When the leaves begin to change colors this fall, there are many ways to spend a weekend day or evening within just an hour or so of St. Louis. One of my favorite autumn drives (before I became a resident of the river road bluffs) was the breathtaking drive from St. Louis to Pere Marquette State Park.
The adventure lies in two ferry rides necessary to cross the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Take the Golden Eagle Ferry from St. Charles County in Missouri across the Mississippi River into Calhoun County in Illinois. From there, drive through the picturesque rolling hills of orchards, where the infamous Calhoun peaches are grown. Drive through the quaint town of Brussels and continue on to the Brussels Ferry, which takes you across the Illinois River to the Great River Road. Ferry rides do cost money, so be sure to have cash on hand. The ferry rides are especially fun for families because you can get out of your car and enjoy the river view. From the landing at the Great River Road, you can take a right toward Grafton or a left toward Pere Marquette State Park.
A less scenic but more direct route is taking Interstate 270 north to Missouri Highway 367 north and crossing the Mississippi using The Alton Bridge. Once you cross the Alton Bridge, turn left and follow the signs for the Great River Road. The road winds and curves for miles and miles with the mighty Mississippi on the left and the strikingly beautiful limestone bluffs on the right. You pass the village of Elsah, a historical landmark that resembles a scene from New England. Grafton welcomes you with a plethora of mom-and-pop shops. A great place to start the journey with a good cup of hot coffee is a charming little café called Peace of Quiche, which offers a decadent array of breakfast and lunch items, as well as fair-trade coffee and sweet treats. Once coffee and breakfast are checked off the day-trip list, The White Pelican gallery is a must, featuring river road and nature-inspired fine art, photography, jewelry and handcrafted specialty gifts from dozens of local artisans in the surrounding communities. The owner, Sarah Neal Ansell, is one of the friendliest gallery owners I've ever met. She does beautiful stained-glass work that lines the shops windows, shedding fragments of colored light onto the walls of the gallery.
Take a short stroll down to the river and hang out by lighthouse. See some real American white pelicans fly overhead in V-formations if you’re lucky. Try to spot a great blue heron or two. And of course, you are sure to see rivers of starlings flying overhead. We are lucky enough to live right beneath the great Mississippi Flyway, a migration route that essentially follows the length of the Mississippi River.
By the time you take in the river and wander around the great local shops, you might be ready for lunch with a view. One of my favorite spots with the absolute best view is the Aeries Winery high atop the bluffs in Grafton. The winery has delicious appetizers, sandwiches and wood-fired pizza, and a very nice wine selection. There is plenty of outside seating on their wraparound deck. It is a wonderful spot for a leisurely lunch with friends or solo as a spot to think, write, draw or dream.
The final destination to your adventure-filled day is just a short drive farther up the Great River Road. About six miles past Grafton on the Great River Road lies a hidden gem, unbeknownst to many St. Louis residents. Pere Marquette State Park is a gorgeous 8,000-acre nature area, where in the fall, stunning views are matched with every hue of vibrant autumn colors you could imagine. The lodge is surely a sight to see: The tall vaulted ceilings display beautiful handmade quilts fashioned together from thousands of colored leaves stitched together. Sit on the terrace overlooking the river on a chilly fall day or cozy up with a good book and a glass of wine by the fireplace. For families, one of the highlights is the giant chess set in the middle of the lodge, as well as stacks and stacks of vintage board games and books. In the winter, Pere Marquette State Park is a destination spot to view bald eagles, which actually start nesting on the bluffs during the fall. The park offers lots of hiking trails and scenic views, and they also have a restaurant and gift shop where wine can be purchased.
The best part of your day trip is you get to drive all the way back on the Great River Road, which reminds me of Ireland when it’s raining, and the California Coast when the sun hits the river.
For a complete list of things to do in and around Grafton, visit enjoygrafton.com.
Pere Marquette State Park, 13112 Visitor Center Lane, Grafton, Illinois, 618.786.3323, dnr.state.il.us
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