By Kathie Sutin
March 12, 2012
As the golden days of October fade into the cooler, grayer days of November, there’s still time to make an autumn trek along the fabulous Great River Road north of Alton, IL.
The road–spectacular in summer foliage–is a treat any time of the year. Each season offers something special– greenery in the bluffs and sailboats on the water in summer, eagles overhead in the winter, the promise of rebirth in the spring. Perhaps no season, however, is as endearing as fall. Fall, with its cool, crisp days and color bursting forth from the white and beige bluffs cutting a blazing counterpoint to the azure of Alton Lake and the sky.
A trip up the road –with an apple-picking stop at Eckert’s Orchard and lunch at Elsah’s Landing Restaurant–is a fall tradition for many St. Louis families. The road, which skirts the recently-name National Scenic Byway, is unrivaled in the area for its spectacular scenery.
Start your trip in Alton. If you have time, you may want to book a night at one of Bed and Breakfasts in Alton, Elsah or Grafton to make a weekend of it.
Alton itself offers a myriad of fun things to do. You can, among other things, tour the Alton lock and dam; hunt antiques; visit the Elijah Lovejoy Monument, a tribute to an abolitionist martyr; gamble on a riverboat or view a statue of Robert Wadlow, “the world’s tallest man.”
Just north of Alton above the confluence of the Mississippi and the Illinois, a sliver of land forms a long, narrow peninsula. It’s on the eastern edge of the Illinois River along this peninsula that nature assembled the area’s most picturesque combination of elements–steep cliffs, a portion of the river wide enough to be dubbed a lake, and forests to provide color in three seasons.
As you drive north toward Grafton, stop a moment for a look at the reborn Piasa Bird, the colorful image of a legendary birdlike monster painted on the rock wall. Named “Piasa” (a bird that devours men) by the Illini Indians, tales of the feared bird were described by Father Marquette who, with Louis Joliet, explored the Mississippi River in 1673. Legend has it that the terrifying bird preyed on man until a fearless Indian chief offered himself as a sacrifice so that his warriors could ambush the winged creature. Happily, the chief survived the ordeal.
For many years, a recreation of the original painting of the bird hung on a huge metal plate on the bluffs near Alton hung on the Great River Road until traffic problems forced its removal. Recently local artists paid $25 a 15-minute crack to paint the bird on the bluff again so children of all ages could enjoy the legend.
If you are a bicyclist or a walker, this is a good place to “put in” on the 14-mile bike path which runs from north of Alton all the way to Pere Marquette State Park north of Grafton.
As your drive continues, swing into the tiny village of Elsah, for many years the home of Elsah’s Landing, a restaurant famous for its “grinder” sandwiches and luscious pies. (Elsah’s Landing recently relocated a few miles north to a historic building on Main Street Grafton.)
The village, once an important stop for steamboats on the river, is a quiet and quaint reminder of what small towns used to be. Interesting events are scheduled regularly at the town’s Music Hall.
Continuing north, you’ll soon be in Grafton, a good stop for lunch at Elsah’s Landing or to explore the town’s antique shops and wineries.
Depending on your time, you may want to continue north a few miles to Pere Marquette State Park to visit its lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s and renovated a few years ago. Massive poles of wood from around the country–some up to three feet in diameter– form the roof and wall supports of the chalet-like building. Limestone used in the lodge’s floor, it’s stone fireplace and to construct the seven quaint cabins on the property came from a local quarry. Inmates in an Illinois prison built the furniture used in the lodge.
Children will enjoy the giant chess set in the lobby and the massive fireplace with a painting of Pere Marquette above it. If you haven’t had lunch, the lodge offers delicious family style dining.
A future trip could include a stay at the lodge, in one of the cabins or in the campground for more time to enjoy the hiking, fishing, tennis, horseback riding, birdwatching and seasonal nature programs available there.
After a peek at the park, head back south toward Grafton to the Brussels Ferry, one of the few remaining free ferries in the country. Queue up to load your car onto the ferry for the five-minute trip across the Illinois River to Calhoun County. On board the ferry, you are free to exit your car for a closer look at the environs and the tug that will take you across.
Back in your car, prepare to exit the ferry to the scenic hills of Calhoun County. If so inclined, you can visit the small towns such as Brussels, Hardin and Hamburg on the peninsula. But if yours is a day trip, dusk may be imminent and you’ll want to be heading for home. It’s about a dozen rolling miles across the peninsula to the Golden Eagle Ferry and a four-dollar, five-minute trip across the Mississippi back into Missouri where the fertile farm fields of St. Charles County give you the true definition of the word “flat.”
Follow the country road to Highway 94 south to I-70 and home.