Got gas and lunch money? That’s all you and the family will need as you explore hidden natural gems — and a few manmade ones — on meandering country roads north along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.
It’s land that the rivers made flourish, full of birds, water creatures and other wildlife. Criss-cross the Illinois River — at Grafton on a ferry and Hardin on the longest bridge in Illinois. Set your feet on a wetlands boardwalk, visit an archeology museum and see wading heron, floating pelicans and maybe even jumping catfish.
Pack walking shoes, sunscreen, bug spray and water, then make your way to Alton and the Great River Road, also known as Illinois 100.
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Point the car north and enjoy the view of bluffs on your right and the Mississippi River on your left as you make your way to Grafton. You won’t be on the big road for long.
From Belleville to Grafton, it’s about an hour trip. Round-trip you’ll put about 160 miles on the odometer.
Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, Brussels
What: More than 8,000 acres of managed wetland, forests, grasslands, backwater sloughs, Swan Lake and refuge headquarters and visitors center
Where: Sits at the confluence of the Illinois and the Mississippi rivers in Calhoun County, Ill.
Run by: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Information: 618-883-2524 or www.fws.gov/refuge/two_rivers
Note: You may not have cell phone service, depending on your carrier.
Coming from the south on Illinois 100, there is only one way to reach the refuge: Ferry. Just a mile west of Grafton you’ll see the sign. The Brussels ferry is run by the state of Illinois and is free. During good weather, you just pull up and wait your turn. It’s a short trip across where you are now: the banks of the Illinois River.
Bypass the brown refuge signs you’ll see right after off-loading the ferry; there is only one main road, Highway 1, also called the Illinois River Road. Head down it for about 4 miles and make a right on Hagen. That’s where you’ll find the headquarters and visitors center. It’s best to stop here first to not only get your bearings, but meet a cool ranger who will answer questions and show you where to go to see wildlife that day.
Two Rivers is in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway. Ranger Cortney Solum suggests thinking of it as a gas station stop for migratory wildlife for fuel and rest as they make their way between nesting and wintering grounds.
And while it’s a big stopover for eagles and other birds of prey in the fall, in the summer you’ll see heron, egrets, pelicans, ducks, geese and other birds. Look closely and you might find beavers. Turtles and frogs are everywhere. Need binoculars? The refuge will lend you some for the day. You have a choice of how you want to see wildlife: Drive, walk, bike or bring your own kayak or canoe.
Swan Lake, one of those stops you passed on the way in, will give you a chance to see a variety of waterfowl. The lake is separated from the Illinois River by a walkable swatch of land called the Murphy Slough. On a recent visit, a “drawdown” was taking place at a small dike on the levy, where water was draining from the river into the lake to then flood wetlands and encourage vegetation to grow. It led to a startling event you might see standing on the dike: Big catfish swam against the current as the water flowed rapidly down from the river into the lake, doing their best to leap back “up” into the river. The ones who made it created a big splash.
What: Serves all-you-can-eat, family-style lunch and dinner
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday through Monday; closed Tuesday through Thursday.
Cost: $13.50 with tax; drink and dessert extra.
Information: 618-883-2345 or wittmondhotel.com
Since 1847, travelers on the road and river have counted on the Wittmond as a place to rest, eat and resupply. At first a trading post and general store, then a hotel to handle riverboat passengers, today, it is solely a popular place to dine. Come hungry. The menu has been about the same for 100 years, says owner Charles Burch: a giant relish tray, fried chicken, roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, homemade pasta, applesauce and peach preserves. It’s a good idea to save room for the cobbler.
The red-frame building sits on a pretty rise as you enter the village, population 141. Burch, whose great-great-grandfather Conrad Wittmond began the whole operation, has been involved in the business since he was 9. A retired Calhoun County state’s attorney, he’s there every weekend, along with his daughter Caroline Stegman, whom he calls “the main operator.”
He has restored 10 guestrooms on the second floor and you can talk him into a tour, though he’s not renting any of them out.
You’ll find part of the general store still intact on the first floor and a cigar-store Indian there to greet you.
John and Pat Ackermann of Town & Country, Mo., made the trip just for lunch on a Friday afternoon.
“It’s our first time here,” said John. And they plan to return.
“It was all delicious and the service was outstanding,” added Pat.
“The applesauce was to die for!” said John.
Owner Burch said visitors should stop at the town’s place of worship. Since the Civil War, the tall steeple of St. Mary’s Catholic Church has marked the center of town. But a 2011 Christmas Eve fire left only the walls standing. It since has been restored and contains 20 stained-glass windows created by a master and repurposed from a shuttered St. Louis church. (The church is at 115 E. Main St., Brussels; 618 883-2400.)
