Near Alton, Illinois, the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site — an interactive museum — tells one of the most important stories in American History. If you know Thomas Jefferson, then you know his insatiable curiosity and love for country drove him. He was a thinker who understood that America needed to grow — in knowledge and geography. The Lewis & Clark museum tells the story of our country’s journey west, from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
Visiting the museum, I was struck with the thought that Lewis & Clark were among the first great travel writers! They carefully recorded their journey, including a packing list (their complete supply list), how to pack the vehicle (a boat) and so much more! They would have made great travel bloggers. Okay — back to the museum.
The Lewis & Clark State Historic Site is built in the vicinity of their original camp. Changes in the flow of the Mississippi River through the past 200 years make it impossible to pinpoint exactly where their camp was, but the historic site is close! Entering the exhibit, the first display explains the mission set forth by President Thomas Jefferson.
The next area tells how Lewis & Clark prepared for the expedition. Interactive displays explain how they chose their team and prepared them for travel. “Can you guess” type interactive displays encourage kids to think about the challenges of such an undertaking in 1802. It was certainly more challenging than figuring out how to fit two weeks worth of clothes into one carry-on bag!
The same area shows a life-size cutaway replica of the keelboat. We were amazed at how efficiently they packed every nook and cranny while making sure everything they needed could be easily reached. Think about how hard we struggle to pack the family van for a one week road trip — and multiply by a whole lot of people on a six month journey with no hotels! Impressive, to say the least!
After studying their packing strategy, we tried our hand at packing a children’s size replica of the boat. Ben and I are great at Tetris, but we couldn’t figure this one out. We tried!
The next area features letters sent between Lewis and Jeffesron detailing the journey. Map replicas, drawings of plants and animals seen along the way and displays of daily life bring the journey to life. Prompts throughout the museum encourage guests to engage with the displays, taking themselves back in time to the American frontier.
My only complaint is that when the museum first opened, children’s programming was available. The prompts for the programming are still there, but the booklets are no longer available. I recommend bringing a notebook so kids can participate in the activities to get the most from their visit.
Lewis & Clark State Historic Site visitors can tour the buildings on the grounds too. A replica of Camp DuBois, the fort where they wintered before travel, gives visitors a sense of what these explorers endured before they set off up the Mississippi.
At special events throughout the year, volunteers in period costume provide demonstrations to bring the past to life.
The President Jefferson medal was prepared especially for the exhibition as a gift from the explorers to native tribal chiefs they met along their route.
Plan your visit to the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site
Admission: Free! Please consider leaving a donation to help preserve the site!
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Tip for visiting: Use the teacher pages to familiarize elementary school age kids with Lewis & Clark before visiting. They’ll understand the exhibits even more, which means they’ll enjoy them more! Alternatively, the reading list that follows will familiarize children with Lewis & Clark, making the visit more meaningful!
Allow 2-4 hours for your visit, depending on how much you like to read and explore. We visited for a little over two hours and could have stayed a bit longer (we’re both adults, aka big kids!).
- Seaman’s Journal, for grades K-2. Seaman, Merriwether Lewis’ Newfoundland dog, tells the story of the expedition in this enjoyable book for young children. The vivid pictures engage kids, even if they can’t read all the words!
- How We Crossed the West: Adventures of Lewis & Clark, for grades 2-6. We read this book with our kids in elementary school. It’s an engaging story, simplified for young readers but informative enough for ten year olds. Images throughout bring the story to life.
- The Lewis & Clark Expedition, for grades 4 to 7. This book takes a different approach, with jokes, activities, crafts and engaging questions brings the story to life, especially engaging for hands on learners. With just a little preparation, this book would also make a great road trip car activity!
From Springfield, IL
Take I-55 South to I-270 West. Follow I-270 for about 10 miles, get off at Illinois Route 3 North. Travel about 3 miles, we are at the first stoplight on the left.
From Downtown St. Louis
Take I-55 North to I-255. Take I-255 North about 7 miles, to the New Poag Rd. Exit (You will pass over I-270). Take a left(west) off the New Poag Rd. exit and travel about 3 miles. The road ends at the entrance to the site.
From St. Charles, MO
Get on I-270 East. Take the 1st Illinois exit once you cross the Mississippi River, (Illinois Route 3 North). Travel about 3 miles, we are at the first stoplight on the left.
For more information: Call the visitor’s center at 618-251-5811 or visit the website.