Ever wonder what's on top of those bluffs you drive under along the Great River Road just north of Alton? We know what — the area's best-kept beauty secret. The Nature Institute owns more than 500 acres along this bend of the river: the Kemp & Cora Hutchinson Bird Sanctuary, which features an astonishingly diverse prairie restoration; and the John M. Olin Nature Preserve, which, among many other marvels, offers huge views of the Mississippi from an old skeet shooting-ground overlook — a fantastic place to gaze upon the 500-year floodwaters every 15 years or so! Trails loop through both preserves for your walking pleasure. See more than 150 species of birds and more than 400 species of vascular plants in this close-to-home Eden, where the drone of bugs and passing barges blend so harmoniously. Illinois prohibits picnicking in its nature preserves, but you can munch your sandwich on the sprawling wraparound porch of the historic Talahi Lodge at the trailhead before heading off for a hike. The bird sanctuary is open year-round; Olin Nature Preserve is closed to the public from November 15 to March 15 so bald eagles can raise their chicks in peace. (If you are raising children, be sure to check out The Nature Institute's website for day-camp and "Knee-Hi Naturalist" info.)
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