Some visitors flock to the Grafton area for outdoor adventures – hiking, biking, water sliding, boating and zip-lining. Others make a beeline to the bars, wineries and party patios overlooking the river. Still others content themselves with sitting on the porch of a state park lodge, watching the river and life roll by.
Whatever your pleasure, you can be sure the area where the Illinois River marries the Mississippi will be a popular spot this summer as pandemic precautions get pushed aside. In fact, weekend rooms for the summer may be difficult to find, according to Cory Jobe, president and CEO of the Great Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau and former Springfield City Council member.
He recommends Wednesdays and Thursdays as the best time to see what this stretch of the Great River Road, 100 miles southwest of Springfield, offers. Pent-up demand for travel and the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors should make it a busy season.
The area is on the edge of a huge travel boom, Jobe says. "We expect visitors to discover our region for the first time, or rediscover it as an alternative to traveling to large cities with dense populations. It has become a great destination for anyone who wants to get away for a weekend or weekday vacation."
Jobe says his agency promotes social distancing and mask wearing, but some businesses don't require them. Nonetheless, families, young adults and seniors can find plenty to do safely, especially outdoors.
Families gravitate toward the chair lift/gondola tour and Grafton Zipline Adventures at Aerie's Resort for thrills above the treetops. The Raging Rivers water park is debuting a new water slide and will welcome a traveling sea lion show this summer, Jobe said.
Parents and children also often explore the hiking, biking and horseback trails at nearby Pere Marquette State Park, one of Illinois' iconic parks, and can head to the Grafton marina to rent pontoons for a day on the water. Plenty of picnic areas dot the region.
The Loading Dock restaurant at the water's edge in Grafton and other bars and restaurants attract large numbers of young adults, Jobe says. You also can find them strolling Grafton's main street with its shops and at the Grafton Winery's vineyards just outside town.
Jobe says many seniors enjoy the scenic Route 100 drive between the river bank and limestone bluffs and the chance to spot the Piasa Bird, the mythological man-eating bird painted on a rock cliff. Others visit Pere Marquette State Park, frequent area wineries and favor Tara Point Inn & Cottages, a bluff-top bed-and-breakfast with sweeping views of the valley below.
Those interested in a more active lifestyle can take advantage of the 20-mile Vadalabene bicycle trail alongside the Mississippi from Grafton to Alton, the zip-lines and boating on the two rivers.
Visitors of any age can take a ride aboard the Grafton car ferry, which traverses the Illinois River to Calhoun County, the step-back-in-time county lodged between the two rivers. The ferry is adding Thursdays to its existing Friday through Sunday schedule.
A free summer music series in Grafton's downtown park returns with a variety of regional bands playing from 7 to 9 p.m. every Thursday from June 3 to Aug. 26.
In Elsah, south of Grafton, quaint bed-and-breakfast inns and a break from crowded downtown Grafton offer visitors a slower pace. An evening stroll around the village seems a perfect way to unwind at day's end.
Further south, Alton is chock-full of historic homes and statues, including homage to Robert Wadlow, the world's tallest man; jazz legend Miles Davis; and Elijah Lovejoy, the outspoken abolitionist preacher and printer who lost his press and his life to angry pro-slavery mobs.
Alton's connection to the river is apparent at the National Great Rivers Museum, next to the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, at the southern edge of town. The free museum highlights river traffic, animals and history. You might even see a barge or two navigating the locks.
A good place to picnic is Alton's Riverfront Park with walking paths, an amphitheater and a good view of Clark Bridge spanning the Mississippi. A riverboat casino sits nearby for those interested in a little gaming.
Alton offers plenty of restaurant options, as does Grafton.
Those wanting to spend more than a day in the area can choose from condo and guest house rentals, the Pere Marquette lodge and cabins, bluff-top resorts, small inns and the historic Ruebel Hotel on Grafton's busy Main Street.
Just be sure to book early.
For more information about the Grafton area, contact the Great Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau at 618-465-6676 or www.riversandroutes.com.
Mary Bohlen is a freelance travel writer from Springfield who has many fond memories of time spent with family and friends in the Grafton area.