Some 1,000 bald eagles migrate along the Mississippi River Flyway in the winter, searching for open waters where they can fish. Many reclaim their nests along the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, a picturesque 33-mile route that runs from Hartford, Ill., to Pere Marquette State Park. Three rivers -- the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Illinois -- meet along the byway, attracting wildfowl and birdwatchers from all over the country.
The key to a successful Alton eagle outing is the 2011 Eagle Watcher's Guide. The guide lists hot spots for eagle watching, explains the eagle geocaching along the route, and offers tips for other things to see and do in the area. Don't miss the Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower in Hartford, which opened in May 2010 and offers panoramic views of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers from platforms ranging from 50, 100 and 150 feet in height.
Planning ahead is important to ensure your eagle viewing success; the Alton visitors bureau has the latest on where the eagles have most recently been spotted. Eagles leave their roosts at sunrise to feed and usually return to their roosts in the trees along the river by about 10 a.m., so get up early for your best chance of seeing the majestic birds. The Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau opens at 8:30 a.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. on weekends, and staff can direct you to the best viewing locations. The bureau is located at 200 Piasa St., Alton, or call 800-ALTON-IL.
A variety of family-friendly eagle events occur throughout the winter. You'll find details in the Sprout calendar. Just use the keyword search "eagle."
Although eagle watching is the main draw in winter, there is plenty to see and do throughout the year in the Alton area.
Alton is famous for the "Gentle Giant," the late Robert Wadlow, believed to be the world's tallest man. Kids will enjoy standing next to his 8' 11.1'' life-size statue in the Upper Alton historic district (2810 College Ave., Alton), near the Alton Museum of History and Art.
A drive along the Great River Road is beautiful anytime of year. The scenic highway begins near Hartford along Route 3 and 143, and continues through Alton to Pere Marquette State Park along Route 100. You could make it a family project to drive the scenic route each season, noting and recording (via camera or journals) the differences each season brings. Take the Golden Eagle Ferry (618-535-5759) or the Brussels Ferry (618-786-3636) to treat the kids to a new way of crossing a river. Yet another way to view the river is from eight stories up on the top of the Melvin Price Locks and Dam #26 (2 Lock & Dam Way Road, Alton). Take a tour and watch barges push through the locks while eagles soar overhead.
Throw in a dash of history to make it a learning vacation with stops at area Lewis and Clark sites, the Alton route of the Underground Railroad, or Abraham Lincoln and Civil War sites.
There's no better place to begin or end your riverside journey than at Pere Marquette State Park near Grafton. The 9,500-acre park offers horseback riding, fishing, camping, biking, hiking and more. Everyone in the family will enjoy spending the night at the lodge and eating in the dining room. Special packages throughout the year include eagle watching, blazing saddles (horseback riding) and splash away (in conjunction with Raging Rivers Waterpark). Pere Marquette Lodge & Conference Center is located at 13653 Lodge Blvd., Grafton, or call 618-786-2331.
To keep up your energy while exploring Alton, stop in at My Just Desserts (31 E. Broadway St., Alton) for a taste of homemade goodness: soups, salads, sandwiches, breads and pies. Many people order dessert first, to reserve a slice of their favorite pie. There's a daily hot casserole special, from Sky King casserole to chicken divan. Come hungry!
After sampling Alton, chances are you'll be like the eagles, returning again and again -- but not just in the winter.
Published January 2011