Share this travel adventure!

guide2travel.ca

...travel adventures with a twist of history
Latest ArticlesAdventures

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

Replica of the keelboat used by Lewis & Clark on their expedition.

Replica of the keelboat used by Lewis & Clark on the Corps of Discovery 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

Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower

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

Barge making its way through the locks at the Melvin Price Locks & Dam.

Barge making its way through the locks at the Melvin Price Locks & Dam at Alton, Illinois.

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

The Lincoln and Douglas debate statues on the exact spot of their seventh and last debate on October 15, 1858.

The Lincoln and Douglas debate statues on the exact spot of their seventh and last debate on October 15, 1858.

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

Historic buildings in Alton, Illinois.

Historic buildings in Alton, Illinois.

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 mythical piasa bird at Piasa Park near Alton, Illinios.

The mythical piasa bird at Piasa Park near Alton, Illinios.

Back out on the highway (#100), Piasa Park is the next stop on the drive. As a storyteller and writer, the myth of the Piasa bird really caught my attention!

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

Hike along the riverfront to see the Grafton Visitor Center situated in a iconic lighthouse built after the Great Flood of 1993.

Hike along the riverfront to see the Grafton Visitor Center situated in a iconic lighthouse built after the Great Flood of 1993.

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

Hakuna Matata boat cruise in Grafton, Illinois.

Hakuna Matata boat cruise in Grafton, Illinois.

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

Toasted ravioli at Castelli's in Alton, Illinois.

Homemade toasted ravioli at Castelli’s in Alton, Illinois.

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.

Toasted Ravioli

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!

Caramel, Walnut & White Chocolate Bread Pudding served at Gentelin's in Alton, Illinois.

Caramel, Walnut & White Chocolate Bread Pudding served at Gentelin’s in Alton, Illinois.

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

References

Encyclopedia Britannica – Piasa Bird
The Journals of Lewis and Clark, 1804-1806, by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis – free in ebook or HTML format from Project Gutenberg.

Acknowledgements

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

10 Best Stops on The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway

Check out 10 of the best stops with history to hiking on The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, one of the 7 natural wonders of Illinois.

9 Things You Must See in Albany, Georgia

Check out these 9 things you must see in Albany, Georgia — an unexpected Southern city that offers magnificent fall foliage on the Flint River.

Visit the Dutch Windmill in Little Chute: An Authentic 1850s Wind Mill

"Whooooomp...whooomp...whomp." The wind mill blades started turning slowly, as if the wind had trouble pushing the enormous blades. But move they did, round and round and round, settling into a steady rhythm on the hot summer day in Little Chute, Wisconsin. I stared...

Snowmobile Racing Hall of Fame and Museum — St. Germain, Wisconsin — Fall Colors!

The Snowmobile Racing Hall of Fame and Museum is one of our favorite stops in Wisconsin. Mind you it doesn't hurt that St. Germain, where it's located, is smack in the middle of snowmobile country where the sports of snowmobiling and snowmobile racing were born some...

A Giant Musky, Mythical Creatures, the Boat Motor Graveyard–all in the Wisconsin Northwoods

Towering over the museum grounds, the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum's giant four-and-a-half stories tall muskie is called a "shrine to anglers." For visitors, like me, to Hayward, WI, it's an amazing conglomeration of concrete, steel,...

What’s the Famous Cherry Breakfast Dish at Door County’s White Gull Inn?

The White Gull Inn is an elegant, 120 year-old B&B situated in Fish Creek, WI, in Door County. It won the 2010 Good Morning America Breakfast Challenge.

Paul Bunyan, Snowmobiles, a Giant Chainsaw & More in Wisconsin #TriviaTuesday

There are lots of surprises hiding between the trees in the Wisconsin Northwoods. In fact, one of my favorite heroes of traditional tall tales, Paul Bunyan, and his blue ox, were the first things I saw through the pines while driving into Sayner, Wisconsin. [tabs...

50s Theme Restaurant: Hudson’s Classic Grill in Escanaba, Michigan #food

For the baby boomer crowd, there's nothing that takes you back in time like finding a 50s theme restaurant -- and as luck would have it, we ended up in Escanaba, Michigan, for my last birthday, just a block away from Hudson's Classic Grill. Hudson's has the classic...

What’s the Primary Collection of the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Neenah, WI?

The Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Neenah, Wisconsin, specializes--of course--in glass. And glass, as you'll find when you visit, is an art form that's as varied and beautiful as any other art you can name. ...

5 Must-Do Experiences for a First Time South Haven Visitor

South Haven, Michigan, a harbor town on Lake Michigan, has lots for visitors from the beach to horseback riding to the annual blueberry festival.

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.

Pin Me!

If you enjoyed this article please pin it to share!

 linda aksomitis next to the statue of tallest man ever live -=

The Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower stands at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in Illinois.

This commemorative lighthouse in Grafton is on the The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway.

Visit Grafton at the north end of The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway in Illinois.

Search Categories

Follow us on social media!

shares