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Carolan is a retired teacher and St. Louis native. As a right-brained creative/online solopreneur, she is devoted to writing and research.
Here are my favorite road trips from the Gateway City of St. Louis Missouri! This travel guide was compiled by a native of STL who is passionate about this area of eastern Missouri and western Illinois.
These are one-of-a-kind and off-the-beaten-track destinations—the kind of day trips from St. Louis you may never have heard about, but are sure to enjoy and remember forever. Most of these will work well as day trips, while some are better for an overnight stay.
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1. The Great River Road
The Great River Road north of Alton, Illinois, is this author’s favorite road trip and maybe the closest thing the St. Louis area has to a beach. The spectacular views along the river bluffs are quite worth the trip during any season of the year. The fall colors are delightful against the river bluffs, and in mid-winter, the area is quite popular for eagle-watching. This is also where the Illinois River meets the Mississippi, and that confluence is the largest of many in this River City area.
Getting There: Take I-270 northeast from the airport area to 367 north. That takes you directly across the bridge into Alton, then left turn. You will pass the Alton Belle Casino on the left and wind through Alton until you see signs for “The Great River Road” heading north along the river.
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Alton is well known for great antique shops, a few haunted mansions, and the Alton Belle Casino. You’ll want to stop in at Fast Eddies in Alton, a wildly popular watering hole and restaurant with a really great outdoor dining area.
Heading north from Alton, you’ll pass quaint riverside villages like Elsah and Chautauqua. North from Elsah, you’ll pass Raging Rivers Water Park, and just a few miles north, make a stop in the town of Grafton, Illinois.
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Here, you might antique shop, have ice cream, go on a river tour or dine. Despite the many floods Grafton has endured, the town has managed not only to survive but even to thrive in recent years. The north end of town has especially grown, with new wineries, the new marina and the riverfront condos.
A favorite restaurant in Grafton on a nice day is The Loading Dock, where you can dine outside on the deck right next to the Mississippi and watch the boats. They have live music on weekends and a flea market once a month. It is very casual and often visited by boaters. Another favorite restaurant in Grafton is The Finn Inn, which is filled with huge aquariums of fish to watch as you dine. Kids of all ages love it.
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Pere Marquette State Park
North a few miles from Grafton, there’s a beautiful lodge and restaurant overlooking the Mississippi River. The lodge has modern amenities, including an indoor pool, game room, and the famous giant chess set in the main lobby (each piece is about five feet tall!). The park has some great hiking trails as well as driving lookouts from the cliffs above the river. Sunday brunch is always a favorite in their dining room.
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Boats on the River
The riverboats vary from huge barges pushed by tug boats to houseboats, speedboats and small sailing vessels. One of my favorite boats in the area is a sweet passenger cruiser named Hakuna Matata, which offers tours. It docks at the marina on the north end of Grafton and does a few hour-long cruises each day. Reservations are necessary, since nearly all cruises book to capacity, especially on weekends.
Sit down below in the air-conditioned cabin or on the open-air top deck. There’s a small bar aboard or you can purchase your own drinks at the marina and bring them aboard. The marina will even give you an ice bucket and cups.
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Bicycling on the Great River Road
There are popular bicycling trails on both sides of the River Road. A good starting point is the Piasa Bird Cliff. You can leave a car in the parking lot just north of Alton while you ride.
There are tall bluffs along the river and the gorgeous river view goes on for miles. You will pass quaint little river villages like Elsah and Chautauqua. The flat trail is an easy ride, with the only potential challenge being a very windy day, since riding against the wind on this trail can be tough. The River Road trail is popular for families and bicyclists of all ages.
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2. Arcadia Valley
About two hours southwest of St. Louis on Hwy 21, the Arcadia Valley is highly recommended. Drive south on the winding two-lane (snake) Highway 21 to Elephant Rock and Johnson’s Shut-ins.
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Elephant Rock and Johnson Shut-ins
Elephant Rock was once a rock quarry. While it still provides good hiking and rock formations, swimming is no longer allowed there. Johnson Shut-ins, on the other hand, is one of the most unique swimming holes anywhere, with rushing waters pouring through rock formations creating water slides, pools and fun waves among the rock.
