The Great River Road is an all-American icon; it traces the mighty Mississippi River across 10 states. For a road trip that’s all about the journey rather than the destination, hop on the River Road in Wood River, Illinois, and keep driving to enjoy museums, art and great eats.
What to do
Travel west on this scenic byway to one of its most prominent stops: the National Great Rivers Museum. The 12,000-square-foot facility boasts interactive exhibits, fish tanks and a theater – plus free tours of the massive Melvin Price Locks and Dam, which helps barges navigate changing water levels. The museum works with nonprofit organization Meeting of the Rivers Foundation to educate the public on the marvels of the Mississippi River.
Five miles west of the museum is Piasa Park. In the late 1600s, Europeans spotted a mural painted high on the limestone bluffs along the river. A variety of conflicting accounts exist about the mural’s true imagery – some say it’s an underwater panther, while others believe it’s a giant, man-eating bird of prey, dubbed “Piasa” by the Illini Native Americans. The original image has been worn down over time and no longer exists, but another was painted a few hundred yards upstream and is visible today.
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After the park, hop aboard the Grafton Ferry – just 14 miles farther west – which takes visitors across the Mississippi to St. Charles, Missouri. As a true functioning ferry, vehicles and bicycles can also make the journey. Just remember to bring cash to catch a ride. As an alternative to the ferry, travelers can cross the Clark Bridge and head south toward the Edward “Ted” and Pat Jones-Confluence Point State Park. Once there, walk through the woods to the point at which the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet. The confluence point offers panoramic views, and if timed correctly, it’s possible to see the sun set on one side and the moon rise on the other.
Where to eat
Alton, Illinois, is awash with historic homes and buildings, but the bar and restaurant scene is one of a kind. One local favorite is Fast Eddie’s Bon Air, which is housed in a yellow brick building that belonged to Anheuser Busch in the 1920s. The classic establishment specializes in peel ‘n’ eat shrimp, homemade bratwurst and chicken and pork kabobs. When weather permits, patrons can dine and drink in the popular open-air courtyard. Bring cash, or use the ATM on-site. Down the road in Grafton, Illinois, pay a visit to O’Jan’s Fish Stand for fried catfish or The Loading Dock for a scenic lunch on the water.
Where to stay
Exploring the Great River Road is an easy day trip, but if you’re interested in making a weekend out of it, book a room at the Alton Cracker Factory. This Victorian-style former factory gives guests a bird’s-eye view of the water and surrounding wetlands. The rooms are a luxurious mix of new and old, with wooden beams and brick walls original to the building.
Alton Cracker Factory, 205 E. Broadway, Alton, Illinois, 618-381-8433, altoncrackerfactory.com