Three mighty rivers meet near this historic town on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, about 20 miles north of downtown St. Louis.
There are some fascinating characters in Alton’s past, like the fearless 19th-century abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy, and Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in recorded history.
Hugging the Mississippi on the Illinois bank are majestic limestone bluffs, granting wonderful vistas, while on the opposite side are parks and preserves, like Riverlands, which has an Audubon center.
Alton is a place where you can learn more about navigation on the Mississippi, at the impressive Melvin Price Locks and Dam and the National Great Rivers Museum next door.
1. Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Route
Alton is on the Great River Road, which follows the Mississippi River for 2,000 miles, through ten states and hundreds of beautiful historic towns like this one.
This is touted as the best scenic drive in the country, and several stretches of this route have been designated as scenic byways.
This applies to the 33-mile portion, coursing through the Mississippi floodplain from Grafton down to Hartford.
You’ll journey between majestic river bluffs on one side and the famous Mississippi on the other, discovering magnificent viewpoints, bucolic rolling countryside, endearing little villages, places of real historical importance and spots where the Illinois and Missouri Rivers pour into the Mississippi.
2. National Great Rivers Museum
At the impressive Melvin Price Locks and Dam, a short drive from downtown Alton, is an excellent museum devoted to the Mississippi and its rich culture and natural history.
Like the neighboring dock, this facility was designed and built by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and opened a few years after the locks and dam in 1998.
You’ll make your way through around 20 engaging interactive multimedia exhibits, learning new facts about water conservation, the Mississippi’s ecology, its ever-changing course, as well as its role as a key transportation corridor.
There’s an aquarium with species from the river, and a simulator allowing you to steer your own towboat through the locks and dam.
3. Melvin Price Locks and Dam
Visiting the National Great Rivers Museum you’ve got to take some time to behold the awe-inspiring dam and pair of locks right beside it.
Officially Lock and Dam No. 26 (No. 1 is in Minneapolis/St. Paul), this spectacular structure was built between 1979 and 1994 to replace the previous lock and dam.
The main lock here, using a vertical lift gate, is 1,200 feet long and 110 feet wide, and remains a state-of-the-art piece of navigation infrastructure.
The dam’s nine imposing tainter gates each measure 110 feet wide by 42 feet high. To gauge the full size of the locks and dam, be sure to take a guided tour (available Wednesday to Saturday) when you visit the museum.
Late December through early March large numbers of bald eagles migrate to this area and catch fish at the dam.
4. Lewis and Clark State Historic Site
A few minutes downriver in Hartford is the site of Camp Dubois, where the Lewis and Clark Expedition spent the winter of 1803-04 before heading west to explore the Louisiana Purchase.
It was here that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark prepared for their expedition to the Pacific Ocean, and the camp is remembered with an absorbing 14,000-square-foot interpretive center telling you all you need to know about this epic journey.
Among the exhibits are a full-scale 55-foot cutaway keelboat, numerous artifacts and a host of hands-on displays.
Outside is a replica of Camp Dubois and a reconstructed settlers’ cabin, while close by is the 180-foot Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower with striking views of the Missouri and Mississippi.
5. World’s Tallest Man Statue
The tallest person in recorded history, Robert Wadlow (1918-1940) was born and raised in Alton, and attended the now defunct Shurtleff College.
Wadlow had a hypertrophic pituitary gland, producing an unusually high level of growth hormone.
When he passed away, following an infection caused by the leg braces he needed to walk, he was 8 ft 11.1 inches tall, and still growing.
The former Shurtleff College campus is now part of the charming Upper Alton Historic District, and on a plaza here is a life size statue of Wadlow.
Across College Avenue, the Alton Museum of History & Art was closed at the time of writing, but has some Wadlow memorabilia, including his outsized grade school ring and third grade desk.
6. Audubon Center at Riverlands
Just across the Mississippi in West Alton is the 3,700-acre Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, perfectly placed at the heart of the Mississippi Flyway.
This incredible migration corridor is used by more than 300 bird species, including more than 60% of all North American birds and 40% of the United States’ waterfowl species.
Riverlands has year-round residents like great blue herons, and seasonal visitors like trumpeter swans and bald eagles in winter, migrating warblers and shorebirds in spring and fall, and grassland birds like dickcissels in summer.
One of 41 around the country, the modern Audubon Center at Riverlands opened in 2011 and is a great resource for birdwatchers, with massive viewing windows, helpful staff and enthralling exhibits about Riverlands’ migrant and resident birdlife.
7. Village of Elsah
A short drive upriver will bring you to a quaint old village, preserved like a giant time capsule, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in its entirety in 1973.
Still home to around 100 people and brimming with photo-worthy stone architecture, Elsah reached its current size in 1861 and is wedged between a little gap in the river bluffs.
The historic district here is made up of 48 contributing buildings, and the old commercial district is especially well preserved, comprising all but one of its pre-1861 structures, including four old taverns.
