The main room in the Lodge at Perre Marquette State Park
By Sally Tippett Rains
Missouri and Illinois are highly underrated as far as scenery is concerned as a vacation destination. The Midwest may not have the ocean or snowcapped mountains, but it makes up for it in the seasonal color changing of trees, the many flowers, birds, hiking areas and waterways—and the Great River Road is a shining example for the perfect getaway.
The Great River Road makes for a short vacation spot that is not too far from St. Louis yet it seems like a world away. Spring, summer and fall would be the publicized time to visit as the trees may be budding, turning green or displaying their lovely autumn colors. There are places to go that are only open in the summer, but a trip to Pere Marquette Park by way of the Great River Road in the middle of winter can be a lot of fun too.
Those who like to avoid crowds, hike with less possibility of meeting a snake, and would rather look at the river than be in it will like making a reservation at the Lodge at Pere Marquette.
From 270 North head towards Missouri 367, crossing the bridge into Alton. Alton itself is an interesting town and those who like to go to antique stores would like to stop in Alton. The Argosy Casino is in Alton.
Along the road one might spot some wildlife. Eagles are the most popular reason people know about the Great River Road but if you don’t see any eagles you are sure to see seagulls.
As you proceed on towards Grafton you are engulfed in nature as the Mississippi River is to your left and grand limestone bluffs are to the right. If it’s the right time of year or if you are lucky you might see an eagle—or many many eagles. The photo to the left shows seagulls gathered on a dock on the river at the bottom of the hill from Pere Marquette State Park.
Other birds which could be seen are mallard ducks or blue herons.
One bird visible is something that is not going to fly away. Painted on the rocks on the side of the cliffs is the “Piasa Bird.” Nearbyis the Piasa Bird Trail, which offers a unique experience in trail hiking, combining the beauty of nature afforded by the scenic views from atop the bluffs.
The 17th century explorers Marquette and Joliet wrote about the legend of the Piasa Bird of Native American folklore. Carved in the huge rock walls is a picture of the Piasa Bird. Years ago it was painted and then the paint wore off and now it is painted again so it is easy to spot while driving.
Marquette and Joliet, the explorers most school children learn about made their marks in Illinois and other Midwest states. In 1673, a Jesuit missionary named Father Jacques Marquette and a fur trader named Louis Joliet went on an expedition to explore the unsettled territory in North America from the Great Lakes region to the Gulf of Mexico for the colonial power of France. They had two bark canoes and did much exploring on the Mississippi.
As you drive along the River Road it is easy to imagine what it must have been like for the explorers as there are parts of the river that appear to be untouched. It is the kind of beauty seen in the St. Charles area on the parts of the river where no businesses are.
For the drive to our destination of Pere Marquette State Park, you can bring a picnic and stop beside the river, or bike on the trail under the bluffs or explore the grounds on the hiking trails. There are also restaurants to stop at and easily accessible in both Alton and Grafton. The famous Fast Eddies Bon Air is located just a block off the River Road at 1530 E 4th St, Alton, IL 62002.
You will pass Raging Rivers Water Park which is closed for the winter, but a good destination in the summer.
Once you get to Pere Marquette State Park and there is a great lodge where guests can stay and explore the areas around it.
Pere Marquette State Park
13112 Visitor Center Lane
Grafton IL 62037
The Lodge has a huge room with a stone fireplace and gorgeous views of the river on one side which is completely glass windows. There is also a restaurant that is made in the rustic look of the lodge. On the walls are paintings of Native Americans.
Guests are seen reading in the lobby, gazing out the windows at the river, warming themselves by the fireplace and playing the giant game of chess. Whether a chess aficionado or just someone who likes a friendly game every once in a while, the chess game is a center of the lodge.
There’s a small gift shop, soda and snack machine, but no coffee in the rooms. There are coffee makers but guests should bring their own coffee or plan to get some at the restaurant which opens at 8:30.
For those who want a little more of an outdoors experience– campers will find plenty to do at Pere Marquette, from camp sites and cabins to the popular Youth Tent Camp and three group camps
During the winter the lush greenery is gone–replaced with brown, gray, trees whose leaves have long departed, however the trails are there and it is still a nature lover’s paradise as this area is where the Mississippi River and Illinois River join.
From the spectacular views of the Mississippi River and also Illinois River and its backwaters from several points above the bluffs, visitors can take advantage of a variety of year-round recreational opportunities, including horseback riding, camping, hiking, fishing, hunting and boating.
The horseback riding stables are just before you arrive at the park– off the main road.
The Visitor Center at Pere Marquette is interesting with a three-dimensional map of the park and displays of the animals in the area, murals and boards which tell the history and there is even a replica of a giant eagle’s nest that visitors can step into for photo opportunities.