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Hughes Mountain and Tom Sauk Mountain
Also in the Arcadia Valley area is Hughes Mountain and Tom Sauk Mountain, both known for great scenery and hiking. On the way, you can also visit the old covered bridge just north of Hillsboro, MO, on Hwy 21.
Winery lovers and bicyclists love the Augusta area, just southwest of St. Louis on Highway 94. Beyond the beautiful countryside, the major attractions here are the wineries and the Katy Trail.
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Augusta, Defiance and Hermann, MO
These are charming little towns to visit and a beautiful drive, especially in the fall. The Daniel Boone home is on the way, and you could also visit the Deutschheim Museum in Hermann. Make it a weekend by staying at one of the unique bed and breakfast inns near Augusta, Hermann or Washington.
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The Katy Trail
The Katy Trail was once railroad tracks, but in the late 1980s, it was paved into a bicycling trail along the Missouri River for hundreds of miles through wine country. You can rent bikes at any of the small towns along the trail or bring your own.
Starting at Frontier Park in St. Charles, you can now ride all the way through to mid-Missouri through some most beautiful countryside, wineries, river bluffs and quaint, small towns.
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4. Historic Kimmswick and Ste. Genevieve
If antiques, wine tastings, and casual strolls are your thing, this road trip is for you. Between Ste. Genevieve and Kimmswick, you’ll have plenty of great activities to choose from.
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Shopping and History Tours in Ste. Genevieve
Ste. Genevieve is the oldest town west of the Mississippi, featuring homes dating back hundreds of years. An easy drive south of St. Louis on I-55, this historic river town boasts antique shops, restaurants and local wineries.
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Treats and Art Fairs in Kimmswick
Stop in Kimmswick on the way for lunch at The Blue Owl Restaurant & Bakery for a memorable meal. You won’t believe their pies, especially the Levee High Apple Pie! Taking a stroll through Kimmswick is a blast-from-the-past kind of treat, with many unique shops and sights.
If art fairs are your thing, Kimmswick hosts the biggest art fair I’ve ever seen in this area every year in the early fall. Just about every street in town is lined with arts and crafts tents. It’s an amazing event!
After spending an entire afternoon in Kimmswick, I doubt I saw even half of it; it is truly that big. This is a popular annual weekend event with artists, crafts, live music, food and drink—the works! The Kimmswick Art Fair and Apple Butter Festival draws a bigger and bigger crowd every year.
Carbondale, IL, is a college town (SIU) about two and a half hours southeast of St. Louis. Highlights of this area are:
- Giant City State Park has several large lakes, hiking trails, rock climbing and a historic lodge. Some hikers call it “The Little Grand Canyon“ (see the video above).
- The Shawnee Hills Wine Trail boasts 12 wineries surrounding the town of Cobden, an interesting drive whether visiting the wineries or not.
- Unique bed and breakfast inns.
Although it’s not the fastest route, on the way down you might enjoy crossing the Jefferson Barracks bridge to take Highway 3 south and stop in Chester, Illinois—the birthplace of Popeye. There is a small museum there and several statues, most notably the Popeye statue by the Mississippi bridge.
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6. Canoe Trips: Meramec and Current Rivers
St. Louis is ‘River City,’ and many a native will say you’ve not been to Missouri unless you’ve gone on a float trip. Whether you float by canoe, kayak or raft, you must tour Missouri’s rivers. Two of the most popular rivers for floating are the Meramec and the Current, part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
About an hour southwest on Interstate 44 is Steelville, MO. Steelville is one of the closest hubs to St. Louis for float trips. For about $40 a day, you can rent a canoe or raft from one of the dozens of outfitters in the area. However the Meramec river tends to rise and fall quickly during heavy rains, and sometimes downed trees and other debris can block the river, especially in spring and early summer.
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7. Eminence, MO (Canoe Trip Country)
It’s a bit farther from St. Louis (about three hours) but one of the best floats ever can be enjoyed along the Jack’s Fork River near Alley Springs and Eminence. Here you can float and swim in crystal clear waters along quiet, steep bluffs for some of the best floating in Missouri. This one would be best for at least an overnight stay rather than a day trip. Trust me—it’s worth it.
