You do not have to drive great distances to travel far. A trip to Pere Marquette State Park just north of St. Louis near Grafton, IL, is more than just an escape from the hustle and hard surfaces of the metropolitan area. It’s a journey to the past on many levels.
The longest part of the expedition is to the spot where you can accompany Jesuit missionary priest Pere (Father) Jacques Marquette and explorer Louis Joliet ashore along the Illinois River. A large stone cross just south of the park designates the spot of their landing.
You cannot begin to imagine how different that world was in 1673 or how hardy those adventurers must have been. Even the hiking trails at the park, which in spots and in total can be considered challenging, would have been difficult, unmarked excursions into the wilderness.
The inhabitants at the time would have been descendants of people who had lived there for centuries when it was discovered. Archaeologists acknowledge six native American cultures common to the region. Artifacts including pottery, spear points, and planting tools have been discovered along with burial mounds.
Fast-forward a couple centuries to 1931, when area residents wanted to preserve the land as a state park. Working together, civic groups raised the money and persuaded the state to match the amount to create the 8,050-acre oasis.
With the strength and skill of the Civilian Conservation Corps construction crews, the Pere Marquette Lodge was built, putting Americans to work during the Great Depression. It features large limestone blocks and huge timbers with a 50-foot high grand hall at its center. Recently renovated, the Lodge and adjoining conference center include 50 comfortable guest rooms and 22 stone-built cabins, along with playgrounds, swimming pool, whirlpool, sauna, a scenic drive and a tremendous visitor center with terrific history and impressive taxidermy mounts.
Ten interconnected trails cover nearly 12 miles of park woodland, offering outstanding views of the Illinois River valley and far off into Missouri to the east. Scenic overlook sites dot the trails, offering a reward for the climb. The McAdams Peak shelter shows off more of the CCC skills.
Other available activities include a campground with 80 electrical hook-up sites plus a large tent camping area. Boating and fishing are available on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers with wide launch ramps and ample parking.
Twenty miles of equestrian trails in the park include a section available year-round. The Pere Marquette Riding Stables are open every day except Tuesdays from May through October, offering spectacular rides to park visitors. A paved bike trail runs from the park to Alton, IL, 20 miles to the west along a rare east-west section of the Mississippi River.
We visited Pere Marquette during the fall for a sensational show of Mother Nature’s changing of the season’s colors. As great as the tree display was, it plays second fiddle to the winter’s grand finale, when bald eagles congregate along the shores of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers in search of open water for fishing.
Special Eagle Days activities are scheduled through January and February and require reservations for the programs that begin 8:30 a.m. at the park’s visitor center. The program includes a video presentation followed by an observational drive to view the wintering bald eagles.
Another important note about Pere Marquette Lodge also involves a bird. The fried chicken in the lodge restaurant is reason enough to visit, and many people do just for the meal, which is served family-style with mashed potatoes, gravy, cole slaw, and vegetable of the day. The Sunday brunch buffet also draws a crowd each week.
John J. Winkelman is community relations manager at Mercy Hospital Jefferson. If you have news for Outdoor Guide Magazine, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow John on Twitter at @johnjwink99.