About this Itinerary
If you want to experience river life the way Mark Twain pictured it, then the Sam Vadalabene Great River Road Bike Trail is for you. The trail is approximately 20 miles of level paved trail. Whether you start at Pere Marquette State Park or Piasa Park in Alton, you will want to come back with each season change to enjoy the natural beauty of this Midwest trail. Located in Jersey and Madison Counties, Illinois, the trail runs alongside the Great River Road and the center section of the Meeting of the Great Rivers (Mississippi and the Missouri) National Scenic Byway.
The trail is located in southwestern Illinois, west and south of Alton along the Mississippi River opposite St. Louis. You can start the trail in Pere Marquette State Park , named for the first European to step on Illinois soil, or in Alton. The park, located near Grafton, is a nature-lover’s paradise. Known for incredible views atop the bluffs, visitors have a myriad of year-round activities including camping, hiking, fishing, boating and horseback riding. The colors in the fall are vibrant and watching bald eagles soar in the winter will take your breath away.
The Sam Vadalabene trail is rich in history. It is a short section of the former Illinois Terminal (IT). The IT grew into one of the largest and most successful interurbans of all time thanks to the prolific volume of freight it was able to amass. This tractions system became what most others had always dreamed with a network spanning several hundred miles across the Prairie State reaching such cities as Peoria, Decatur, Champaign, and St. Louis. The trail utilizes a stretch which was abandoned in the 1950s. Aside from its size and success, the IT was a typical interurban, operated electrically, until diesels took over such duties in the 1950s. During the early 1980s, the IT was acquired by Norfolk & Western, which closed the books on this fascinating operation.
There are a number of local bed and breakfast inns. If you’re looking for a romantic weekend getaway in a B&B, we recommend The Grafton Inn or the End of The Trail Guesthouse. You can bike or walk to nearly everything from both. The Grafton Inn has only two units, so be sure to call ahead. Ask for the “west” room, which has a nice view overlooking the river from the living room. At the End of The Trail Guesthouse, you can sit on the front porch and enjoy a glass of wine or rest your muscles in the jetted tub. Another place we recommend is the Ruebel Hotel, located near the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. This hotel is steeped in history. Built in 1879, it caught fire in 1912 and was rebuilt and renovated in 1997. New owners took over in 2008 and renovated the hotel to modern standards. The Ruebel has the original beautiful bar from the 1904 St. Louis Word's Fair which is a must-see. The Ruebel Restaurant offers excellent food and a great variety of wines, spirits and beers. Another option is the historical Pere Marquette Lodge and Conference Center, a popular St. Louis tourist attraction and vacation destination located in Pere Marquette State Park. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression it is an impressive structure of limestone and massive timbers made complete with a 50-foot vaulted ceiling and a massive 700-ton stone fireplace in the Great Room. The lodge also features , a terrace overlooking the scenic Illinois River, an indoor pool, a restaurant, a local winery, romantic cabins and comfortable guest rooms.
We begin the trail at Pere Marquette State Park. Two miles in you’ll come to the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, which occupies most of the land following the Great River Road on the riverside between the state park and Grafton. The wetlands, bottomland forests and prairies provide a habitat for numerous mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish and nearly 300 bird species. A level, wide dirt road leads through this area for the more intrepid.
Just a mile farther down the trail, you can take a detour by crossing the Illinois River on a state-operated ferry. Once you cross the river on the Brussels Free Ferry, you can ride along County Road 1, which takes you to portions of the Mississippi River State Fish and Wildlife Area, the visitors center for the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge and the towns of Golden Eagle, Brussels and Batchtown. If you’d prefer to stay on the Sam Vadalabene trail, you can simply stop at the ferry dock and enjoy a picnic lunch or catch your breath looking at the water and all the vessels on it. In the winter, the ferry is one of the most popular spots for viewing bald eagles.
Next on the trail, you’ll see Marquette Monument, which is about half a mile past the ferry. The monument commemorates Jacques Marquette (also known as Pere Marquette) being the first European to land in Illinois. The cross is cut from a solid piece of dolomite and sits on a ledge of a bluff that overlooks the Illinois River.
About a quarter of the way into the trail, near mile 6, you’ll come to Grafton, a fun, quaint town that is situated at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers and stretches for approximately two miles. If you’re hungry, this would be a wonderful place to stop as there are lots of restaurants to choose from ranging from fresh fish to burgers. Be sure to stop by the Grafton Visitors Center to check for any special events. In the winter, you can see bald eagles roosting on the islands that parallel the trail.
Just past Grafton, you’ll come to New Piasa Chautauqua, a private community founded in the later 19th century. At mile 10, you’ll step back into the 19th century when you come to the Village of Elsah, which is 40 miles from St. Louis. The entire town was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Elsah encourages visitors to walk the streets of the town and see the rich history, architecture and beauty.
