Great River Road Getaway
The Open Road
Just 25 miles north of St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi River, the Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Byway (the Great River Road in Illinois) is truly a Midwestern treasure with beautiful stretches of roadway cradled by the rolling waters of the Mighty Mississippi River and majestic limestone river bluffs. It is here along the byway that visitors encounter 33 of the most beautiful miles of the Great River Road. As you drive along the byway, you will find that the beauty of the region is a masterpiece of nature with whistling birds, colorful trees, unique plants and etched river bluffs.
The Meeting of the Great Rivers Byway is the perfect drive during any season of the year. In the Spring, nature awakens as luscious green blossoms and a rainbow of wildflowers dance across the bluffs. There is no better time than summer for outdoor dining, picnicking and engaging in the many seasonal festivals and fairs along the river on the byway. Fall in love with the byway in the autumn as the bluffs burst with fiery fall colors, you pick-em orchards and pumpkin patches as you drive. Finally, even the winter yields an incredible drive as the eagles soar all around Alton reclaiming their winter nests on the byway.
MORE: Take a Historic Driving Tour of Alton
Where History Meets the Road
The byway journey begins in Hartford at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers where Lewis & Clark’s journey west began. It was in Illinois that Lewis and Clark prepared for the journey as common men became soldiers organized for a military expedition. It was in Illinois that 45 men set sail not knowing what they would find at the river bends, not knowing if or when they would return back home. It is here in Hartford that visitors can experience the Illinois side of the Lewis & Clark story at the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site. The center features five exhibit rooms and a full-scale cut-away keelboat, showing how Lewis & Clark “packed” for the journey. You can also see the departure point, the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, of the expedition from 150 feet in the air at the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower.
Continuing the journey along the Great River Road, you will encounter the Mighty Mississippi River and see if from a new point of view from eight stories in the air on top the Melvin Price Locks & Dam #26. Tours of the Locks & Dam are available daily at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. at no charge. At the base of the locks & dam, visitors can connect to the river at the National Great Rivers Museum. This state-of-the-art museum is dedicated to telling the story of life on the Mighty Mississippi River and how it has shaped our culture, history, economy, ecology and people of the region. The museum has more than 20 interactive displays focusing on the cycles of the river, nature, barge traffic, water consumption and much more.
On the banks of the Mississippi River, Alton is one of America’s great river cities. The threads of our nation’s history run deep beneath the streets and on the banks of this quiet little river town. Some say that the anti-slavery movement in the United States began in Alton, Illinois. In the early 1830s, abolitionist and publisher Elijah P. Lovejoy was assassinated while defending his printing press. An angry mob shot Lovejoy in retaliation for the anti-slavery views expressed in his newspaper, The Observer. The Lovejoy Monument, dedicated to his courageous life, is the tallest monument in the state of Illinois.
MORE: Relax at Alton Wineries
Alton’s new Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail takes you on a walk with Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Civil War soldiers from both North and South, to 10 significant historic sites located throughout the city. Experience the life of a young Lincoln as a lawyer, duelist and orator. Witness the last of the great Lincoln-Douglas Debates, which took place in Alton more than 150 years ago. With the issue of slavery on the minds of spectators, more than 6,000 people gathered to see the debate that launched Lincoln into national prominence. As the Civil War erupted, its impact was felt on Alton’s riverbanks as Confederate soldiers were held captive at the Alton Prison. Many soldiers perished at the prison and laid to rest beneath the Confederate Monument, one of the northernmost monuments to the Confederate soldiers. Finally, see the home that was residence to Senator Lyman Trumbull, who authored the 13th Amendment, putting an end to slavery in the United States.
You can delve deeper into the history of the city at the Alton Museum of History & Art. It is here that visitors will also encounter the World’s Tallest Man – Robert Wadlow. Known to the locals as the “Gentle Giant,” Robert grew to be the World’s Tallest Man, reaching an exceptional height of 8 feet, 11.1 inches tall. Across the street from the museum, visitors can see how they measure up to this life-size bronze statue, standing in honor of his character and inspiring life story.
Outside of Alton, the drive along the byway continues to the heart of the road, where the byway parts the Mississippi River and its bluffs for one of the most scenic drives in the Midwest. Looming high upon the bluffs, visitors can encounter the Piasa Bird painting, just as French Explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet would have seen this man-eating monster, an Illini Indian legend, back in 1673.
MORE: History Happened Here: Alton's Legacy Trail
Historic River Towns
Along the byway, visitors to the area are greeted by two quaint little towns – Elsah and Grafton. The entire village of Elsah is on the National Registry of Historic Places. This village, with a population of around one hundred people, is often referred to as the town where time stood still. Visitors to Elsah can escape back to the Americana of the early 1800s with quiet streets and 19th century stone homes. This “picture perfect” village nestled in the valley is a perfect place for photographers – amateur and professional – anxious to capture a glimpse of the past.
