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Fall Foliage Awaits

You don’t have to travel far to experience Mother Nature at her best.

Cooler temperatures and shorter days trigger the best show of the season – fall foliage. 

Colorful landscapes with breathtaking foliage are easily enjoyed by taking a day trip across the Mighty Mississippi or a short 30-minute drive down the interstate. 

Powder Valley hike
Powder Valley Conservation Area (Source: MDC)

The next few weeks will offer changing color schemes, so multiple trips may well be in order. But if you want to catch the season’s peak, check the color report issued by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). The weekly report uses online mapping to pinpoint where the best colors can be found throughout the state. Visit mdc.mo.gov and search “fall colors.” 

Illinois’ color report can be accessed by visiting enjoyillinois.com and searching “color report.”

“Days in the 70s and cooler nights makes for more vibrate colors. But one issue is that we are dry and that could mute the colors if we don’t get a little rain,” explained Mark Grueber, a community forester with the MDC. 

When asked where the best fall colors are found Grueber confirmed that you don’t have to drive far. Spectacular fall foliage is often just minutes away in Eureka, Wildwood, Kirkwood and in nearby St. Charles County.    

“Drive west just past the I-270 ring. Jump off the highway and drive through Lone Elk Park, the Wolf Sanctuary or the backroads around Eureka,” Grueber recommended. “Or visit Powder Valley in Kirkwood, a great place to enjoy a fall foliage hike. St. Charles County is a great location for fall drives, especially down Hwy. 94 through wine county.” 

Other locations Grueber recommends include the Weldon Spring Conservation Area and the August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area in St. Charles County and nearby state parks such as the Dr. Edmund A. Babler Memorial State Park in Wildwood or Washington State Park in DeSoto. 

“It all depends on how far you want to go,” Grueber said. “Another fall foliage activity, besides driving or hiking, is to take a fall color float. Seeing the colors from the middle of the Upper Meramec or Cuivre rivers can be spectacular. 

“Also consider crossing over to Illinois. The drive along the Great River Road to Pere Marquette Sate Park is a favorite.” 

The drive from Chesterfield Valley to Pere Marquette takes just over an hour, mostly along Hwy. 94, and includes a ferry ride across the Mississippi. Return via the Alton River Road and Interstate 270 for added opportunities to see stunning shades of red, yellow and orange against the backdrop of Illinois’ renown limestone bluffs.

Columbia and the Missouri River Bluffs  

For a westward fall drive, head off on  I-70 toward Columbia. This often overlooked section of Missouri offers magnificent fall color, especially along the Missouri River bluffs near Rocheport. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the village of Rocheport features buildings that date back to as early as 1830. Hang out and enjoy lunch at a local eatery, savor an ice cream from the General Store or linger over a glass of wine at the Les Bourgeois winery. Outdoor tables at Meriwether Café are located adjacent to Katy Trail, making it easy to take a hike or a quick bike ride before returning to the café named in honor of Meriwether Lewis. With his partner, William Clark, Lewis explored the bluffs and river valley where Rocheport now stands. 

Mizzou alumni and casual travelers won’t be disappointed in the foliage surrounding Columbia. Five miles south of downtown Columba is Rock Bridge Memorial State Park and the Gans Creek Wild Area, where one can hit the trials on foot or horseback. An 8.5-mile trail meanders through Gans Creek’s wilderness setting. It’s one of 16 equestrian trails founds in Missouri State Parks. 

Another prime park pick near Columbia is Finger Lakes State Park. The 1,128-acre park was once the site of a coal strip-mining operation. Renowned for its rugged landscape, the park has been recycled into more than 70 miles of off-road motorcycle and ATV trails. It is only one of two Missouri state parks that allow off-road vehicles. Along the eastern edge of the park is a series of dams. Canals connect the lakes, which offer canoeing, kayaking and float fishing.

Colorful detours along the Great River Road

Fall colors seem to explode around rivers – because of all that water, as Grueber would say.  With that in mind, some of the best views of Illinois and Missouri river bluffs are found aboard the Golden Eagle Ferry. Catch the ferry from St. Charles County off Hwy. 94 and cross into Calhoun County, Illinois, where you can drive the Calhoun County Vistas and Ferries Loop. Wonder through Brussels to discover local orchards and pick-your-own apple and pumpkin operations. Then, take the free Brussels Ferry and pick up the Great River Road (Hwy. 100) just north of Pere Marquette Sate Park.

Great River Road Foliage
Limestone Bluffs along the Great River Road (Source: Illinois Tourism)

Pere Marquette is the largest state park in Illinois and offers views of three different bodies of water, including the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, along with the opportunity for encounters with more than 230 species of birds as well as deer, beaver, river otters and wild turkey.

The Goat Cliff Trail at Pere Marquette State Park is moderately easy to navigate and offers views of underground springs and a nearby Native American burial mound. The trail extends for 1.5 miles, making it a nice loop before or after enjoying a meal in the park’s grand lodge. Pere Marquette is known for its family-style fried chicken dinner and Sunday brunch buffet.

Driving southeast along Hwy. 100 brings you to Alton and eventually I-270 which will bring you home. 

The Great River Road is considered one of the easiest routes to follow for full foliage appreciation. From Pere Marquette to Alton, you’ll pass through the town of Grafton, home of The Finn Inn, and by the historic village of Elsah, another entry on the  National Register of Historic Places. The village has been voted one of Illinois’ most scenic places and is a must-see stop for history buffs and shoppers alike. 

Don’t forget to keep a watchful eye open for the Piasa Bird cliff painting on the outskirts of Alton. 

According to “The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America,” edited by Allan Greer, Pere Jacques Marquette wrote in his journal that he saw the painting on a limestone bluff overlooking the Mississippi River while exploring the area. He recorded the following description in 1673: 

“While skirting some rocks, which by their height and length inspired awe, we saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dare not long rest their eyes. They are as large as a calf; they have horns on their heads like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger’s, a face somewhat like a man’s, a body covered with scales, and so long a tail that it winds all around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish’s tail. Green, red, and black are the three colors composing the picture.”

Piasa Bird
Piasa Bird near Alton, Illinois (Source: Illinois Tourism)

Today, only one “monster” exists and it is a 20th century painting of the original that, after centuries of sun and storms, finally faded away. Nevertheless, spying the Piasa is an iconic part of a fall foliage trip along the Great River Road.

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