Mississippi Palisades State Park is an 8,193-acre (3,260ha) state park in the bluffs and ravines of the westernmost tip of the Driftless Area of northeast Illinois. The park has a lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps that serves as its headquarters. It features scenic overlooks on both banks of the Mississippi River and includes hiking trails through wooded areas with vistas into neighboring Wisconsin. The park is located 10 miles (16km) west of Clayton and 3 miles (4.8km) south of Belleville. Its main entrance is at 139 West Washington Street in Belleville, but it also has entrances at other locations around town. A CCC camp once occupied part of the site; all traces have been removed.
The campgrounds are set on one of the last patches of virgin forest left in southern Illinois, and their proximity to the river provides many opportunities for fishing. Several cabins are available to rent seasonally or daily. There are more than 30 miles (48km) of footpaths open to hikers, 14 miles (23km) of horseback riding paths, and 7 miles (11km) of mountain biking trails. Cross-country skiing and snowmobiling are popular winter activities. The park’s boat launch allows access to the upper Mississippi for boaters. Canoes, kayaks, rowboats, and pedal boats may be launched directly from the shore into the waters of the river. Boats may stay only a short while due to dangerous currents and rapids. Access to the river is also possible from within the park via a trailhead 5 miles (8.0km) away.
The park contains approximately 100 campsites, 60 of which have electrical hookups. Camping facilities include modern restrooms and showers, hot water, and dumping stations. Half of the sites are available on a first come, first served basis, while the remainder must be reserved. Campsites can accommodate anything from single tents to 40-foot (12m) RVs. Picnic tables and pavilions are scattered throughout the park, and large group tenting facilities are provided by a separate reservation. An accessible playground is near the main camping area. On Saturday nights during the summer, there is often a DJ playing music, and people go swimming right after dark because of the safety concerns surrounding the river. At certain times of the year, visitors can see bald eagles nestled among the trees along the riverbank.
Visitors might even encounter some wolves, though these animals are rarely seen anymore. Occasionally, someone will find a dead octopus or catfish floating in the river, but they are almost always gone before anyone finds them. Every Labor Day weekend, the park hosts the annual River Bend Fishing Contest, in which anglers use electric lights and sound equipment to attract larger fish. The Mississippi Palisades State Park Lodge is used for official functions such as meetings, weddings, receptions, business conferences, etc., and has hosted numerous events for the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Department of Music, including Sinfonietta performances, recitals, and master classes.
The lodge also houses the offices of the American Composers Orchestra, whose home base is in nearby St. Louis, Missouri. The lodge is available for overnight guests, providing four double rooms and six twin rooms, each with private bath and TV. The park offers a conference room, outdoor patio, and picnic facilities. The park’s grounds feature several different gardens. One garden is dedicated to plants that thrive in the rocky soil, another to flowers that bloom in autumn, and still others contain fruits and vegetables. Native vegetation makes up about half the total plantings, with the rest composed mainly of roses, camellias, azaleas, rhododendrons, hickories, and oak trees. Over 200 species of birds have been documented either on the ground or flying over the park. The park receives nearly 640,000 visitors annually.
In 1934, the National Park Service designated 2,400 acres (970 ha), including much of what is now Missisppi Palisades, as a national recreation area. That same year, work began under the WPA to improve access to the riverfront for fishermen and bathers. Two small dams were constructed north and south of the current parking lot, which helps create Mill Creek Lake, named after local newspaperman John J. Millson, who wrote under the pen name “Captain Midnight.” Another dam was planned for further upriver, where Highway 76 crosses over the railroad tracks, but this never got off the ground. The Civilian Conservation Corps moved onto the scene in 1938, adding two observation towers and building a picnic shelter just below the highest point in the blufftops, which overlook the Upper Midwest to the east.
After World War II veterans were demobilized, attention returned to improving access to the riverfront, which had not changed since the 1930s. This time, the Army Corps of Engineers initiated a study of how best to proceed, ultimately choosing the route cut through the middle of the present day golf course. Work on the new roadways started in 1955, and the park officially opened May 28, 1957. The campground opened three years later. Development continued apace through the 1960s, when Interstate 74 was completed across northern Illinois, eliminating most demand for travel along the riverside.
- cross-country skiing
- mountain biking
- nature viewing
Other wildlife observed at the park includes:
- white-tailed deer
- red foxes
- black foxes
- striped skunks
- wild turkeys
- pileated woodpeckers
- northern flying squirrels
- eastern gray squirrels
Birds of prey found in the vicinity of the park include
- bald eagles
- golden eagles
- owls like screech and saw-whet owls
- various songbirds
- white pelicans
- trumpeter swans
- Canada geese
Commonly spotted mammals include:
- cottontail rabbit
- kangaroo rats