Great River Trail Bike Overnight

by Justyna Frank
GRT bike overnight

Bike overnight camping trips have several advantages over epic treks. You can do them virtually on the spur of the moment with little or no planning if you happen to find yourself with a couple of free days. Carrying and preparing food for a trip lasting not much longer than 24 hour is vastly simplified. And going without a shower for two days hasn’t killed anybody.

That wasn’t really our primary motivation when we embarked on a bike overnight camping trip along the Great River Trail. The main reason was that we finally wanted to camp at the apparently little-known but remarkably gorgeous campground (definitely one of our favorites!) on the banks of the Mississippi River just outside the small hamlet of Thomson, IL.

Ideally, I would have done this trip with Brompton folding bikes and much more pared down equipment, but —as noted in the opening paragraph— this outing had a somewhat thrown-together-at-the-last-minute character, and it was easier to throw things together into large Ortlieb panniers attached to full-size bikes than it would have been with Bromptons and their more minimalist luggage options.

We began our day by heading out of Chicago in our van to the town of Port Byron on the banks of the Mississippi (for cycling purists, you can find my thoughts on the use of the car for such trips in this post). The Great River Trail spans the distance of over 60 miles between The Quad Cities and Savannah, IL. We knew we wouldn’t be covering its entire length in this short trip, so we chose a starting point that gave us a very reasonable 30-mile distance to our chosen camping destination at Thomson Causeway.

Leisurely roll through the Sand Prairie Preserve.
Spectacular sunset over the Mississippi River.

Finding parking for the van was easy, in fact we managed to grab the spot right under the iconic statute of Will B. Rolling and his high-wheeler. We loaded up the bikes with our gear, and headed up the street to join the trail. Leaving town, we discovered an unexpected road hazard in the form of large, partially rotted walnuts which thickly covered the pavement in several places, preventing us from taking full advantage of the sweeping downhills.

Although the day was nowhere nearly as hot as the first time we made this trip, the exposure and lack of scenery, as the trail skirted the edge of Rte 84 over the first several miles of the trip, made for frustratingly monotonous journey, and the heat was keenly felt. On the plus side, on level grade and smooth pavement we made rapid progress. Outside the town of Albany, the trail hopped east over Rte. 84 to circle the historic 2000 years old Albany Indian Mounds.

This section offered very welcome sections of shade, and pleasantly undulating terrain among tall stands of ripening corn, for a bit of a change of pace. Just outside the Mounds area, we stopped for a trailside lunch at the pavilion equipped with picnic tables and a water fountain.

After this half-way point, the trail was much more varied, utilizing some quiet rural roads, small-town streets, and even the top a levy into and through the town of Fulton. It was around Fulton that we started to want a beer something fierce, but we were unwilling to take a detour in search of a suitable watering hole, so we pressed on for the remaining 7 miles of the trip.

This final section was arguably the most scenic of the whole trip, passing through shady woodland and beautiful expanse of prairie (more pleasant in waning late afternoon sun than it would have been at midday), before slipping into a stately pine forest around the Thomson Causeway, which was our destination.

We coasted downhill into the smaller, northernmost River Birch campground, passing a swampy, stagnant riparian marsh —verdant and moist, but also arrestingly aromatic— and finally came face to face with the quiet expanse of the Mississippi River, smooth and golden in the slanting sun, and our own little home for the night nestled at her feet.

We paused only long enough to take in the breathtaking view, but beer was on our brains, and we only had so much daylight left before it would be too late to ride safely into town. So we dumped our panniers and headed up to Thomson unencumbered. I’ve never had beer that tasted as good as that Blue Moon guzzled down perching atop the picnic table, with flames flickering in the fire ring, watching the technicolor display over the great waters.

Leave a Comment