Fall is coming, which is one of the best excuses there is for taking a drive, and this year, the feds have given us a little help. Thirty highways have been added to the Department of Transportation's list of roads designated National Scenic Byways--many of them for what they are in autumn.
The additions bring to 10 the number of member roads in Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois. (That Michigan has none only means . . . it doesn't matter what it means, actually.)So here's a look at four of the roads on the list--and one in Michigan that's on the list of National Forest Scenic Byways put out by the Department of Agriculture, which is close enough.
ILLINOIS: MEETING OF THE GREAT RIVERS SCENIC ROUTE
Not only is this one of the longest names for one of these, but it's also another one of those easily reached (from Chicago) places that not enough people know about.
The Great Rivers are the Mississippi, Missouri and the Illinois--and before you scoff at the Illinois' inclusion, consider driving one way along that river this trip (and prepare to be dazzled).
This one, though, runs for 57 miles between Alton (near St. Louis) and Kampsville and combines the glories of foliage, limestone cliffs, ferries (optional but fun for a change) and sweet little towns populated by sweet people of every size.
In the heart of it is Pere Marquette State Park, which has everything a state park can have: lodging, campgrounds, hiking trails and horses for hire. A biking/jogging trail runs 25 miles from the park to Alton, and it's a treat--especially in leaf season.
Two established "river roads" are at work here: the Great River Road of the Mississippi and the Illinois River Road of the Illinois. Highlights are everywhere. Elsah is one of those tiny villages that's totally neat and only grudgingly commercial (and not much of that). The whole place is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's a living town that doesn't seem real at all.
(And if you can talk your way past the guard and onto the Principia College campus way above town, you'll be rewarded with one of the best views of the river imaginable.)
Nearby, livelier but also a throwback, Grafton is a classic river town that's somehow survived all the floods and deprivations. Today it offers places to stay and dine and have a cold one.
And Alton may have seen better days, but lifted by revenues from a riverboat casino and led by people with vision, its downtown is worth a look (check out the Lincoln-Douglas Debate statues on the actual site) and, for something completely different, find the statue of Robert Wadlow, world's tallest man and an interesting story. You'll find him across from the SIU Dental College, surrounded by gorgeous trees.
But this is about drives, and the drive along the Mississippi here, past those cliffs--especially heading north at sunset--is one of the finest in the state.
And wait till you see those trees.
Begins on Illinois Highway 143 in Alton at Lock and Dam No. 26, then goes north along the river to Illinois 100. Stay on 100 to Illinois 16 at Nutwood and continue on 16 to Eldred, where Illinois 108 takes you west into Kampsville.
Peak color: Mid-October
WISCONSIN: GREAT RIVER ROAD
Nowhere is the Great River Road greater than it is up here--and during color season, it's as good a drive as any, anywhere.
Wisconsin's portion of it begins at Prescott, near St. Paul, where the St. Croix River merges with the Mississippi, and twists and turns 249 miles to the Illinois state line across from Dubuque, Iowa. (And before everybody gets confused: Yes, the Great River Roads in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, etc., are separate roads along the same river, and they're all part of the same scenic system.)