Drive to Piasa Park in Alton to see the famous rock-wall painting of Alton’s unofficial mascot, the Piasa Bird, a fearsome monster from Native American lore. The creature has a man’s face, deer antlers, a scale covered body and giant red wings. (For non-natives, Piasa is pronounced Pie-a-saw.)
Alton is about 50 minutes from south St. Louis County.
The original painting was one of several petroglyphs in the area, which may have dated back to the ancient Mississippians who built the Cahokia Mounds. What we know today of the original art comes from Father Jacques Marquette who in 1673 wrote about seeing two monsters painted on the wall, so high up he couldn’t fathom how the local natives managed to draw them.
A popular story explaining the Piasa Bird comes from John Russell, who published an article about it in 1836. It’s thought that he drew upon several Native American legends to spin his tale, and for better or worse, his story stuck. According to Russell, the bird was a monster ravaging Illini villages. Chief Ouatoga set out with 20 warriors to take on the bird with poison arrows, using himself as bait to lure the monster. After Chief Ouatoga’s men killed the monster, the Illini drew the bird on the rock cliffs to commemorate their victory.
Unfortunately, the Piasa Bird painting we see today is far from authentic. The original art was lost over time—supposedly the locals like to shoot at the monster, starting with the Native Americans and filtering down to the European settlers. And if that didn’t do enough damage, quarry work in the area finished off the ancient beast around 1850.
Alton was too attached to its man-eating bird monster, so it was restored. Several times in fact. In 1920, the first modern Piasa Bird painting was commissioned, but limestone makes for a terrible canvas and it needed periodic touch-ups. In 1983, Alton’s Rotary Club raised funds for a more permanent iron painted sculpture of the bird, which they bolted to the bluffs next to the Great River Road. That bird was evicted in 1996 by the land owners, who had a nearby business and didn’t like all the traffic the Piasa’s fans caused.
The current Piasa Bird was created by Godfrey, IL, artist Dave Stevens who painted the monster back on the bluffs where he belongs in 1998. It now presides over a city park overlooking the Mississippi.
If you go: Piasa Park is at the start of a 20-mile bike trail that parallels the Great River Road from Alton to Pere Marquette State Park five miles past Grafton. Most of the trail is separate, but it does share the highway in spots. The drive is just as nice by car or motorcycle and travels between the Mississippi River and scenic bluffs. You can stop in Grafton around mile marker 15 to grab lunch, an ice cream or visit a winery.