The Great River Road

At the south end of Calhoun County, the Brussels Ferry takes all of two or three minutes to cross the narrow Illinois River, along which Marquette and Joliet returned to Canada after their failure to find a westward-flowing river to the rich lands of Cathay and the Far East. René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, came down the Illinois eight years later in 1681, on the first expedition to specifically target the Mississippi. It was La Salle who claimed the Mississippi territory for his sponsor, King Louis XIV of France, and who went all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico (Marquette and Joliet turned back after the confluence of the Arkansas River).

If you’re equipped for some hiking or biking, Pere Marquette State Park is a short, well-signed, and definitely worthwhile three-mile detour upstream from the Brussels Ferry landing. The handsome park lodge (618/786-2331, from $89 for two), built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s, is noted for its 700-ton stone fireplace, massive tree-trunk roof supports, decorative ironwork, and outsize chess set. Cabins and lodge rooms are available for reasonable rates. Expect holiday and fall foliage weekends to be booked up a year in advance; camping (618/786-3323) is also available.

Following an old railroad route for much of the way, the 21.5-mile Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail between Pere Marquette State Park and Alton is unquestionably the best venue for appreciating the scenery, even for a short walk, for Hwy-100 is a fast divided highway whose drivers don’t appreciate slowpokes.