Big bluffs, mighty rivers, the largest state park and one giant bird—you'll find them all along the Sam Vadalabene Great River Road Bike Trail. This unique rail-trail starts in the 8,050-acre Pere Marquette State Park (named for the first European to step on Illinois soil) and follows the Illinois River to its confluence with the Mississippi River. The enormous state park (the largest in Illinois) has a rich history and limitless sights, from Native American burial mounds to educational displays to lookouts with sweeping river views. It is best known, however, for its vivid fall foliage and a winter population of the majestic bald eagle.
Shortly after the park, the trail travels over a series of short but fairly steep hills and gullies. Once back on level terrain, it comes to an impressive monument to the arrival of Marquette and Joliet in 1673. Around mile 5, you enter the town of Grafton, where the trail crosses the road and starts its run right along the riverbank of the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Across the river sits the state of Missouri. This is a beautiful 1-mile stretch with turtles, herons and a plethora of waterfowl. Soon the trail veers off the rail corridor and passes by the marina and ferry landing along the quiet riverfront streets of Grafton. All the great shops and restaurants of Main Street are just a one-block walk off the trail.
For its first and last several miles, the trail follows close to—even right alongside—IL Highway 100 and the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway. At the east end of downtown Grafton, the trail merges directly with the roadway, traveling along a 3- to 4-foot-wide painted bike lane that parallels the river, offering excellent water views. Traffic moves fast on this stretch, but the bike lane is wide enough for comfortable travel.
Just east of Grafton is a visitor center with knowledgeable staff and a wide array of informative publications. Four miles from Grafton, you'll find a pleasant detour in the town of Elsah. Turn off the Scenic Byway and take a spin through the hamlet on Mill Street. Stone and brick houses line the narrow streets, lending Elsah a step-back-in-time quality that earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Continuing on the Scenic Byway, in stark contrast to the wide river on your right, sheer limestone cliffs tower over the far side of the road for most of the 8 miles traveled along the roadway from Grafton to Piasa Harbor. After passing the commercial harbor developments and a welcoming service station at Lockhaven Road, the bike lane crosses the road and resumes as trail.
The final 6 miles roll along over sometimes rough trail surfacing, between the highway and the dramatic bluffs looming above. When you arrive at the southern trailhead in Piasa Park, look up at the huge limestone bluff to see a 48-by-22-foot Native American petroglyph painting of the fierce, warrior-killing Piasa Bird. Alton is the gateway to a grand network of trails continuing southward on both sides of the great Mississippi River.
To southern parking and trail access at Piasa Park: From I-270, take Exit 3 onto IL-3 North and go 6.9 miles. Turn left onto IL-143 West and go 4.2 miles. Continue straight onto US-67 North and go 0.8 mile. Turn left onto IL-100 West and go 0.9 mile to parking on the right.
To northern parking and trail access at Pere Marquette State Park: Follow the above directions, then continue on IL-100 West for 20.2 miles and turn right into the main park entrance. Parking is immediately to the left; trail access, to the right.