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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.
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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