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The River’s Edge Resort
Located right at the bridge in Eminence, MO, the River’s Edge Resort is a gorgeous and very unique lodge. They offer rooms that are upscale for that area, some with hot tubs and adjoining rooms to accommodate larger groups. A long deck lines the lodge on the river side, giving all rooms a nice view.
I loved all the upcycled art surrounding the place, from antique recycled objects such as old wood stoves complete with faces and body parts, eyes made of old clear glass doorknobs and other whimsical creations.
The river once ran right alongside the lodge, but extreme flooding later changed the course of the riverbed, meaning it now flows farther from away the lodge. This left a wide, flat field in front of the lodge, now used by guests for exploring, sunbathing, bonfires and volleyball. Many nights there are huge bonfires glowing in the old river bed, lighting the way to the new one.
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8. Pickle Springs Nature Area
About an hour outside St. Louis is this little gem near Farmington, MO. Pickle Springs is one of the best short hiking trails in Missouri. This trail leads to beautiful views, waterfalls, canyons, bluff overlooks, rock formations and shallow caves that make it a natural playground for all ages.
The trail is just shy of a 2-mile loop and is rated moderate, but certainly can be enjoyed by most ages, including school-aged kids. The trail does tend to be heavily trafficked, probably because it’s rare to find such a gorgeous hiking trail that is doable for almost any age.
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Farmington is surrounded by a whopping nine state parks, so it’s a perfect area for hiking and outdoor activities of many kinds. You’ll also find many wineries and vineyards, golf courses, a large water park, a skate park and more. There are also lots of good restaurants in Farmington. Among them, the Sugarfire Smokehouse is always good.
More St. Louis Area Favorites
No time for a full-day road trip? Here are some of my favorite nearby attractions.
Lone Elk Park
This location is worth the 40-minute drive from downtown, west on Interstate 44. You’ll find driving trails through wooded areas where wild bison, elk and other animals live and roam free. The park is a peaceful setting for a picnic or bird watching and very enjoyable even if you do not leave your vehicle.
Laumeier Sculpture Park
This park in Sunset Hills is not a place you would just stumble upon. Some of the sculptures found there are over 40 feet tall, making it a one-of-a-kind destination. There is plenty of greenery and solitude and even several walking trails that are dog-friendly. The sculptures are of all shapes and sizes—some large in the midst of a field while others are found hidden along wooded trails.
Forest Park and The Boathouse Restaurant
In the center of town, this is where you’ll also find the St. Louis Zoo, the Muny Opera and much more, but a favorite is the Boathouse Restaurant. Dine lakeside in the middle of the park. You can also rent small watercraft like kayaks, canoes and paddleboats.
Located in Chesterfield, about 20 miles west of downtown, this is where you will find the Butterfly House. The variety and sheer number of butterflies in a relatively condensed area is amazing. It also can be a great place to warm up if the weather is cold.
You can also stroll through the historic village at Faust Park, consisting of buildings relocated from throughout the area. Don’t miss seeing the 1921 Denzel vintage Carousel.
Creve Coeur Park
St. Louis boasts many beautiful parks, but this one is by far a favorite among many natives. Located in northwest county, I’d say it is the closest thing St. Louis has to a beach (the Great River Road north of Alton being a close second).
Creve Coeur Lake is the largest lake in the area, with a trail that goes all the way around it that is perfect for walking or bicycling while you enjoy views of sailboats out on the lake. Unfortunately, swimming is not allowed, but you can rent kayaks there.
“The Lake House” Restaurant
Located close to Creve Coeur lake, the staff here wears shirts saying ‘St. Louis’ Best Kept Secret,’ and I concur. The restaurant is right on the trail, so it is popular for bicyclists and very casual.
Visitors may dine inside or out, but the outdoor area is particularly nice. There is no traffic noise, just a serene view, and in cold weather each table is stoked by its own small fire to keep you warm. Live music on weekends makes for outdoor dining at its best!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2009 Carolan Ross
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