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Sandwiched between towering limestone bluffs and the confluence of two mighty rivers, the Sam Vadalabene Great River Road Bike Trail offers scenery once enjoyed by riverboat captains. Today, you can experience the views from an asphalt trail and bike lane that runs just over 20 miles between Pere Marquette State Park and the outskirts of Alton.
Much of the trail that hugs the Illinois shoreline follows the Alton-Grafton section of the Illinois Terminal Railroad, which ran interurban lines in western and central Illinois. This section served residents along the river from 1896 to the 1950s.
The state Department of Transportation opened the eastern 15.5-mile segment in the late 1970s, and the Department of Natural Resources extended the trail to Pere Marquette State Park in the early 1990s. It was named for a state senator who was remembered as a champion of bicycling resources.
Visit Pere Marquette State Park, the largest park in the state’s system, before setting out. Named for the first European to set foot on Illinois soil, the park is known for its scenic overlooks, American Indian burial mounds, autumn colors, and winter population of bald eagles.
Leaving the park, you might be challenged by some short hills until the trail settles in comfortably alongside IL 100 after 3 or 4 miles. You can catch fleeting glimpses of the Illinois River through the woods here and visit a stone monument commemorating Jacques Marquette’s arrival in 1673 at 4.5 miles into your ride.
You’ll roll into the historical river town of Grafton in another 0.5 mile as the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers meet. The trail traces the waterfront for a mile, where you’ll see turtles and waterfowl, then it shares a street, where it passes a marina and ferry landing within a block of shops and cafés on Main Street.
At the east end of downtown Grafton, the trail merges onto IL 100 as a 3- to 4-foot-wide bike lane separated from traffic by rumble strips. While traffic whizzes past on your left, barges make their way up and down the wide river that’s flowing just beyond your right shoulder. Adding to this spectacle, towering limestone bluffs soar above the trees across the road. You’ll ride next to the Mississippi River for the next 8.3 miles on this highway that’s part of the Great River Road, which runs from Minnesota to Louisiana and is designated as a National Scenic Byway.
Four miles from Grafton, you’ll find a pleasant detour in the town of Elsah. A spin through the hamlet on LaSalle and Mill Streets reveals pre-1860 stone buildings still in use, lending Elsah a step-back-in-time quality that earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Four miles past Elsah, the Sam Vadalabene Great River Road Bike Trail crosses IL 100 and finishes the last 5.6 miles as a bike path with a sometimes rough surface at the foot of the bluffs on the northeast side of the highway.
Arriving at the trailhead about 1 mile upstream from Alton, you’ll see the Piasa Bird overlooking the parking lot. The giant painting on a limestone bluff is a reproduction of an American Indian petroglyph that settlers discovered nearby. Bicyclists looking to extend their journey can pick up the Madison County Transit Confluence Trail in Alton.
To reach the trailhead at Pere Marquette State Park from I-55, take Exit 52 toward Litchfield and Gillespie and head west on IL 16. Go 8.4 miles and turn right onto Broadway St., remaining on IL 16. Go 8.0 miles and turn right to remain on IL 16. Continue 33.2 miles, pass through Jerseyville, and turn left onto IL 100. Go 9.7 miles and turn left into the park. Parking is straight ahead; follow signs for the trail.
To reach the trailhead at Piasa Park from I-270, take Exit 3 or 3B toward Alton on IL 3/Lewis and Clark Blvd. Head north on IL 3 for 6.7 miles and turn left onto IL 143 W/Great River Road. Then go another 4.3 miles and continue straight on US 67 N/Broadway Connector. Go 0.8 mile and take the left lanes onto W. Broadway, which becomes Great River Road/McAdams Pkwy. In 0.9 mile turn right into the parking lot at Piasa Park.
My friend and I rode this trail on September 17, 2016 from the Pisiah Bird north to the Pere Marquette park and back. It was a great day, a BEAUTIFUL ride and the perfect amount of excercise. One thing we would for SURE do differently is to park north of the Pisiah bird lot.... I think there is access in Godfrey? The trail should really be closed for those 1st couple of miles north of Pisiah! I also am not sure that I would have the nerve to ride the section that is ON the highway again. We did not realize it would be like that. While the road is super smooth and the path quite wide, I have seen too many cars veer off the shoulder in these days of distracted driving and was very thankful to exit the road alive. I would definitely not take my children on that stretch. Between Grafton and the State Park is very family friendly!
When I read the 2013 review that complained of a rough trail surface, I thought surely in the 3 years since it's been fixed.
Nope. What I expected to be a scenic ride was instead one spent watching the trail for hazards.
Going north from Alton you have to ride on the shoulder of a busy 4 lane highway to get from the end of the Confluence Trail to the beginning of this one.
It could be a great trail but it needs a lot of work.
