By Hope S. Philbrick
Since childhood, I’ve dreamed of being like Mark Twain. Perhaps writing isn’t the best way for me to mimic him, though. Maybe I should captain a barge down the mighty Mississippi River.
Apparently, I’m really good at it.
“Wow!” exclaimed my host in Alton, Illinois. “I’ve never seen anyone make it to this level!”
I’m at the National Great Rivers Museum playing a video game where the goal is to navigate a barge down a virtual river. And, much to my utter surprise, I’m doing an awesome job.
Of course, I’d have much to learn before I could apply these newfound skills in the real world.
Alton, Illinois, is a great place to start to start a river education, as the community boasts many river-focused destinations.
Audubon Center at Riverlands
“Birds use great rivers as migratory byways,” says Patty Hagen, PhD, vice president and executive director. Visit here to learn about the Mississippi River and the variety of birds that migrate along it. “The best time for bird watching here is in the winter—it’s fantastic,” she says. A whopping 365 different species of birds have been spotted here, many attracted to the “one of the only wetland prairie habitats still along the river.” Bald eagles and trumpeter swans are key draws. You can also learn how the Riverlands was formed and how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the water flow and why they raise and lower the water. Hike the 8.5 miles of trails on your own or on a guided tour with a naturalist, passing through prairies, marshes and bottomland forest habitats along the way.
Grafton River Adventures Cruise
Cruise the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers aboard a 49-passenger, two-level boat. Even if you’re not the captain, there’s no better way to discover a river than by sailing along it. The one-hour River Rambler Cruise includes a brief narrative about the history and geographical features along the route. Themed cruises include wine tastings, which boast the lowest odds of encountering children.
The Great River Road National Scenic Byway
If you’ve got the time and the inclination, you could take a 36+-hour road trip from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, following the pilot’s wheel road signs on a 3,000-mile drive alongside the Mississippi River. The scenic route passes through 10 states and hundreds of river towns. But one of the most scenic parts of that route is the drive from Alton to Kampsville with Godfrey, Elsah, Grafton, Pere Marquette and Eldred in between, an ideal option if you’ve only got time for a 50-mile journey.
@21plusTravel Tip: The route is especially popular with motorcyclists. We’ve alerted our friend, The Travelin’ Gringo.
Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower
A confluence is the place where two or more streams of water flow together. From three observation decks—at 50-, 100- and 150-feet—at this tower you can see the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers converge. The waters and the tower itself are photo ops, to be sure, but this is also where to learn more about how the waterways in the area shaped history as well as the surrounding communities—these rivers have served as key trade routes since prehistoric times!
@21plusTravel Tip: The facility is available for rent for private parties, and the beautiful site is arguably the most symbolic place to host a wedding—where the waters merge, two lovers blend families and set out on a new path together. If you heed our advice, send pictures!
Lewis & Clark State Historic Site
You’ve likely heard about Lewis and Clark. But do you really know their story? Here’s where to get schooled and gain new appreciation for the individual explorers who risked their lives on a mission to help the nation achieve its ‘manifest destiny.’ Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark established Camp River Dubois on December 12, 1803 and spent five months near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers preparing for their mission to find “the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent,” as President Thomas Jefferson tasked them to do. This historic site is considered their point of departure and is the first of 53 stops along the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. “Our job is not to tell the entire Lewis and Clark story, ours is to tell the Illinois story” says Brad Winn, arguably the world’s most genuinely enthusiastic tour guide. One visit here will whet your appetite to tour the entire trail as Winn did.
Melvin Price Lock & Dam
This is no video game, this is the real thing: towboats and barges push through the largest lock and dam on the Mississippi River (by weight), transporting corn and other commodities up and down the waterway. On a guided tour and standing eight stories above the river, you can watch them do it—and the process goes faster than you might expect lasting approximately 45 to 60 minutes.
@21plusTravel Tip: The lock and dam averages 20 boats every 24 hours, so odds of seeing one pass through during your visit are good, but not guaranteed.
National Great Rivers Museum
It’s not called ‘mighty’ for alliteration alone. Twenty interactive exhibits illuminate the importance, history and physical realities of the Mississippi River—among the interesting facts, in the nearby Riverbend area the water flows east to west, not north to south. Located adjacent to the Melvin Price Lock & Dam, one visit to this location and you can watch how the pros navigate the river and then test your barge navigation skills on a video game. Among the other exhibits is a collection of quotes from writings about the Mississippi River, including some by Mark Twain.
@21plusTravel Tip: The gift shop here is top notch.
Pere Marquette State Park
This 8,000-acre state park overlooks the Illinois River. The site boasts multiple overnight accommodation options (from campsites to a lodge) and year-round recreational options including horseback riding, hiking, fishing, hunting, boating and more.
– Postcards courtesy Alton CVB – Clark Bridge postcard photo by Walter Blackledge; Great Rivers National Scenic Byway postcard photo by Keith Wedoe; all other photos © HSP Media LLC
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.