The stretch between Grafton and the Piasa Creek Access Area is marked by towering limestone bluffs ablaze with sharp, vibrant color during the fall. The bike path shares space with cars and motorcyclists driving the Scenic Byway. Around mile 14.5, you will come to the Piasa Creek Access Area, which is on the border of Madison and Jersey Counties. The Access Area is part of the Mississippi River State Fish and Wildlife Area and provides access to the Mississippi River. Next, you’ll come to Clifton Terrace Park. This small, roadside park has an informational kiosk of the history of the area.
As you near the end of the Sam Vadalabene trail, continue about one mile north of Alton’s visitors center at Piasa Park to see the Piasa Bird. The bird is a 48’ x 22’ reproduction of a Native American petroglyph. The bird sits on a section of the Mississippi bluffs. Early drawings depict it as part bird, reptile, mammal and fish.
For dinner upon your return, try the Fin Inn Restaurant, a family-owned place built by James Sieb, a WWII veteran and former commercial fisherman. James gathered limestone and creek rocks from local waterways and laid each stone himself. The restaurant features 8,000-gallon aquariums, which include many types of fish native to the Mississippi River. It also features different species of turtle, including the Loggerheads, the largest weighing over 100 pounds. The restaurant is open year round, seven days a week. If hickory smoked ribs is your preference, we recommend you hop over to award-winning Carver’s BBQ in Godfrey. Their specialty, hickory smoked pulled pork, is hand pulled and the sauce is always served on the side. You can choose to “sauce it up” with a variety of different sauces or simply enjoy the flavor of the meat without any sauce at all. The restaurant is open Monday through Saturday. If you want to sit outside and enjoy music, we recommend visiting The Loading Dock, a top St. Louis destination. The restaurant is an outdoor bar and grill with a fabulous view at the end of a scenic drive. Watch the river roll by while listening to live entertainment. If you visit The Loading Dock during the fourth weekend of every month from March to October you can also visit the Riverside Flea Market featuring more than 60 local vendors. Note that this restaurant is only open seasonally, spring through fall. We also recommend Piasa Winery & Pub, located in Grafton. They have as many as 16 different beers on tap and a huge variety of wines. Their menu has something for everyone and there is live music June through October. Enjoy your surroundings as you sit on the deck at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.
There is much to see and do when you’re not on your bike. It’s always nice to go back into Grafton where you can stroll down Main Street, visit some of the local arts and crafts stores, go antiquing, or visit one of the wineries. There are also many historical sites, outdoor activities, wineries and restaurants to visit.
If you are looking for an adventure of a different kind be sure to stop by Grafton Zipline Adventures. Treat yourself to stunning views from the air. You will enjoy nine different ziplines, each offering breathtaking views. The shortest line, Baby Bear, is only 300 feet; the longest, Soaring Eagle, is 2,000! It will take you approximately two hours to complete the course. Reservations are highly recommended, so book online ahead of time. If you want a different view of the rivers take a flight with Captain Andy’s Parasail . All parasail flights take off and land from the back of Captain Andy’s custom boat. Fly high, stay dry and enjoy the spectacular views. No prior experience necessary. Captain Andy leaves the dock at Grafton Harbor Marina, located at 215 West Water Street in Grafton.
If you are a history buff, the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site is a must stop. The visitors center, located at the winter camp area of the expedition, is the first site on the National Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail. The central exhibit is a 55-foot full-scale replica of the keel boat used by Lewis and Clark. The center also includes exhibits on Illinois and the entire expedition. If you want to leave ground for a bit, visit the Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower. Built in 2010 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the tower has viewing platforms at 50,100 and 150 feet, which you reach using an elevator. Depending on how high you decide to go, you can see the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and the Arch in St. Louis nearly 20 miles away. There is a small fee to ride the elevator, which includes a guide. When done viewing the landscape from above, visit the outdoor gardens and learn how Lewis and Clark catalogued the specimens, pressed leaves and collected seeds. There is a 21-mile paved Confluence Bike Trail from Granite City to Alton, which can be accessed at the Confluence Tower where there is lots of free parking.
At the National Great Rivers Museum, you can put on your sailor hat as you try to navigate a tow boat through the locks on a computer simulator, and visit the other exhibits that explain the ecology of the rivers, the engineering of the locks and what tows do. Enjoy a 25-minute film, “The Power of the River,” which provides a good overview of the rivers and more. Entrance to the museum and the surrounding lock area is free. If you arrive when the museum is not open you can still walk around the area and learn about the locks through interpretive signs. The museum is located next to the Melvin Price Locks and Dam in Alton.
The Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary/Audubon Center offers exhibits that focus on bird wildlife in the area, migration patterns of birds and how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineering manages the water flow in the riverlands. There are spotting scopes available for your use and you can reference or input a bird on the E-Bird Tracker from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Outside the center, take a break and view the beauty around you on the center’s wrap-around deck, enjoy a picnic overlooking Ellis Bay, visit a miniature wetland pond and native rain garden and enjoy a hike on the 8.5 miles of hiking trails in the sanctuary.