the brussels ferry makes its way across the illinois river between calhoun and jersey counties photo by carmen troesser

An autumn tour of Illinois' Calhoun and Jersey counties

With fall’s arrival comes a yen for gourds, the rustle of dried corn stalks, and bucolic spots to admire the changing foliage and soak in the sun’s shortened rays. Illinois’ Calhoun and Jersey counties, located just an hour from downtown St. Louis, make for ideal autumn day trip destinations. From the moment you pull onto the ferry, roll the windows down and shut off your car engine, your worries are left on the shore; you’re weightless and drifting. There’s nothing to do but take in the views, which are especially beautiful if you’re lucky enough to catch the ferry at sunset. The road ahead calls, but here between the riverbanks, for just a few minutes, time stands still. When the ferry docks, you’re deposited into a world of farm stands, rolling riverside landscapes and roadside eateries.

Divided by the Illinois and the Mississippi rivers, the two counties are like sisters who have just enough space to appreciate the other’s special qualities but recognize their differences. Calhoun County is the older of the two; established in 1825, she’s a tad shy and enjoys watching the world from her antique wavy glass windows. Surrounded by water on three sides, she’s breathtakingly beautiful and well aware of her unique features. Her five municipalities – Hardin, Kampsville, Batchtown, Brussels and Hamburg – are connected by narrow roads that don’t quite welcome hoards of travelers with wide thoroughfares but reward with vistas that rival Tuscany in the fall. It’s a place to get lost and wander down farmers’ driveways to ask directions. When you finally do reach the end of the road, it likely ends at the water’s edge where you’ll wait for the ferry to take you away.

calhoun county's vistas // photo by carmen troesser

From Calhoun, the Brussels Ferry introduces you to younger and more energetic Jersey County and her most lively attribute, Grafton. After a tranquil day on the quiet side of river, she can be a bit of a shock but is welcoming nonetheless. She’s vivacious, unapologetic and not ashamed of how much she wants you there. The mile-long stretch along Route 100 pulls you in to eat, sleep or party until there’s no hint of crickets ringing in your ears. But Jersey Co. also knows that it takes more than a party to bring people in, so she takes cues from her older sibling and has her own quiet hamlets, back roads and orchards. You may need to fight some crowds sometimes, but that’s how she likes it. 

So, to visit only one of these riverside counties is perfectly fine. But by floating back and forth between them, you’ll get to know two areas that are genetically similar but whose personalities differ and complement each other in the best of ways – although they’d never admit it.

the village of elsah, illinois // photo by carmen troesser

The village of Elsah, tucked into the limestone cliffs on the River Road between Grafton and Alton, was the first village in the U.S. to be listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places. Inns, shops and historic attractions line the streets of this former riverboat stop. The Green Tree Inn provides the perfect place to rest. Co-owner Connie Davis cooks up treats to her guests’ tastes and dietary guidelines, while her husband, Gary, entertains with his knowledge and humorous takes on Elsah and surrounding areas. 

photo by carmen troesser

The Historic Wittmond Hotel in Brussels was established as a stage coach stop in 1847 by Conrad Wittmond. The hotel is popular with road-trippers like these bikers being photographed by Kate Burch, Wittmond’s great-granddaughter who occasionally helps out at the family business. Meals at the hotel are served family style, and in the autumn, reservations are recommended.

photo by carmen troesser

Brad Hagen, far right, the owner of the The Grafton Oyster Bar, boils up shrimp, corn and crab legs at his Cajun-Creole restaurant, which floats on the Mississippi River in the Grafton marina. Fresh Blue Point oysters can be enjoyed on a bar overlooking the water.

jane herter // photo by carmen troesser

Jane and Fred Herter’s barn is graced with one of almost 90 “barn quilts” – enormous, colorful paintings of quilt blocks that can be viewed from a distance – in Calhoun County. Jane served on the committee that started the project in 2008, whose objective was to promote agrotourism in the county without sacrificing its natural beauty, in which residents take great pride. Jane described the experience of riding the ferry to Calhoun: “You literally feel that whatever’s on your mind sinks into the river when you float across. You’re passive in a way that it’s impossible to be anywhere else. It’s nice to be carried that way once in a while.”

oysters at the grafton oyster bar // photo by carmen troesser

Getting there
Three ferries service Calhoun and Jersey counties: the Brussels Ferry, which travels between the town of Grafton and Calhoun County; the Golden Eagle Ferry, which travels between St. Charles and the town of Golden Eagle in Calhoun County; and the seasonal Grafton Ferry, which travels between St. Charles and Grafton during the spring and summer months.

Brussels Ferry
16211 State Highway 100 W, Grafton, 618.786.3636, Facebook: Brussels Ferry

Golden Eagle Ferry
Ferry Road, 618.535.5759, Facebook: Calhoun Ferry Company

Grafton Ferry
Route 100, Grafton, 800.258.6645

Grafton Oyster Bar
215 Water St., Grafton, 618.786.3000,

Eckert’s Grafton Farm
20995 Eckert Orchard Road, Grafton, 800. 745.0513,

The Green Tree Inn of Elsah
15 Mill St., Elsah, 618.374.2821,

Odelehr’s Roadside Market
Illinois River Road, Brussels, 618.883.2265, Facebook: Odelehr’s Roadside Market

Historic Wittmond Hotel
166 E. Main St., Brussels, 618.883.2345, Facebook: Wittmond Hotel

Self-Guided Tour of Calhoun
County Barn Quilt Trail,