8. Jacoby Arts Center
This multifaceted arts center is right in downtown Alton and housed in a fine old brick building dating back to the early 20th century.
Named for the furniture store that preceded it, the Jacoby Arts Center fills that atmospheric and cavernous space with a wealth of interesting programs.
There are captivating art exhibits in a variety of media, from industrial design to woodwork, as well as all kinds of live performances, including music, spoken word, theater and dance.
As a vital asset for the community, there’s always something going on at the center, whether it’s pottery workshops, art classes, dance classes, yoga, meditative drawing or artisan market.
9. Gordon F. Moore Community Park
This spacious, 700-acre park is on the outskirts of Alton at 4550 College Avenue. Primed for active recreation, the Gordon F. Moore Park has a 27-hole public golf course, 10 baseball/softball diamonds, 8 tennis courts and 19 soccer fields.
These are all matched with no fewer than six play areas (one accessible), an interactive fountain for children and concessions.
A nature trail connects a series of formal gardens and memorials, while the picture perfect Nan Elliott Memorial Rose Garden has a carillon, and you can come to hear the carillonneur give a concert on Sundays at 5 pm, Memorial Day weekend through September.
10. Elijah P. Lovejoy Monument
The outspoken Presbytarian minister Elijah Parish Lovejoy (1802-1837) published an abolitionist newspaper in St. Louis when Missouri was a slave state.
For his safety, following repeated threats and harassment by pro-slavery proponents, he relocated across the Mississippi to Alton in 1836.
He was no safer here, as although Illinois was of course a free state, Alton was a hotbed for slave-catchers and had strong economic ties to Missouri and St. Louis in particular.
In 1837 Lovejoy was murdered by a pro-slavery mob, mostly made up of Missourians, in an event that sent shockwaves through the country and made him a noted martyr for the abolitionist cause.
Visible for miles, the Lovejoy monument was raised in the 1890s and stands high on the river bluff. It features a 93-foot column, crested by a winged Victory, 17 feet tall, with four quotes by Lovejoy at the base.
11. Riverview Park
This small park is a bit of a climb, but you’ll know why you made the effort when you get there. Riverview Park is perched atop the limestone bluffs on the Mississippi and has a sublime view of the river and the distant wetlands on the opposite bank.
The park is oriented southwest, so this is a lovely place to be at sunset, with the compass points embedded in the ground at the main lookout.
A short walk from the edge of the bluff is a gazebo, used for outdoor concerts and special events in the summer.
12. Madison County Transit Confluence Trail
Something special about Madison County is its labyrinthine system of interconnected public bike trails, scurrying off to all corners of the county, from charming little towns to visitor attractions, historical sites and natural wonders like the Mississippi.
Just over 20 miles long and recently given funds for repairs, the Confluence Trail runs from Alton to Granite City, tracking the course of the river.
A few sights along the route are the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site, the Missouri-Mississippi Confluence and the Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower.
13. Clark Bridge
Sometimes referred to as the Super Bridge, this 4,620-foot crossing for Route 67 in Alton could not have been constructed at a worse time.
Replacing the previous Clark Bridge, which was deemed too small, work on the current structure coincided with the Great Flood of 1993, one of the most costly and damaging ever to occur in the United States.
Despite this, the Clark Bridge opened in 1994, and was innovative for combining a relatively light steel-framed cable-stayed design with pylons that have a cable saddle at their summit.
For some facts and figures, the bridge is composed of 160 miles of cable, 44,100 cubic yards of concrete and 8,100 tons of structural steel.
14. Fort Belle Fontaine County Park
The site of the first U.S military installation to be built west of the Mississippi can be found just a few miles south of Alton.
On the south bank of the Missouri, not far from the confluence, Fort Belle Fontaine was established in 1805.
As a trading fort, this was initially a hub for enlisted men and officers, and traders, trappers and settlers with American, French and Spanish backgrounds.
The trading post closed after a few years, and, after moving to the top of a bluff, from 1809 to 1826 Fort Belle had a military purpose.
The site of that fort lies within the 300-acre Fort Belle Fontaine County Park, which was improved in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration.
A notable holdover from that period is the grand staircase, leading up from the riverbank to the top of the bluff.
15. McPike Mansion
On the National Register of Historic Places since 1980, this grand Italianate mansion was built in 1869 by Henry Guest McPike (1825–1910) at one of the highest points in the city.
McPike was an important local businessman and served as mayor of Alton and also the Librarian of the Alton-Southern Illinois Horticultural Society in the late 1880s.
After a later owner passed away in 1945, the property spent decades abandoned until it was bought by local couple, Sharon and George Luedke in 1994.
They have overseen a faithful restoration, which is ongoing and financed by regular tours. These often have a paranormal theme, particularly during the month of October, as McPike Mansion has a long history of purported ghost sightings.