Located high upon the bluffs in Elsah, visitors are invited to tour the campus of Principia College, the only Christian Scientist College in the nation. Designed by renowned San Francisco architect, Bernard Maybeck, the entire campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is truly an architectural masterpiece.
Just beyond the river bend, the residents of Grafton readily embrace visitors, inviting them to celebrate life on the Mississippi River. Grafton, resting under the Mississippi River bluffs, is home to several wineries, flea markets, antique shops, restaurants and views like no other along the river. Bed & Breakfast Inns and Guests Houses scattered throughout the town offer views of the river and taste of life in a river town. With barges just a stone’s throw away on the Mississippi River, you are guaranteed to gain a new perspective of what living on the river really means.
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The winding river road is the perfect backdrop for recreational activities all along the byway. Whether biking, hiking, fishing, boating, or taking in a round of golf, you’ll never run out of things to do and places to see. At the northern end of the byway, Pere Marquette State Park is the largest state park in Illinois, with more than 8,000 acres of land to explore. Hiking trails, fishing docks, horseback riding or the perfect spot for a picnic can be found within the borders of the park.
In addition to the park, experience nature untouched by civilization abundant with rare birds, wildflowers and beauty all found at the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary and The Nature Institute. Enjoy hiking through the bluffs on the many hiking and nature trails for beginning and advanced hikers alike.
For one of the most scenic views of the Mississippi River, hop on your bicycle and pedal your way along the river on the 22-mile Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail from Pere Marquette to Alton. Continue your ride on the Confluence Bike Trail, which will take you from Downtown Alton along the Berm Highway past the National Great Rivers Museum to the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
MORE: Visit A Nature Trail in Alton This Spring
Within miles of Alton, visitors can enjoy more than a dozen bike trails winding through Southwestern Illinois and Missouri along rivers, across ferries and through some of the most beautiful scenery in the Midwest. For those that like to flounder with the fish, water recreation is a favorite for visitors to the region. Grafton is home to several establishments where visitors can rent canoes, kayaks, boats, water skis to hit the water trails along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.
Family water recreation can also be found in the summertime at Raging Rivers Water Park in Grafton. Sail down the bluffs on a waterslide with a full view of the Mississippi River while you play.
Time to Play
Besides historic places and scenic views, the Alton region is home to great food, great shopping, and loads of fun. On Alton’s “Antique Row,” you will discover more than 50 dealers offering antique items and unusual gifts from the simple to the hard to find. Just beyond Alton, there are numerous antique stores and specialty shops in Grafton, Elsah, and Jerseyville that are a shopper’s dream come true.
The Alton region also provides visitors with over 50 unique restaurants for both fine dining and home-cooked meals.
Visitors looking for a place to stay in the Alton region for a weekend getaway or relaxing escape won’t be disappointed with more than 20 Bed and Breakfast Inns and Guest Houses, as well as other family-friendly and convenient hotels, available to guests.
To mention a few, the Beall Mansion in Alton was voted Best B&B in Illinois. This historic house is layered with a rich history and lavish luxury once reserved only for the turn of the century elite. In Grafton, the Tara Point Inn sits on top of the bluffs along the Mississippi River providing guests with one of the most breathtaking scenic views in the Midwest. Other great B&Bs include Green Tree Inn in Elsah and the Jackson House in Alton. We also have top-notch hotels with the Holiday Inn, Best Western Plus Parkway, Comfort Inn, Super 8 and the Ruebel Hotel.
Be ready for some astounding views as you drive alongside the surging water and the bends of the river beside the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway.
The region is the perfect spot for young and old looking for an exciting daytrip or a weekend getaway along the Great River Road in the St. Louis region. You’ll fall in love with the unique history, distinct river culture, and spectacular views along the bends of the Mississippi River. Visitors never seem to run out of things to do “All Around Alton.”
For a free travel planner, contact the Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-ALTON IL or request a Visitor Guide online.
Top 7 Places to Take
Scenic Shots of the Great Rivers
1) View of the Mississippi River, the bluffs and fall
foliage during autumn near Elsah, Illinois.
2) View of the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois
rivers during spring from Aerie's Winery.
3) View of the Great River Road and bluffs
during winter from Chautauqua, Illinois.
4) View of Mississippi River during summer sunset
from Riverview Park in Alton, Illinois.
5) View of Mississippi River during fall
from The Nature Institute in Godfrey, Illinois.
6) View of Mississippi River and Grafton Lighthouse during
spring sunset from The Loading Dock in Grafton, Illinois.
7) View of Illinois River during spring
from Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton, Illinois.