South of Chester
It’s a little bit afield from Chester, nearly a half-hour-drive south, but Piney Creek Reserve Nature Preserve (618.826.2706) is worth a detour. The preserve is home to the largest collection of rock art (petroglyphs and pictographs) in Illinois, some of which are 1,500 years old (and not always easy to identify). Besides that, it’s a darn pretty place to hike around. From Highway 3 south of Chester, go east on Hog Hill Road to Rock Crusher Road. The signs will lead you the rest of the way.
Just south of Chester, the two thousand-acre Turkey Bluffs State Fish and Wildlife Area (4301 S. Lake Dr.; 618.826.2706) has several miles of hiking trails and a good overlook of the river.
The Gothic Court House Museum (1 Taylor St.; 618.826.5000, x112) is the only remaining section of the second Randolph County courthouse. It was built in 1864 and now houses a museum. Its star attraction is the old electric chair from Menard prison, which was last used for an execution in 1938. The museum also has a lot of interesting exhibits and photographs of Kaskaskia. The fifth floor of the courthouse (next door) has a good view of the Mississippi River and the floodplain; you have to pass through security to get to it.
A series of Popeye-themed statues around town pay tribute to Elzie Segar. The original Popeye statue was installed in 1977 in Segar Park next to the Mississippi River bridge. In 2006 the city began a new effort to memorialize other Popeye characters with statues of their own. As of 2018, there are fourteen; a new statue is unveiled at the annual Popeye Picnic.
You didn’t come all this way to go home empty-handed, so make time to scan the shelves at Spinach Can Collectibles (1001 State St.; 618.826.4567), which has an impressive collection of Popeye-themed merchandise.
North of Chester
The French Creole Pierre Menard Home State Historic Site (4230 Kaskaskia Rd.; 618.859.3031) is a must-see site if you’re interested in the area’s French Colonial history. Menard was born in Quebec in 1767 and moved to Kaskaskia in 1790. He made a lot of money running a trading post and went on to an impressive political career. He served as Indian agent for a while, was selected for the Indiana and Illinois Territorial legislatures, and was Illinois’ first Lieutenant Governor. He built the house in the 1810s, which is a magnificent example of frontier Creole architecture. It’s a fifteen-minute drive north of Chester.
On the bluffs near the Menard home, Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site (Ellis Grove: 4372 Park Rd.; 618.859.3741) sprawls over 200 acres along the Mississippi River. The small fort—it only had a three-room barrack and a kitchen—was built around 1759 to defend the village of Kaskaskia but was probably never completed. The site of the old fort is clearly marked and has great views of the river; you look right down to the location where the old village of Kaskaskia once thrived. The park has plenty of room to picnic and walk around.