There’s nothing like leaving Interstate Highways behind and jumping onto some of America’s great scenic byways to get a true sense of what the regions are about.
I was lucky enough to experience many of the natural wonders of The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway. Its 33 miles–all of which I explored–wind west and north along the Mississippi River banks, starting in Hartford, Illinois, and ending in Grafton, Illinois.
While it may sound confusing, The Great Rivers National Scenic Byway is part of the Great River Road, which is a series of interconnected highways taking drivers along the banks of the Mississippi River through 10 states as it travels south to the Gulf of Mexico from Minnesota.
September, when the trees don their “best” colors in these regions, is Great River Road Month–you can even enter a contest this month to win $750!
My first day in Alton, Illinos, I was surprised to see group after group of motorcycles cruising through town–but I soon figured out what made the highway so popular once I hit the open road myself. And then, I must admit to be very envious of the bikers twisting and turning down the gently winding river road.
The Meeting of the Great Rivers driving tour begins in Hartford at the Lewis & Clark State Historic Park. Here, I got a first-hand account of how the explorers’ whole expedition began, here, at the confluence of two of America`s most important rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi.
While the whole park is interesting, I found the life size replica of the keelboat used by Lewis and Clark the most exciting part of the display. The boat, right down to all of the supplies and where they were stored, provided lots of historical information on this 1804 expedition that I haven’t found elsewhere.
Next stop is the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower. Built over a period of years, the three levels of the tower provide a gradually expanding view of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri that’s stunning.
As well as a view, there are lots of events happening at the Tower, from October ghost tales to a car cruise to an opportunity to get a real “birds eye view” of the fall colors!
Some of the next stops include the National Great Rivers Museum Melvin Price Locks & Dam in East Alton. Despite the heat–and it was a very hot August day on my visit–I found the view from the top of the locks, and the cool breeze blowing off the Mississippi lifting my hat and threatening to toss it into the water below, made it easy to concentrate while our guide told us about shipping on the river.
These locks are some of the largest on the Mississippi and provide a great opportunity to see how water transportation works. Luckily for me, a large barge appeared as if on command, and I was able to watch the whole process!
There’s lots to see in Alton, and three of the next stops on the driving tour, the Alton Riverfront with its amphitheater and bands in park summer evenings, Alton Visitor Center, and Riverview Park are in the city.
I highly recommend taking the time to twist through the older part of Alton to the Riverview Park lookout high above the Mississippi. Even if the view of sailboats and motorboats doesn’t draw you in, the architecture in this older part of the city will.
The piasa bird is essentially a North American dragon that appeared in a number of different petroglyph locations along the Mississippi. Etched into the stone and painted thousands of years ago by Native Americans, the piasa bird terrified the local people, periodically swooping down and carrying off warriors as well as younger and less able Illini villagers.
As with all good tales, the piasa bird eventually met its match in Ouatoga, one of the Illini, who devised a plan to free his people from the predator. Once the bird was dead, Tera-hi-on-a-wa-ka mixed paints and created the image of the piasa bird on the lithographic limestone of the bluffs over the Mississippi to honor the hero.
Unfortunately, the original paintings of the bird were lost when the cliffs were quarried away in the late 1870s. However, park authorities have replicated the painting in the park so all can hear the story of the piasa bird.
Leaving the park, I found the drive down Highway 100 was where I truly felt that having four wheels under me was a loss compared to the experience of two–either with a motor or without (not that I bike, but I envied the cyclists their up-close experience with nature). Running parallel to the highway, sometimes on one side, sometimes the other, paved trails for hikers and cyclists also follow the Meeting of the Great Rivers scenic tour.
With another half dozen key points on the tour, including the historic community of Elsah, and the very busy one of Grafton, before the Meeting of the Great Rivers driving tour ends in Pere Marquette State Park, there’s lots for everyone to enjoy whether you take a car, a motorcycle, bicycle, or even hike!
If you love to bike, check out this YouTube video:
Experience the Meeting of the Great Rivers Road
- Visit Alton for a full range of services – http://www.visitalton.com/
- Sign up for the American Legion Poker run in Memory of John Snider, on October 8, 2013 – http://feest.us/american-legion-poker-run-in-memory-of-john-snider-grafton-il-10-05
- September is celebrate the Great River Road Month — take a drive! — http://experiencemississippiriver.com/the-great-river-road-the-best-drive-in-america/
You may find this audio tour app of River Road – Alton to Golden Eagle useful if you go: http://www.hallslearning.com/