We traveled and spent a whole month in Madison County, riding all the TrailLink bike trails there. We know the Pierre Marquette-to-Alton area well from previous car trips, but this was our first time to go on a bike. We thought this might be our favorite trail of the entire trip, so we planned to do it last. It did not disappoint. We HAD to make our usual stop for lunch at the Fin Inn in Grafton. And we found the Grafton Visitor Center east of town was a friendly and helpful place. As was the trail-friendly service station on down at Lockhaven Road. The trail is never boring. There is so much to see and imagine the whole way. The park and lodge, the ferries, the bluffs, the rivers, Marquette and Joliet, Grafton, Chautauqua, Elsah, the Piasa. A rich and full biking experience. Go and enjoy.
Once again I traveled to this scenic route and was amazed they still haven't fixed the beginning of the trail! The first 6 miles are laced with buckled pavement, pot holes, gravel etc. Since I'm an experienced cyclist I have no problem navigating but my road bike takes a beating! I guess I'll have to use the road shoulder next time. I always forget. The scenery as usual was awesome and the workout was great. It's a deceptively easy out and back ride of about 42 miles but that return ride is challenging when you have to battle the winds coming off the river. Since the road is winding as is follows the bluffs you get a break from time to time. All in all it's always a joy to spend a few hours on the trail to take in the sights and enjoy the work out.
Rode the trail on 8/4/2013 and there are two compelling opposites that riders should understand: Dangerously Beautiful.
The Mississippi River forms a beautiful lake, called Alton Lake, with the pleasure boats, sail boats and barges and tow boats moving the nation’s goods. The limestone cliffs and the blue sky with clouds is a very appealing visual image. The small river towns of Grafton, Elsah and Alton reflect the “Mark Twain” ideal of river life.
The danger is real in that over one-half of the 20 mile ride you and your bike are on the shoulder of a 4 lane very busy highway with traffic moving at 50 to 70 mph. The only thing that provides any protection is a 4 inch white line. To complete the distance you must cross the roadway a minimum of two (2) times without traffic lights. There was a bicyclist accident in the afternoon of 8/4/2013.
While this trail is a book of “rail to trail” rides it is very different than most of those.
Started trail on most southern side and had to turn back about a mile in. There was a ton of debris, rocks, wood, cracks in the pavement that made this trail dangerous for a road bike. If you have a mountain bike, you will be fine. Saw some others come off the trail on mountain bikes and they said it was fine for them. If you have a road bike and want to ride on a lot of debris and possibly pop your tires, this is the trial for you. Very disappointing.
A recent review mentions that the trail needs some work...and it does. But the good news is that you can continue on the VERY wide (7-8') shoulder of the road for most of the rough patch. The scenery was incredible, quite a few herons and turtles out today. It got a little windy on the way back to Piasa Bird, but what a beautiful ride. Did the recommended stop in Elsah...very neat little town, well worth a short side trip.
I've ridden this trail several times and the scenery is second to none. My only complaint is the condition of the trail especially between the starting point in Alton and Cliffton Terrace! The pavement is buckled and potholed in several spots, weeds growing through cracks and loose gravel filling in sections which can make traction a little hazardous if you happen to be riding a road bike like myself. I'm certain the floods have taken their toll but if you're going to have a trail for public use than you should keep it maintained. Apart for this I feel it's a good ride to check out the scenery along the bluffs and river. Today I saw several turtles sunning themselves on the driftwood along the banks all along the river. Godfrey is definately worth the stop. The last four miles before Pere Marquette get a little hilly but nothing serious. Well worth the trip! Afterwords stop by Fast Eddys for some great eats!
The good, scenery is nice. Bad - the smell of dead fish and runs right next to highway with lots of traffic. I didn't feel it was unsafe, as bikes have their own area but it did take away from the enjoyment having heavy traffic zooming by the whole way. Stayed at Pere Marquette state park. Beautiful lodge, have to go visit. Reminded me of a smaller version of Old Faithful lodge.
"The Great River Road trail is one of the most beautiful trails in the midwest! As you ride your bike, on one side are spectacular limestone bluffs rising high above you, and to the other side is the Mississippi River, where sailboats, yachts and barges are constantly in view. The trail runs alongside the Meeting of the Rivers National Scenic Byway.
The trail is physically separated from the roadway for most of its length, but for part of the trail, it is alongside the shoulder. The trail is asphalt paved. It connects with the Chain of Rocks Bridge and the St. Louis bike trail. Because of this, you can ride from the St Louis Gateway Arch north through the city, then across the Mississippi River into Illinois on what I believe is the longest exclusively pedestrian/bicycle bridge in the world, then continue north along the river to where the Missouri River meets the Mississippi. At that point, you can visit the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Museum, which commemmorates the place where Lewis & Clark began their expedition in 1804. The 200th anniversary celebration event will be in May 2004. Continue north to Lock and Dam 26 at Alton, where you can take tours of the dam and also visit the new National Great Rivers Museum, continue through riverfront park in Alton, past the Alton Belle casino. In historic downtown Alton there are plenty of things to do. Then continue up the River Road Bike trail past several parks and historic villages along the way. The trail ends at Pere Marquette State Park, which is the largest state park in Illinois!
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