This Sunday, Jan. 23, 2023 is the Bald Eagle Festival at Pere Marquette State Park. The festival is billed as a unique vendors, live music, restaurant favorites, locally made wines, live bird shows, and more family fun. There is a “Master’s of the Sky Show” presented by The World Bird Sanctuary, to introduce and educate guests to the eagles and other magnificent winged creatures like owls, falcons, and more. Show times will be at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm and tickets are $5 a person. Seating is limited to the Master’s of the Sky Show and based on a first come, first serve basis. For more information, contact Arielle at 618-786-2331, ext. 338.
For more information on the Festival on their Facebook page, CLICK HERE.
Speaking of eagles, the entire months of January and February are great times for bald eagle watching.
This time of the year is perfect for the guided tour of some of the best eagle watching hot spots in and around the Grafton region. It’s a two and a half-hour tour which will highlight sites where wintering American Bald eagles are typically seen in the area. Tickets must be purchased in advance and the dates for this are January 7, 17, 21, 28 and Feb. 4, 11, 18, and 25. You must make reservations ahead of time: Grafton Skytour parking lot 3 W. Clinton St. Grafton, Illinois 62037. Call (618) 465-6676. Admission is $30 per person and the tours start at 9 a.m.
Photo courtesy Grafton Eagle Watching Shuttle Tours and RiversAndRoutes.com.
For a Visitors Guide to Grafton CLICK HERE
Besides the natural and geological beauty, the Mississippi River around Pere Marquette and Grafton, IL has a “beachy” look to it which tourists will enjoy.
There is a lighthouse in an area called “Lighthouse Park.” The lighthouse was built in 2007, as is 47 feet tall and lights the Grafton riverfront along the Mississippi River.
While staying at the Lodge at the Pere Marquette Park, it’s an easy drive to Grafton—just back down the Great River Road. Businesses in the area have made it tastefully into an attraction with a lighthouse, sky tour, wineries, candy shops and bakeries as well as the popular destination: The Loading Dock.
The Loading Dock. 401 Front St, Grafton, IL 62037
The Loading Dock gives the guest the feeling you are indeed in a beachfront restaurant. It has stunning river views, with both indoor and outdoor seating. They are popular as a live music destination. Whether it is a warm summer day or evening, or just a pleasantly warm winter day, the chance to sit at The Loading Dock and enjoy a meal or a drink can be very peaceful.
Now that is in sharp contrast to the weekends during warmer weather when people come from miles around for the musical acts they have. The Loading Dock is a hopping place for weekend fun.
But there is something so serene about sitting in the restaurant during the winter– especially if it is a beautiful sunshiny day. The stillness of the landscape is peaceful and refreshing to the soul.
The great thing about going to the Loading Dock in the winter is that there are no crowds, yet you still get a beautiful view of the river.
Lunch at The Loading Dock is the perfect remedy if you are looking for comfort foods.
They seem to be best known for their Dock Salsa and Tilapia Fish Tacos, but there is something for everyone on the menu. A few of the offerings on the menu are cheeseburger with fries, catfish fritters and fries, fish tacos, mini corndogs, pretzel bites and potato soup.
They also serve the best grilled cheese and tomato soup we have had, this side of Mom’s kitchen.
It is definitely a comfort food in a beautiful setting. Be sure to dip the grilled cheese in the soup.
Despite the lower number of people in the winter, The Loading Dock still has an exciting element to it n the winter though, as they have an ice rink that is unique in that there are tables for ordering food and drinks. If you have a groupgoing over there, check out the rental areas. You will be surprised at. how affordable it is.
The Loading Dock Ice Rink is open through Feb. 26 during the 2023 winter season.
They rent out the ice rink area for parties and there are white beachy type chairs in there and large white tents which can also be rented at a reasonable price If you have a group
Not far from The Loading Dock is Aerie’s Resort.
Aerie’s Resort. https://www.aeriesresort.com/
Aeries Resort is another destination in the Graton area worth checking out. According to their website, they offer a restaurant, lodging, the Grafton Zipline, the Grafton SkyTour, Aerie’s Alpine Coaster, and “The Best View in the Midwest.”
The gondolas that take you on an above the ground adventure make the area look like a ski resort. is it a beach? Is it a ski resort? Is it a nature preserve? The Grafton area looks like a little bit of everything. It is part small town and part bustling destination– depending on what time of year you are there.
At the top of the hill where the gondola ride shows the best views, there is also a winery and various other places to stay as part of the Aeries resport.
They have lodging both down by the river and in their resort, which sits on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers above downtown Grafton.
There are also many small bed and breakfasts or Air B & Bs located right along the river.
Explore St. Louis agrees with us about the Great River Road: “Some of the region’s most dramatic scenery is nestled along a winding road north of Alton, Illinois. Drive along the Great River Road with the Mississippi River on one side and soaring limestone bluffs on the other.”
If you want to get away, the Great River Road is the perfect place to go.