Across the Missisippi from St. Charles hides a homey, often overlooked stretch of bottomland and river bluffs that is rich with outdoor options, from low-key birding to pulse-pounding ziplining and everything in between. Home base for these activites is Grafton, Ill., about an hour’s drive by car. Or, hop on your bike and pedal over. You can cross the Clark Bridge and head north, or take one of two ferries: the Golden Eagle Ferry (daily) or the Grafton Ferry (Friday-Sunday). Once there, you’ll have access to miles upon miles of bike paths, multiple hiking trails, river paddling, rock climbing and (bonus!) several area wineries and brew houses for replacing those burned-off calories.
Here’s a look at some of Grafton’s great outdoor attractions.
Pere Marquette State Park
Whether you’re into hiking, camping, rock climbing or wildlife watching, this 8,000-acre park north of downtown Grafton has it all — including breathtaking views from high above the Illinois River.
The park presents approximately 12 miles of marked trails for users of all skill levels, with an abundance of flora and fauna as well as unusual rock formations and Native American sites to examine along the way. Be sure to pick up a trail map at the Visitor’s Center located at the entrance of the park.
Make a weekend out of your visit and set up camp at one of Pere Marquette’s sites. The Class A campground has 80, two of which are handicap accessible. Amenities include a shower building and drinking water, in addition to electrical hookups and a sanitary dump station. There are also two cabins available to rent. The Class B campground is nearby, and also has access to a shower facility.
Large, organized groups can take advantage of Camp Potawatomi, which hosts up to 60 people. Two other sites located at the park, Camp Piasa and Camp Ouatoga, each accommodates up to 120 people. All three group sites feature fully-equipped kitchens, dining rooms, lighted sleeping cabins with cots and mattresses, restrooms and showers. The latter two also have swimming pools. Call ahead for reservations or stop in at the Visitor’s Center to make arrangements prior to your trip.
New to the park as of last year are 28 rock climbing routes installed at three different locations, with more to come. Pere Marquette is one of the few parks in the state of Illinois with limestone cliffs. Climbers must bring their own gear and are restricted to marked areas. Climbing is allowed only during the park’s regular hours of operation.
Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge
Located across the Illinois River from Pere Marquette in Brussels, Ill., Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge is best known for attracting more than 200,000 waterfowl each fall and spring during their biannual migration.
Several sections or “divisions” make up the refuge, which you can explore by land or by water. Take a canoe or kayak to one of the launch sites at Prairie Pond or Gilbert Lake to access the Batchtown Division of the refuge, which lies north on the Mississippi River. The refuge allows for fishing on the rivers and backwaters, and Swan Lake is a great place to do it. This shallow marsh, once a bottomland forest, is best accessed using a canoe or kayak, but landside fishing is popular, too.
If you prefer to keep your feet dry, try one of the refuge’s walking trails. In the Calhoun Division, the Swan Lake Levee Trail runs the length of the lake for approximately 7 miles and offers spectacular views of local wildlife, including bald eagles in the winter. The levee is closed October 15 to December 31 to allow migratory birds a place to safely roost.
For sightings of herons, beaver and turtles, take a stroll along the Moist Soil Unit Levee System, also in the Calhoun Division.
The Prairie Adventure Trail starts at the Visitor’s Center and is about a half mile in length. The path winds through a tall grass prairie and includes a photography blind for those who want to capture wildlife on film.
Another trail in the Calhoun Division is the Wildlife Haven Trail. It was developed a few years ago and also starts at the Visitor’s Center near the parking lot. The trail, roughly half a mile, takes guests through the prairie, past a pond and into the woods, where you can catch a glimpse at frogs, wildflowers and dragonflies.
For a longer trail foray, hit up the Gilbert Lake Trail in the Gilbert Lake Division. The 3-mile gravel path runs the length of the division and offers views of the Illinois River. The division is closed October 15 to December 31.
Sam Valdalabene Bike Trail
Joining Pere Marquette Park in Grafton and Piasa Park in Alton, Ill., is the 20-mile Sam Valdalabene Bike Trail, which borders the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway. With tableaus of the Illinois River on one side and towering bluffs on the other, this bike trail is perhaps one of the most scenic paths in the state. While it caters to cyclists, the trail is also often used by joggers, rollerbladers and walkers of the human and pet variety.
Looking to tack on some extra miles? Once you get to Alton, hop on the Confluence Bike Trail, which begins at the town’s Russell Commons Park. The paved patch extends 21 miles south to Granite City, with stops at the National Great Rivers Museum, Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower, and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.
Just off the Sam Valdalabene Bike Trail and into the heart of Grafton lies the Aeries Resort, which features a zipline course and a winery (see sidebar). Give your feet a rest and your heart a thrill as you soar more than 200 feet above the ground for nearly 2 miles on nine ziplines. Each tour lasts approximately two hours, with prices varying by day and group size. Call ahead for height and age requirements.
Illinois and Mississippi Rivers
Grafton Harbor and River Road Watersports rent pontoon boats and personal watercraft, respectively, allowing you to explore the Illinois and its nearby confluence with the Mississippi under motorized ease.
If you prefer paddling as your mode of power, bring your own kayak, canoe or paddleboard, or contact Big Muddy Adventures in St. Louis. One of its more popular trips is a six-hour tour from Alton to Grafton following the route of the Great River Road. The company also has a 10-hour trip from Hardin, Ill., to Pere Marquette State Park, and another six-hour trip from Pere Marquette to Piasa Harbor.
Customers can rent kayaks, canoes (including dugouts) and paddleboards. Big Muddy’s flagship vessel is a 30-foot wooden voyageur canoe, which resembles the voyageur canoes of the fur-trading era.
Take a break from your adventures and refuel with local food, beer, wine, life music and a great time.
600 Timber Ridge Dr., Grafton, IL 62037
Wine tastings, fine dining and live entertainment.
Grafton Oyster Bar
215 W. Water St., Grafton, IL 62037
Award-winning Cajun and creole fare, full bar and live entertainment.
225 W. Main St., Grafton, IL 62037
Full menu and bar, with river views.
Grafton Winery & Brewhaus
300 W. Main St., Grafton, IL 62037
Wine and beer tastings, and full lunch and dinner menu.
Grafton Winery The Vineyards
21028 Eckert Orchard Rd., Grafton, IL 62037
Wine tastings, scenic views and some snacks. Bring your own food.
The Loading Dock
401 E. Front St., Grafton, IL 62037
Wine, beer, frozen drinks and food with live music and a big open patio.