In mid-November we decided to take a weekend trip to Pere Marquette State Park and Grafton, IL. Camping at the Pere Marquette State Park Campground, we spent the weekend enjoying the State Park, surrounding towns, a lock and dam tour, and learned about the legend of the Piasa.
This location is northeast of St Louis, along the Mississippi River and the Illinois River. Along the way, we spent about 30 minutes driving on the Rivers National Scenic Byway. This byway is a special experience going from Alton to Grafton running between the river and the bluffs.
We thought we’d already missed peak fall colors, but we were treated to great fall foliage colors, contrasted against the brown-gray bluffs, offering a beautiful drive.
Pere Marquette Campground
We stayed at the Pere Marquette Campground in the State Park. There are 80 electric-only sites and 30 can be reserved in advance with a few water stations and a dump station. The campground hosts had firewood for sale, and there was a nice playground. Another amentity was a walking/biking path that Shane took a run on while Mitchell rode his bike on the path.
The campsites were large and level with a lot of space behind our site. There is a bathhouse and several cabins as well. The bathhouses were not the best we’ve seen. This campground was a great location if you want river access and it is near the historic lodge and visitors center.
We visited at an unusual time: shotgun deer season. The campground was filled with hunters. At sunrise, the surrounding forest was filled with the sound of gunshots; we decided against hiking that weekend.
Pere Marquette State Park and the Lodge
The lodge was built in the 1930’s by the CCC and has had recent updates. We took time to enjoy the common area which had a great stone fireplace, giant chess, and large Connect Four tabletop sets. We also had a meal at the lodge which was tasty and reasonably priced. They are known for their chicken dinner but we had steak and wine instead.
We drove the scenic loop of Pere Marquette State Park, the largest state park in Illinois. This took us up along the ridgeline of the bluffs and offered great views of the Illinois River and fall colors. At the end of our drive, we came across a downed tree across the road. We were fortunate to have someone behind us that helped us clear the tree from the road.
We would like to explore the park further in warmer weather as many go to the park to enjoy fishing, hunting, boating, hiking, riding, hiking, and bird watching at Pere Marquette State Park.
Grafton and Alton
Grafton feels like weekend getaway town. It’s packed with bed and breakfasts, antique shops, restaurants, wineries, events throughout the year, and tourist attractions like zip lining, a water park, and Pere Marquette State Park.
We stopped at Grafton Winery for a glass of wine and a snack. The building was beautiful and the wine was good. There is five wineries in Grafton, one of which sits high about the town and another that floats on the river.
We also took time to briefly explore Alton. We visited the site of a Civil War prison and warmed up with coffee at LuciAnna’s Pastries.
Alton is the hometown of Miles Davis, a Lincoln-Douglas debate site, home of Robert Wadlow (the Alton Giant), and has a historic district known for its haunted Alton tours.
Melvin Price Lock and Dam
Touring a lock and dam may not sound like a highlight of a Saturday afternoon, but this one is really impressive. The tour takes you on top of the lock and dam. We saw a barge navigate the lock and dam system which can accommodate a 1,200 foot barge. The main goal of the lock and dam network is to maintain an 8-9 foot river depth and keep the waterways navigable.
Within the building is The National Great Rivers Museum, where you can learn about the river, drive a barge simulator, and learn about floods.
The Piasa (pie-a-saw) Bird is a Native American mythical dragon painted of the bluffs above the Mississippi River by the people of Cahokia, the largest prehistoric city north of Mexico at the time (900-1200A.D.). It is thought the Piasa was painted as a warning to those approaching Cahokia. The original Piasa Bird is no longer exists, but a replica has been painted on the bluffs north of Alton. To appreciate the impact of the people of Cahokia on the Mississippi valley, Cahokia Mounds is a great side trip from this area. The Cahokia Mounds are underappreciated earthen pyramids that probably deserve to be added to the National Park System.
There was certainly more we could do in this area on a return visit. Eagles migrate south along the river as food sources freeze over in the north, January is supposed to be a great time to see these majestic birds. In the summer, Grafton is home to Raging Rivers, a water park. We mentioned the activities at Pere Marquette we could take advantage of during warmer weather. There is a Lewis and Clark site with a keel boat, Confluence Towers that mark the merger of the Illinois and Mississippi River, or take a ferry over the river. Pere Marquette State Park and Grafton was a good spot for a quick weekend Cricket Camping getaway.
Shane and Jessica
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