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Wednesday, May 20, 2009 06:09 am

Ride the rails to Alton

For affordable day-trips to Alton and St. Louis, take the train

Amtrak’s Texas Eagle takes you from Springfield to Alton and points beyond.

Passenger rail may have seen its heyday come and go, but 21,000 miles of train track still crisscross America. Ten of Amtrak’s routes wind through Illinois and can connect those looking for summer fun with several destinations throughout the Midwest. Of all the options in the region, Amtrak’s Texas Eagle provides one of the best ways to explore many parts of Illinois, Missouri and beyond.

The Texas Eagle, which passes daily through Springfield, runs from Chicago to San Antonio, stopping in 25 cities along the way. While the entire trip lasts a whopping 32.5 hours, smaller sections make perfect (and affordable) day trips from central Illinois.

From Springfield, the Eagle heads 80 miles southwest into Alton, home of Miles Davis and host to the seventh Lincoln-Douglas debate on Oct. 15, 1858. The surprising river town offers plenty of options for family fun — from museums, to trails, to golf courses, to water activities. The Lincoln and Civil War Legacy Trail, one of Alton’s newest attractions, features a self-guided tour that connects 10 Lincoln-related sites in the area, including Lincoln-Douglas Square, Lovejoy Monument, Confederate Cemetery and the site of Lincoln’s infamous near-duel with James Shields.

Several companies in Alton rent tourists Segways, scooters and canoes. Whichever method of transit you choose, steer yourself over to Alton’s National Great Rivers Museum, and learn how the Mighty Mississippi plays an important role in the region’s communities. Visitors can steer a replica barge, tour the museum’s aquarium and calculate their own water usage.

For those who prefer to get out on the water and play, there are countless ways to do just that. Alton is home to a riverboat casino, ferry tours, kayak rentals and other outlets for riverfront fun. If water parks seem more enticing, Raging Rivers is just 20 miles downriver in Grafton.

En route to Grafton (if you’re traveling by car), you’ll pass through “The New England of the Midwest,” Elsah, Ill. The quaint community of 600 residents was founded in 1853, and the whole village is on the National Register of Historic places. Visitors come to Elsah to view its beautiful homes, enjoy its bike and hiking trails and to catch a glimpse of its local bald eagle population.

The famous Piasa Bird, an ancient bluff mural painted on the cliffs by Native Americans and discovered by Jacques Marquette in 1673.

Alton and its surrounding towns are dotted with B&Bs and guesthouses, and locals and tourists alike stroll through charming orchards, wineries and outdoor areas like Pere Marquette State Park. Don’t leave town without seeing the famous Piasa Bird, an ancient bluff mural painted on the cliffs by Native Americans and discovered by Jacques Marquette in 1673.

From Alton, the Texas Eagle passes under the Eads Bridge and continues into St. Louis. While in the Gateway City, most head to Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The national park is home to the Gateway Arch, the Old Courthouse and the Museum of Westward Expansion.

The Courthouse is perhaps best known as home to the Dred Scott case in 1850 and its ties to abolition. The museum features artifacts from Lewis and Clark’s expeditions. The Arch, the park’s best-known landmark, stands 630 feet above the Mississippi River. Those brave enough to take a tram to the top of the monument are rewarded with stunning views of up to 30 miles.

Other popular St. Louis attractions include Busch Stadium, the St. Louis Zoo, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis Science Center, Union Station, Fox Theater, Grant’s Farm, and The Muny.

While Alton and St. Louis are close enough to drive, riding the rails can be a fun and relaxing way to enjoy the summer as a family without the stress and pollution often associated with driving. While on board, riders can move to the Sightseer Lounge Car to view some of the trip’s scenic highlights like Wood River and the Eads Bridge. Tickets to Alton from Springfield start at just $7 per person each way, while the St. Louis fare begins at $13 with the trip lasting just over two hours. Passengers can travel with bicycles for an additional fee.

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