Riding the Great River Road


“[T]he great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-long tide along, shining in the sun …”
Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1883, Chapter 4

ALTON, Ill. — The Great River Road, to my mind, is one of the nation’s most majestic long-haul thoroughfares.
It’s not an interstate
like, say, I-55, which bisects the nation from Chicago to New Orleans with a single numerical designation. It’s a collection of state, county and local roads that track the serpentine course of the Mississippi River as it flows from the heart of a continent to the sea.
The Great River Road runs about 2,340 miles from the source of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico near Venice, La., about 76 miles southeast of New Orleans.
It passes through 10 states that border the great river: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. From Hastings, Minn., south to Gretna, La., the Great River Road runs along both banks of the Mississippi River.
The road is designated by a green-and-white sign showing a steamboat inside a river pilot’s wheel, usually with the name of the state.
I was born and grew up in Alton, Ill., smack dab in the middle of an area where three mighty rivers converge. Alton, a small town with a rich history, is on the Mississippi just upstream from the confluence of the Missouri River and just downriver from the confluence with the Illinois.
The Great River Road passes right through my hometown, and the section running upriver from Alton to Grafton, along Illinois 100, is one of the road’s most magnificent.
Limestone bluffs tower above the road on the Illinois side. Across the river, on the Missouri side, is a vast flood plain that was ground zero during the great flood of 1993, when water from nearly half of the nation, carried by the Missouri and the Illinois and their tributaries, converged near the small farming town of West Alton, Mo., and inundated some of the most fertile farm land in America.
I had a chance in 1996 to ride my bike along a big chunk of the Great River Road, about 740 miles from Minneapolis to St. Louis. But my favorite part — and I’m probably partial because it’s my home turf — is the one between Alton and Grafton.
During a visit to Alton last week, I got in a 40.41-mile bike ride from my sister’s house in Alton to Grafton and back. It was cold and windy, but the sun shone brightly and it was an altogether glorious day to be on a bike.
Here are a few photos shot along the river:

The Mississippi River above Alton, Ill.

The Great River Road along the Mississippi River above Alton, Ill.

At the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers at Grafton, Ill.

Suspension cables, Clark Bridge over the Mississippi River at Alton, Ill.

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3 Comments

Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, History, Travels

3 responses to “Riding the Great River Road

  1. A nice read. Looks like it was a great day on the bike. Heck, any day spent on the bike is a great one!

  2. John Vandevelde

    Great photos! They, and the story, make me want to ride tomorrow morning, which I plan to do, maybe getting to a place where I spent some time growing up (not as noteworthy as Alton).
    –John

  3. Sounds like a fun ride. The fall foliage alongside the river makes for great pictures. Good of you to spread the word with the Bike Friendly Fort Worth button!

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