermal waters at Bathhouse Row.

Chicago To The Ozarks Road Trip

Sarah Bence

Sarah Bence is a travel journalist based in her home state of Michigan, after living in the UK for three and a half years. She writes for Lonely Planet, Fodor's, Roadtrippers Magazine, Business Insider, and more.

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