Where: Across from the Wittmond Hotel Restaurant, Brussels
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily until the end of October
On a recent Friday, Irma Cuhn, Bernice Snyder and Dorothy Pohlman were standing in the shade packing curly lettuce into plastic bags. It had just been harvested from the nearby garden. In the fridge inside were strawberries and asparagus. Odelehr’s, owned by Sandi and Kenny Odelehr, has been around since the 1970s, said Irma, Sandi’s mother. Whatever is in season is what you’ll find here, plus honey and potted flowers.
Got the kids with you? Take them across the road to see the other kids that might be watching from behind a fence — feisty goats owned by Alberson’s Nubian Goat Farm. You can look, but don’t touch.
Center for American Archeology Museum
Where: Great River Road/Illinois 100, Kampsville
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; to 4 p.m. Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
How to get there: 1. If you go back the way you came to Brussels, across the river on the ferry, turn left as you leave the ferry parking lot and head north on Illinois 100/Great River Road. Kampsville is 32 miles.
2. If you opt to stay on the Brussels side of the river, follow Main Street in town north and make a right turn onto Highway 1/Illinois River Road. Take it 25 miles to Kampsville.
Information: 618-653-4316 or caa-archeology.org
Forget Egyptian mummies and and Greek vessels. We’ve got Kampsville practically in our backyard, teeming with artifacts that help us connect to area history thousands of years old.
This small museum is a testament to the dedication and hard work of the archeologists, college students and volunteers who have dug carefully for bits of pottery, stone tools, animal bones and other evidence of prehistoric human activity since the center was founded in 1953.
Located in what was once the Kamp General Store, the museum boasts original plank floors (flooded several times) and high tin ceilings. It features displays about the history of the store, but the majority of the space is given over to award-winning exhibits that focus on the prehistory of the lower Illinois River Valley.
In the 1970s, the Koster site, a massive excavation that uncovered more than 10,000 years of continuous human occupation, drew thousands of visitors. It has since been covered over, but artifacts and its story are featured in the museum.
In the surrounding area, digs continue annually with field schools starting in June. Jason King, director of research at the non-profit center, said the town sits on top of what is called the Buried Gardens of Kampsville.
“Below the surface is a 1,500- to 2,000-year-old village site,” he said. In addition to a well-preserved midden (trash) deposit, there is evidence of pit structures.
“It’s worth documenting,” King said.
July 18 is Archeology Day, when anyone can come out to the site and see the work that is going on. Through mid-September, there are day events for children, field days and field weeks for adults with no experience and even a family weekender. Check the website for more information.
The McCully Heritage Project
Where: 1 mile south of Kampsville on Illinois 100
What: A non-profit environmental and cultural heritage center on 940 acres of hills and hollows, wetlands, forest
Information: 618-653-4687 or mccullyheritage.org
On your way back from Kampsville, take the time to stop at the McCully Heritage Project, which has 15 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails, two ponds for fishing and turtle watching, a wetland with a boardwalk, a hill prairie plot and more.
Make a right at the sign on Crawford Creek Road and follow it to the small parking lot and pavilion. The pavilion is a good place for a picnic and has a small playground and restrooms.
From here you can take a short walk through the woods (you may need bug spray) to the 19th century log cabin. Founders Howard and Eva McCully are buried behind the building that he reconstructed there.
Or, drive a bit further down the road past the parking lot and make a left to reach the wetlands boardwalk. You won’t be alone: iridescent dragon and damsel flies buzz by, turtles pop their heads out of the water to see who’s visiting and cattails sway in the breeze.
Want to take a longer retreat? Rent the Watkins Place, a two-bedroom house on the south end of the property.
There’s still one more surprise to see as you head back south on Illinois 100 from Kampsville. The two-lane highway crosses the Illinois River at Hardin on the Joe Page Bridge.
It’s not just any bridge for two reasons: It’s the longest in Illinois at 1,728 feet, and it’s a vertical-lift bridge. That means it uses a system of counterweights and cables to raise an inner section. This 308-foot section remains horizontal as it is raised upward, allowing river traffic to pass beneath the bridge.
You’ll be a lucky traveler if you get to see it in action.
So, you’ve passed over the Illinois River for the last time and are back on the Great River Road for the final leg of your trip. Don’t hurry through Grafton now that you’ve left the wilderness behind. You’ll find plenty of chances to stop for barbecue, fudge, ice cream, even antique hunting.