Take Your Family to Grafton, Illinois!

Here’s an off-the-beaten-path destination filled with fun for the family: Grafton, Illinois. Plan your getaway now!

Here’s some news that just feels great: families are traveling again, and they’re doing it together. Industry research shows 76% of parents who are planning travel post-pandemic say their children are their inspiration for taking a family trip. But if a week at a crowded theme park doesn’t feel quite right — or you’re looking for something other than a beach vacation — there are plenty of off-the-beaten-path destinations to discover. For Chicagoland families, Grafton, Illinois, has plenty of draw.

Not familiar with Grafton? It’s an authentic river town on the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers in southwest Illinois, not too far from St. Louis. “The outdoor recreation element is huge here in Grafton,” says JD Lorton, a board member of the Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau.

And so it should be, because Grafton is beautiful. “The natural scenic beauty of Grafton is incredible,” Lorton says. “Where else can you experience panoramic views of the rivers and even the Gateway Arch in the distance? It’s the best view in the Midwest.”

Across the region — the only spot where Route 66 meets up with a National Scenic Byway — there’s plenty for families to do. Grafton and surrounding communities are designed to maximize family fun and provide opportunities for parents and kids to connect with each other and with the natural beauty that is unique to the American riverfront.

Grafton is where two rivers meet

A great way to take in Grafton and spend time on the water is on the Grafton Ferry. Or take a relaxing excursion on the Hakuna Matata, a 49-passenger tour boat that offers one-hour cruises all summer and even some themed specialty cruises with food, beverages and fun.

If you want to get even closer to the river, rent a boat or jet skis at Grafton Harbor and enjoy the experience at your own pace.

Kids of all ages love the Raging Rivers Water Park, a multi-attraction riverside destination for heart-pumping and relaxing experiences alike. “The waterslide on the limestone bluffs is a one-of-a-kind experience on the river,” Lorton says.

Families who like to hike, bike and climb rocks will appreciate the 8,000 acres of natural beauty of Pere Marquette State Park. Hike the trails — or enjoy them on horseback — here in Illinois’ largest state park. The must-see is the rustic park lodge, which was built by hand in the 1930s. Take a tour of the Lodge, then settle in for a hearty meal under The Lodge Restaurant’s beautiful exposed timbers. Spoiler: the Lodge Restaurant’s menu is well-known for its fried chicken.

And, tucked into the bluffs along the Mississippi River, you’ll find all kinds of unique treasures. Eckert’s Country Store & Farms is one of those welcoming places you read about with your children at bedtime — but it actually exists here in Grafton. Bring your family to pick peaches and blackberries during the summer months, and apples and pumpkins in the fall. Take a wagon ride, then shop the Grafton Country Store for the freshest produce and farm-crafted items, like honey, Amish salsa, jams, jellies and a lot more. Active kids will naturally love the Kids’ Corral, a place for swinging, sliding, climbing and just having a great time.

Off-the-beaten-path experiences

Grafton itself is a small town of entrepreneurs who have teamed up to offer visitors a great experience in a unique tourist destination. Here, you’ll experience places to stay, eateries and experiences you can’t find anywhere else.

Lorton’s own family founded Aerie’s Resort to provide a unique lodging option for visitors to Grafton. Then they expanded to build the Grafton SkyTour, which offers a dual open-chair lift and gondola-style ride 300 feet in the air from the riverfront to the top of the Mississippi River bluffs at the resort. It’s the only attraction of its kind in Illinois.

The addition of Aerie’s Alpine Coaster — which is open and enjoyable all year round — was another first for Illinois. The 3,010 feet of track were built with the intention of keeping as much natural landscape intact as possible, which means less impact on the environment and a more picturesque four-seasons experience, even as you zip by at 28 miles per hour.

“My parents are entrepreneurs and they’re risk-takers. We went all over the country looking at alpine coasters and lifts,” Lorton says. “Not only did we do the research, but we got to see how the operations work. What can we do to make our guests have the best experience possible?”

You’ll see that same high level of care at the Grafton Zipline Adventures, one of the largest ziplines in Illinois. Plan to spend a couple of hours experiencing the seven zipline courses, connected by suspension bridges and walking trails, all of which are either above, below or through the tree canopies. As you’re laughing, shouting and reaching speeds of 45 miles per hour, you’ll appreciate the friendliness of the professionally certified guides.

Enjoy authentic Midwest hospitality

Grafton is only a few hours southwest of Chicago, but the vibe is completely different — in a good way.

“Our family especially is passionate about this area, and about what we are doing to give families an experience that is something that makes memories,” Lorton says. “We’re cognizant of the service and the experience and want to set it apart from other destinations.”

From thrilling ziplines to quiet drives through orchards and the Jersey County bluffs on the National Scenic Byway, Lorton promises your experiences from town to town throughout southwest Illinois will be quaint and friendly.

“We know when guests come here, they want to have a good experience. They want to go home with a good taste in their mouth of the trip having been worth it. So we make sure you are taken care of,” Lorton says. “We all want to please our guests and give them an experience so they’ll want to come back.”

Learn more about Grafton, Illinois, as a vacation destination. Visit the Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau at riversandroutes.com.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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