Designated one of the seven natural wonders of Illinois, The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway is much more than a road. Just 33 miles long, the byway winds west and north along the Mississippi River banks, starting in Hartford (near the near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers) and ending in Grafton (at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers). Along the way, you’ll find everything from myths to history to river cruises and so much more.
Here are 10 things to see and do when you drive The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway. I enjoyed them all!
Table of Contents
Step Back in Time to Start the Lewis & Clark Expedition
Climb 260 Steps to See the Confluence of the Mississippi & Missouri Rivers
Watch Giant Barges Go Through the Melvin Price Locks
Hang out with Abe Lincoln and the World’s Tallest Man
Drive the Three Historic Districts of Alton
Discover the Myth of the Piasa Bird
Try the Hiking and Biking Trails
Float Down the Rivers on an Hakuna Matata Cruise
Try Some New — and Old — Taste Sensations
Get Spooked on the Mineral Springs Ghost Tour
1. Step Back in Time to Start the Lewis & Clark Expedition
The Meeting of the Great Rivers driving tour begins in Hartford at the Lewis & Clark State Historic Park. Here, Lewis & Clark began their adventures on the Rivière du Bois (Wood River), which is formed by confluence of the West and East forks of the Mississippi. Inside the museum, you’ll find the account of one of the most important expeditions of the west. Its mission? To explore the interior of the United States, all the way to the Western ocean.
After celebrations for the 27th Independence Day, the team of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set off on July 5, 1803, from Pittsburg, Ohio, to establish Camp River DuBois in Illinois, where they wintered and prepared to start their cross-country expedition. On Monday, May 14th, 1804, at 4 p.m., 38 men in three boats, set out on their historic journey.
Reaching the west coast by water was an enormous undertaking, which took the explorers a year-and-a-half to accomplish — but accomplish it, they did. Indeed, they paddled down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean on November 18, 1805.
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, made it easy to see the challenges these explorers overcame to complete their goal.
2. Climb 260 Steps to See the Confluence of the Mississippi & Missouri Rivers
Next stop is the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower outside Hartford. 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.
The Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower is built at the confluence — or joining — of two of America’s mightiest rivers: the Mississippi and the Missouri. Situated on the Illinois bank of the Mississippi, the tower stands 180 feet tall.
Lookout platforms from inside the tower are accessible at 50 feet, 100 feet, and the highest, at 150 feet. In total, there are 260 stairs to climb right to the top (there’s an elevator too, thank goodness!). The view from the 150 foot deck is amazing, letting you see all the way to St. Louis, some 19 miles away, on a clear day. You can also see Grafton to the north, where the Illinois River meets the Mississippi.
3. Watch Giant Barges Go Through the Melvin Price Locks
If you find large boats fascinating, don’t miss a free tour at the Melvin Price Locks & Dam in East Alton.
Despite the heat — and it was a very hot August day on my visit — I loved watching the boats make their way through the locks. If you’re lucky, you’ll also have a cool breeze blowing off the Mississippi to make it easy to concentrate on everything your guide tells you about shipping on the river.
Indeed, these locks are some of the largest on the Mississippi River. So, they 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!
4. Hang out with Abe Lincoln and the World’s Tallest Man
There’s lots to see in Alton, and a number 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.
As well, make sure you drive through the city to see the monuments of the amazing moments in Alton’s history. Two stood out for me. The first were the statues of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas on the exact spot where the seventh debate for the 1858 United States Senatorial candidates happened. Indeed, Alton has a self-guided trail called the Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail with 10 stops throughout the city. Download the app when you visit or check out the brochure.
And second, I was fascinated with the statue — and story — of the world’s tallest man, Robert Wadlow (1918-1940). How tall was Robert Wadlow? Just short of 9 feet, at 8 feet 11.1 inches! You can stand by a life-size statue of Wadlow opposite the Alton Museum of History and Art as I did (see the pins for this article). The video below has clips from his life.
5. Drive the Three Historic Districts of Alton
I highly recommend taking the time to twist through the older parts 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 1800s architecture in this older part of the city will.
Alton has three historic districts. The first, Christian Hill, overlooks the city from a bluff high above the Mississippi. Primarily a residential area, this district includes 274 (266 contributing) buildings. The Middletown and Hunterstown neighborhoods, comprised of 653 buildings, (613 contributing) create the Middletown Historic District. And finally, the Upper Alton Historic District includes the campuses of Shurtleff College and the Western Military Academy as well as the surrounding residential areas.
6. Discover the Myth of the Piasa Bird
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 stories have survived for centuries. Long ago, according to the myth, these birds terrified the local people. Periodically, piasa birds swooped down and carried 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 at this location were lost when the cliffs were quarried away in the late 1870s. The current paintings were created in 1998 by the American Legends Society and volunteers, and the area was set aside as Piasa Park. It’s free of charge to visit the park, situated a mile north of the Alton Visitors Center.
7. Try the Hiking and Biking Trails
Leaving Alton, 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, the 20-mile long Sam Vadalabene paved trail for hikers and cyclists also follows The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway.
