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Illinois Scenic Drives: Great Rivers Scenic Route

        Adventure | Midwest

Highlights of Great Rivers Scenic Route
Scenic river views are abundant on Great Rivers Scenic Route.
Scenic river views are abundant on Great Rivers Scenic Route.

The Mississippi River is like a chameleon along Great Rivers Scenic Route. Depending on weather conditions, sun angles, and the color of the sky, the waters can turn from serene pale blue to dark navy to muddy brown. Insiders' favorite time for viewing the river is early in the morning as the sun is rising. Often, the river is glasslike, creating a mirror of the sky above. The blue is sweet and clear, and the reflections of the bluffs and trees are remarkable. Majestic bluffs tower above the byway, creating a stunning wall of trees, rocky cliffs, and soaring birds. The meandering curves of the river provide amazing views, and you can see up and down the river for miles. The bluffs, which are imposing when immediately adjacent to the road, diminish into the far horizon at several viewing areas.

Note the unusual sunsets along these parts. Most think of the Mississippi as a southbound river that cuts up and down the center of the nation. This is not true here. In Piasa country, the Mississippi River makes a distinct turn and the current flows from west to east. In Alton, Elsah, and Grafton, the sun rises and sets in the long stretch of water. On many evenings at dusk, the fiery reds, yellows, and oranges run nearly the entire length of the river. One of the great pastimes along this byway is celebrating these glorious and unique sunsets.

Along the road to Eldred, the bluffs give way to rolling hills, farms, and forests. Depending on the season, roadside stands with fruits and vegetables may entice you to stop. The apples and peaches in Jersey, Calhoun, and Greene Counties are legendary. In Eldred, an old-fashioned Illinois town full of Americana, most travelers stop for a slice of pie and get out to smell the crisp, fresh air. Moving northward, you see the great Illinois farmlands that bring the bounty of food to both America's and the world's dinner tables. Soon the road branches westward, and the journey ends with another free ferry over the Illinois River into Kampsville.

This byway is a must-see destination during all four seasons. In the spring, the trees and shrubs turn the bluffs and countryside into a wonderful tapestry of colorful buds and blossoms. Summer brings festivals, fairs, and river recreation. Autumn hosts the Fall Color Caravan and some of America's most amazing foliage, accented by the nearby rivers. Finally, the winter brings the American bald eagle by the hundreds to winter along the bluffs and feed along the banks of the rivers. The rivers, majestic bluffs, fantastic trees and wildlife, quaint villages, and rolling farmlands all make this byway a wonderful adventure.

This must-see tour of the Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Route begins at the northernmost point (Kampsville) and concludes at the southernmost point (Alton).

Kampsville: Kampsville is in Calhoun County on the Illinois River. Take the free ferry ride (drive east on Highway 108 approximately five miles to Eldred), and go to the home of the American Center for Archaeology, which is the site of Old Settlers Days with Lewis and Clark and Civil War and other reenactments.

Eldred: Eldred is a wonderful village in Greene County at Highway 108 and Blacktop Road. The Eldred Home shows a glimpse of life in the 1800-1900s. Turn south onto Blacktop Road. Drive approximately 15 miles to the intersection of Blacktop Road, Highway 100, and Highway 16; continue straight ahead and onto Highway 100 southbound. Drive approximately ten miles south to Pere Marquette State Park.

Pere Marquette State Park: This park is in Jersey County on Route 100. This 7,895-acre preserve overlooks the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy the park's nature trails, prehistoric sites, horseback riding, camping, fishing, boating, and hiking. The park also has a wonderful lodge built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The fireplace alone soars 50 feet into the grand hall, and the great room is rich with massive timber beams and stone. Continue southward out of Pere Marquette State Park onto Highway 100. Drive approximately three miles to Brussells Ferry.

Brussells Ferry: Take a free ride on the Brussells Ferry across the Illinois River, and get a feel of the river under the wheels of your vehicle. Nearby is the Mark Twain Wildlife Refuge, the seasonal home for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds including American bald eagles, herons, owls, pelicans, geese, ducks, and many rare species.

Grafton: Grafton is on Highway 100 in Jersey County. All but wiped out by the Great Flood of 1993, this amazing river town bounced back and is now considered one of the most important stops on the byway. Bed-and-breakfasts, inns, antiques and specialty shops, casual family dining, riverside entertainment, summer outdoor family amphitheater, a small museum, a visitor center, parasailing, jet skiing, pontoon boats, fishing, hunting, hiking, bike trails, cottages, horseback riding, a mystery dinner theater, and more can be found in Grafton. Festivals abound throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Continue southbound approximately a half mile to the bluffs running along the Mississippi River.

Scenic Bluffs: Without question, the most spectacular view along this route is from just outside Grafton, approximately 15 miles northwest of Alton. The bluffs tower above the river with the byway road between the peaks and the riverbank. The Mississippi is alive with commercial traffic, sailboats, and wildlife, in contrast to the majestic bluffs overhead. Any time is good viewing, but late afternoon and sunset are very rewarding. Be careful: Many people stop along the highway to take pictures of the bluffs and river. Try to remain in your car to photograph the scenery. Also exercise caution because of many bicyclists and fast-moving traffic at all times. Continue eastbound on Highway 100 about five miles from Grafton to Elsah. Be prepared to make an abrupt northward turn.

Elsah: Elsah is considered by many national travel writers as the river town that time forgot. This adorable village contains more than two dozen homes built in the 1800s, when Elsah was an important riverboat stop. Because the town has almost no contemporary structures, you immediately feel as if you have been transported back into the mid-1800s. Bed-and-breakfasts and small shops abound. Continue eastbound onto Highway 100 about ten miles to the Cliffton Terrace Park.

Cliffton Terrace Park: This roadside park features picnic facilities, seasonal wildlife viewing, and a playground. Continue eastbound onto Highway 100 about five miles to the legendary Piasa Bird. Be alert for an abrupt turn northward as you begin seeing riverside barges along the banks.

Piasa Bird: This mythical creature was seen by American Indian nations and early European explorers. Today, a gigantic bluff painting depicts the half-dragon, half-cat creature. Restored from early sketches and photography of the 1800s, the site is being developed into an interpretive park and wetlands area. Continue southeasterly about one mile on Highway 100, and enter Alton.

Alton: The community dates to the early 1800s as a major river port just north of St. Louis and can best be summed up by the word historic. Continue eastbound on Highway 100, going approximately three miles. Turn north into the Melvin Price Locks and Dam Complex and National Great Rivers Museum site.

Melvin Price Locks and Dam Complex, National Great Rivers Museum: About two miles past the Clark Bridge, on Highway 100, is the Melvin Price Locks and Dam Complex and the site of the National Great Rivers Museum. This colossal structure tames the mighty river and aids in flood control and navigation. A wonderful riverfront walkway surrounds the dam and museum. Watch long strings of barges full of fuel and grain pass through the locks to be lowered or raised as the river winds down to the delta. It offers a wonderful view of the Alton skyline and Clark Bridge.

With the confluence of three major rivers, there is an abundance of activity. Along the Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Route, visitors sample peaceful solitude amidst sublime natural features, abundant water recreation, and historical and cultural attractions in genuine river towns that have been gateways for pioneers of all kinds.

Find more useful information related to Illinois' Great Rivers Scenic Route:

  • Illinois Scenic Drives: Glenn Highway is just one of the scenic byways in Illinois. Check out the others.
  • Grafton, Alton: Find out what there is to do in these cities along Great Rivers Scenic Route.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Illinois? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.
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