The Great River Road from Alton to Grafton, Illinois, is a 20-mile stretch of shore-lined highway enjoyed by outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. To one side of the National Scenic Byway is the Mississippi River. Boats float by and migrating birds glide overhead as the waterway churns and welcomes its Missouri and Illinois tributaries. Paralleling the highway on the opposing side is the Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail, which weaves in and out of the wooded canopy below glimpses of river-carved bluffs.

Banks and bluffs are the essence of the Great River Road experience. Thanks to the Mississippi’s landscape-forging power and efforts of the Illinois Climbers Association (ICA), Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), Friends of Pere Marquette State Park Foundation, and many volunteers, the height from which these natural features can be enjoyed has grown a little taller.

Pere Marquette in Grafton is the largest state park in the Land of Lincoln. Known for its rustic lodge and bluff views, the park’s 8,000 acres attract birdwatchers, boaters, campers, equestrians, fishermen, hikers, hunters, and rock climbers.

With evidence of at least three routes circa the 1950s, rock climbing here was both age-old and all-but bygone. However, in 2016 the park announced dozens of new routes with significantly improved accessibility. This resurgence gave climbing enthusiasts an outdoor venue within a quick jaunt from nearby St. Louis.

Sport climbing makes up 60 percent of the approximately 65 routes, with traditional climbing and minimal bouldering comprising the remainder. Characterized by short, vertical routes on featured limestone, climbing at Pere Marquette caters to beginner to intermediate skillsets. As such, these folks should be aware that taking the sport outside requires more knowledge of gear, systems, safety, and ethics.

Rock climbing at Pere Marquette State Park.

Pere Marquette caters to beginner and intermediate skillsets. Photo by Bill Weishaar.

Getting Started
The idea for reviving climbing in Pere Marquette was born of the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman workshop. For over a decade, Pere Marquette served as the Southern Illinois home for the annual, weekend workshop hosted by IDNR.

“About 15 years ago, [IDNR] asked Vertical Heartland to be the guides for rappelling at the workshop,” said Eric Ulner, a 42-year rock climbing veteran, guidebook author, founding board member of ICA, and Vertical Heartland Rock Climbing School owner. “I suggested then that it has a lot of potential for climbing.”

In 2011, Chris Hespen became the park’s superintendent, and Ulner pitched the idea to him. “Chris told me he was for it, personally, but needed to go through the proper channels,” said Ulner.

Navigating said channels was no small task. A review team considered potential impacts on natural resources such as flora, fauna, geology, and cultural assets. Bolt and epoxy types were compared. Logistics contemplated.

As for funding, “It really didn’t play in the cards,” Hespen said. Until, that is, an anonymous $5,000 grant made titanium anchors, natural rock stairs, graded trails, and a new road possible.

Turning those anchors into routes, stones into steps, and brush into trails was the doing of volunteers. The ICA, Dave Hug, Dan Rapp, Bill Weishaar, Ulner, and many others spent umpteen hours cleaning, setting, and developing.

“I knew we could do this if we could partner with the right organizations and people,” said Hespen. “The folks involved are well respected in the climbing community and are the best advocates for their sport. We also knew this was going to set distinct precedent across Illinois.”

Other Illinois State Parks are following suit, with Giant City State Park reviving its bolting program in 2017. The multi-year endeavor also inspired Weishaar to purchase and develop what is now Robinson Bluff in DeSoto, Missouri.

“The ICA is proactively working to create a better climbing atmosphere for the visiting and permanent climbers of Illinois,” said Hug, a Pere Marquette route setter and land liaison for the ICA. “We hope that by doing so we would open doors to other great climbing areas, and we have. It’s all about creating a brighter future for Illinois climbers, one that is built upon the premise that climbers are a group you can count on to be great stewards of the land and the climbing resources we love.”

Author: Corrie Hendrix Gambill is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Photos: Courtesy of Bill Weisharr.