There are also a number of other trails that connect to The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway. Pere Marquette State Park offers approximately 12 miles of marked trails and the two-mile West Alton Trail provides a scenic, key link between Missouri’s KATY Trail and the Illinois trails.
Whether you’re driving or biking there are 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.
8. Float Down the Rivers on an Hakuna Matata Cruise
Even if you’re visiting this part of Illinois by boat, you can stay for awhile to check out The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway. Grafton Harbor, in Grafton, provides everything you’ll need to drop anchor while you cycle or hike through the area. And you can try the floating Big Kahuna Bar & Grill and watch the horizon change as you turn! There’s also a floating winery with 100 specially selected wines from around the globe to sample.
Those driving the scenic byway can also get a chance to float along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers by booking a ride on the Hakuna Matata Cruise boat. You can sit on the deck and soak up the sun, or relax in the air-conditioned level, while you listen to the tour guide tell you all about the area history. If you’re looking for a little romance, try one of the evening wine tours!
9. Try Some New — and old — Taste Sensations
It’s always hard to pick a restaurant when you travel, but I was very glad I stopped at Alton’s upscale Bossanova Restaurant & Lounge. The menu is perfect if you love to experiment with new tastes, especially since the introduction of their Bossa Asia menu. What’s on it? Everything from the Aha Tuna Stacker to Pork Tenderloin Wonton Tacos.
And if you’re looking for the perfect drink, give the Peach Hooch (if it’s in season) a try. And what’s that? Well, a full flavored drink consisting of American whiskey, peach schnapps, green chilies, fresh Calhoun peaches, and orange juice.
Or, if you’re more of a traditional eater, Castelli’s Restaurant at 255 is a perfect choice. Since the Castelli family have been serving Alton and area since 1937, and toasted ravioli is one of the house favorites, I had to give it a try.
Ravioli is typically made with the pasta dough of the chef’s choice and some kind of filling. Castelli’s ravioli was stuffed with a mildly seasoned meat mixture — it reminded me a little of the famous Lasyone’s meat pies in Natchitoches, LA, although Castelli’s seasoning was milder than the Creole mixture used by Lasyone’s.
The toasted outside of the ravioli provided a flavor superior to anything I’ve eaten that was steamed or boiled. As well as toasting the ravioli, Castelli’s serve it with a Bolognese dipping sauce. While there are as many recipes for this popular sauce as there are chefs, I found Castelli’s to have a strong tomato flavor not overpowered with spices.
A Dessert to Drive For!
And if dessert is what you drive for, then make Gentelin’s on Broadway your first choice. The Caramel, Walnut & White Chocolate Bread Pudding, served with house made cinnamon ice cream, toffee caramel sauce, walnuts, fresh Chantilly cream and a cookie is fabulous!
10. Get Spooked on the Mineral Springs Haunted Ghost Tour
To end your getaway on the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, check out the Mineral Springs Ghost Tour in Alton. In fact, Alton is known as the most haunted town in America. I can guarantee you’ll get a rich history of the area, even if the ghosts don’t appear.
The tour starts in the haunted Mineral Springs Mall, which is actually part of a hotel built in 1914 — the Mineral Springs Hotel. By day, you can browse through various antique shops, while at night, you can venture up the stairs, to unused rooms closed up for decades.
It’s in these rooms that you’ll hear the stories of the ghosts who still call the hotel home. There was Riva, a local woman who was sure her husband was cheating on her. And there was the Jasmin lady, whose perfume some still smell. However, the ghost I was happy didn’t appear was Charlie, who plays in your hair if he likes you!
When construction started on the building, way back in the day, they discovered a natural mineral spring in the ground. So, they built the largest swimming pool in Illinois in the basement and opened a spa. Today, you’ll hear the saddest story of the tour there, that of Cassandra, who drowned in the hotel pool at her birthday party. And if you’re lucky, you may feel her presence during the seance conducted there during the tour.
Plan Your Weekend Getaway
While it may sound confusing, The Great Rivers National Scenic Byway is part of the Great River Road. It’s 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.
If you don’t get time to explore this summer, September, when the trees don their “best” colors in these regions, is Great River Road Month. Mark it on your calendar!
Bossanova Martini Lounge and Restaurant
Castelli’s Restaurant at 255
Gentelin’s on Broadway
Grafton Harbor & Hakuna Matata Boat Cruises
Lewis & Clark State Historic Park
Melvin Price Locks & Free Dam Tours
Mineral Springs Haunted Tours
Sam Vadalabene Great River Road Bike Trail Itinerary
Visit Alton, Illinois
I drove the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway as part of a FAM press trip hosted by the city of Alton, Illinois following a Travel Media Showcase Conference. As always, I retain full editorial control over all articles I write following my visit.
More Places to Visit in Illinois, Wisconsin & Michigan
About the Photo
The photo in the header above was taken by Linda Aksomitis in Alton, Illinois, USA, on The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway.
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