Just about an hour from Saint Louis, and straddling the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, Grafton, Illinois, is a charming, historic spot worth a visit. Easily accessible via car -- or even an efficient and fun ferry ride -- the city offers plenty to do. Whether you enjoy adventure in the great outdoors, finding treasures in small boutiques, or sampling wines while taking in breathtaking views, Grafton has something for every kind of traveler.
Here are a few of our favorite ways to spend a wonderful weekend in Grafton.
Cruise The Great River Road
We’ve been on a lot of gorgeous road trips all around the world, but the 15-mile stretch of the Great River Road from Alton, Illinois, to Grafton is one of the prettiest and most dramatic anywhere. On one side are soaring limestone bluffs rising sharply from the road, topped with gorgeous homes and stands of trees that show off every autumn. On the other is the mighty Mississippi River, which served as the gateway to the area for early explorers. Take your time, and if you’d like, stop along the way for a picnic or a better look at the beauty around you.
Stroll Along The Riverfront
When you get to Grafton, head to the historic riverfront first. It’s the perfect place to get your bearings -- and get your steps in! The paved path offers an easy, gentle walk with some incredible views. This is the place where you can see the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers join, and the pathway is lined with large concrete sculptures of the animals that make this area their home, including the catfish, snapping turtle, and frog. The faux candy-cane-colored lighthouse, built to commemorate the resilience of Grafton after the terrible flood of 1993, is the perfect spot for a selfie. And it’s here where you can drive your car onto a ferry that will take you over to Saint Charles County on the Missouri side of the river.
Keep An Eagle Eye Out
Another popular Grafton activity takes place during the winter months. That’s when bird-watchers flock to the area to keep an eye out for the bald eagles that make their home here from December until mid-February. The majestic birds fly in from the north for the warmer weather. They routinely soar over the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, fishing the waters and delighting visitors. Bundle up, grab your binoculars, and look for the eagles nesting in trees along the riverbanks, or even sitting on the ice in the river, stalking their dinners.
Explore Pere Marquette State Park And Lodge
If you’re looking for the perfect place to hike, look no further than Grafton’s Pere Marquette State Park, nestled in the bluffs above the Illinois River. Visitors can take part in a whole host of recreational opportunities here. Start at the visitor center, which features a 3-D map of the park and displays on wildlife habitats, local history, and geology. If you’re not in the mood to hike, no worries! A drive through the bluffs -- with stops along the way -- is also worthwhile, especially when autumn’s blaze touches the park’s trees.
Pere Marquette is also known for its on-site lodge and conference center. Constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the lodge has been updated through the years, but the original stone cabins remain our favorite place to stay there. The restaurant serves up incredible fried chicken, and the enormous stone fireplace in the lobby soars 50 feet tall. Grab a drink and sit out on the lodge’s front patio, with its sweeping view of the river.
Head Out On Horseback
The hills and bluffs that rise above Grafton are stunning. And while the trails through them can be tough to navigate in spots, that’s not a reason to skip the chance to experience them. You might feel more comfortable letting a four-legged friend do most of the work. The stables next door to Pere Marquette offer guided horseback tours that will take you on a 45-minute ride into the park along 2.5 miles of its scenic trails. You’ll get the chance to spy on local wildlife, get some fresh air, and enjoy the great outdoors. The stables operate from May through October; reservations are highly recommended, and longer rides are available should you want to extend your time in the saddle and on the trail.
Shop The Boutiques
Grafton has a long history, most of it centered on the river. The town was founded in the 1830s as a small river port, and it developed into a trading and riverboat support center with quick access to Saint Louis. Echoes of that past remain, as many of Grafton’s historic buildings still stand, despite the flood of 1993. Those buildings, most of them constructed of local limestone, today house quaint boutiques, restaurants, and inns, all of which are open to visitors. You’ll find antique shops and galleries offering a whole host of handcrafted home goods and gifts. Suffice it to say that shoppers won’t be disappointed in the offerings in Grafton!
Sample Some Wine
Surprisingly, the river bluffs in and around Grafton serve as decent terrain for growing wine grapes, and there are several wineries in and around town. The Grafton Winery & Brewhaus, located at the site of the former Grafton Elementary School, operates a 4-acre vineyard and serves wines crafted with grapes grown in Grafton and elsewhere. The Winery at Aerie’s Resort is perched high above town, giving patrons an incredible view as they nosh and sip. And the Mary Michelle Winery, located in the aforementioned Pere Marquette Lodge, serves up wines produced in nearby Carrollton, Illinois. They offer tastings, and you can purchase wine by the bottle or glass to enjoy on the lodge’s grounds.
Bike In The Bluffs
Cyclists love the area around Grafton because of the Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail. This 20-mile path runs from Pere Marquette State Park, just outside of Grafton, all the way to Alton. The trail is paved and popular with cyclists because of its breathtaking views of the Mississippi and the bluffs. If you decide to bike all the way to Alton, keep an eye out for the Piasa bird, a modern rendition of which is painted on the bluff at Piasa Park. Early French explorers described an image of the Piasa bird painted onto the rocks when they first traveled the Mississippi River in 1693. They described it as a frightful creature with red eyes and a body covered with scales. While the original bluff painting is long gone, the legend of the monster lives on.
Keep in mind that while most of the bike trail is fairly flat, there are substantial hills between Pere Marquette and Grafton. There are also plenty of charming places to stop for a break, including the charming riverside village of Elsah.
Fly Above The Trees
Grafton offers incredible vantage points where you can see where the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers converge. One of Grafton’s newest attractions lets you fly above the convergence via zip line! The Grafton Zipline, located at Aerie’s Resort, will have you flying through the air at speeds up to 45 miles per hour over the tree canopy that rises from the river bluffs. There is a short uphill walk involved, and the experience includes seven lines and two suspended rope bridges. Make reservations, suit up, and bring your sense of adventure with you. You won’t regret it!
Pick Your Own Produce
For a down-home farm experience, consider a stop at Eckert’s Family Farm just north of town. This quiet spot offers the opportunity to pick your own produce during much of the year, including berries, peaches, apples, and pumpkins. The country store offers baked goods, jams, jellies, and salsas for sale. It’s a great place to get some fresh air, take a stroll, and purchase some farm-fresh, homegrown produce to take home after your relaxing weekend in Grafton.
What To Know Before You Go
There are lots of great places in Grafton to stay, and many are historic homes and buildings. The Ruebel Hotel in downtown Grafton was built back in 1879 and offers riverview accommodations and an on-site taproom and pub. Be aware, however, that many claim this is one of the most haunted spots in Illinois, and many guests have reported strange happenings at the property!
There are also great homes and cottages available on homesharing sites.
Grafton is especially lovely in the autumn, when oranges, scarlets, and yellows blaze across the bluffs. And if you visit during the winter, plan to bird-watch and ice skate! The riverfront Loading Dock offers delicious eats, luxe accommodations, and an outdoor skating rink on weekends from November through February.