Where The Road Meets The River
By Mike Meehan
The Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi Rivers converge just north of St. Louis, creating one of the most scenic landscapes in the Midwest. The wide flowing rivers, majestic limestone bluffs, abundance of wildlife and quaint river towns create a breathtaking backdrop for runners and cyclists who visit the area each fall for two of the region’s most popular events. The Great River Road is biked by hundreds of cyclists each October as part of Trailnet’s Ride the Rivers Century Ride, and the road is also home to the Alton Road Runners’ Great River Road 10 Mile Run every November.
The road, officially known as the Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Byway, is a short, 30-minute drive north from St. Louis. The byway includes Illinois Highway 100 and the Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail, which runs parallel to it. The road and trail stretch 20 miles along the Mississippi River hugging the base of magnificent limestone bluffs from Alton, Illinois to Pere Marquette State Park near Grafton, Illinois. Alton, the starting point of the road, is known for its many restaurants, bars and nightlife. It has also been named one of The Most Haunted Small Towns in America, as a number of sites in the town have been known to be haunted.
Heading west from Alton, the road and trail go through the quaint towns of Clifton Terrace, Elsah and Grafton. A quick pass through Elsah offers runners and cyclists a tour of the town’s eclectic mix of historic architecture. It is one of the only towns to be put in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places. The 20-mile stretch of The Great River Road ends at Grafton, the winter home of the American bald eagle. In the summer, visitors flock to Grafton to enjoy its many shops and restaurants, which offer plenty of places for cyclists and runners to rest and recharge after their trek on the Great River Road.
Cyclists have the opportunity to ride the Great River Road with a large, organized group of other cyclists each October as part of the Ride the Rivers Century Ride. Hosted by St. Louis–based Trailnet (www.trailnet.org), this year’s ride was held on Saturday, Oct. 8. The ride started and ended in St. Charles and covered some of the St. Louis area’s most scenic roads and bike paths. The course included five trails, two ferry river crossings, a trek past the Gateway Arch and part of Route 66.
Ride organizers provided support vans and rest stops for cyclists at the 25-, 43-, 75- and 90-mile marks that allowed riders to refuel with snacks, fruit, sport drinks and water. The beginning of the Great River Road segment at Alton marked the 60-mile mark of the ride.
Once a year, parts of the Great River Road are closed to vehicle traffic as hundreds of runners pound the pavement in the Great River Road 10 Mile Run (www.altonroadrunners.org). The Alton Road Runners have hosted the race every November for the last 52 years. This year’s race is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 26. The race attracts over 1,000 runners and hundreds of spectators to Alton each year. The race starts and finishes near the Argosy Casino on the Alton waterfront and follows a 5-mile out-and-back course on the Great River Road.
Runners keep coming back each year for the race, not only for the course’s great scenery, but also for the race’s fun, local flavor. In creating a festive atmosphere at the finish line, organizers also randomly give out prizes to finishers. Returning race participant Danielle Walz of St. Louis is one of the many runners looking forward to this year’s race. “It’s a fun local race! It’s extremely well run with a laid-back atmosphere. The runners are very social and have a good time,” she explains. The postrace celebrations usually spill over into Alton’s numerous restaurants and bars, as runners continue to enjoy the town long after the last runner has crossed the finish line. “Our favorite part is heading to Fast Eddie’s afterwards,” states Danielle, referring to one of Alton’s iconic hotspots, Fast Eddie’s Bon Air, which is popular with both locals and visitors.
The stunning natural beauty of wide flowing rivers, limestone bluffs and small river towns all come together “where the road meets the river,” creating one of the most scenic and unique experiences in the Midwest enjoyed by both runners and cyclists.