Nature's handiwork and rich history shape Missouri's southeast corner.

By By the editors of MidwestLiving.com

Splendors of the Southland

Nature's handiwork and rich history shape Missouri's southeast corner, from the Mississippi River, which forms the state's east border, to the rolling Ozark Mountains just 60 miles west. Around bends in the highways and byways that twist through this area, you'll discover communities that look much as they did years ago. They're tucked along clear rivers and streams, amid the woods and in the shadows of the region's timeworn green hills.

The state's highest point, granite-capped Taum Sauk Mountain, rises just an hour's drive west of the river valley, as you wind through gentle folds of the Ozarks. Twisting roads take you deep into the forested wilds and to narrow, remote valleys. Here and there, a clear spring bubbles up from the earth, and old mills nestle along crystal-clear rivers.

Your easygoing 240-mile tour begins just 60 miles south of St. Louis and takes you through some of the area's most welcoming towns and extraordinary scenery. The route ends at a 100-year-old mill that perfectly captures the region's beauty and serenity.

Ste. Genevieve

Founded by French farmers in 1735, this Mississippi River town retains a touch of Old World grace. At the Great River Road Interpretive Center downtown, you can trace Ste. Genevieve's rich past. You learn about its early days as the first permanent settlement on the river's west bank, as well as the town's plucky battle against the great flood of 1993.

Boutiques, antiques shops, inns and historic structures fill the downtown, which centers on the courthouse square. The Southern Hotel, a three-story Federal-style masterpiece, grandly presides nearby. On another corner, the Old Brick House, a casual restaurant known for its fried chicken and huge buffets, occupies the oldest brick building located west of the Mississippi.

Even more than 2 centuries after he built it, Louis Bolduc's house along Main Street hints at the trader's wealth and position. A stockade fence surrounds the long, low-slung frame home, which you can tour. The house features big, open rooms and a roof supported by massive hewn beams.

Even more than 2 centuries after he built it, Louis Bolduc's house along Main Street hints at the trader's wealth and position. A stockade fence surrounds the long, low-slung frame home, which you can tour. The house features big, open rooms and a roof supported by massive hewn beams.

German settlers followed the French to Ste. Genevieve. At Jack Oberle's Market along State-32 on the west edge of town, you can savor one of that groups' contributions to local society. The hickory-scented, no-frills sausage-and-meat shop claims fans from all across the nation.

Drive 10 miles southeast on US-61.

St. Mary

(Population: 460)

With its tall steeple and handsome stained-glass windows, the 1889 Church of the Immaculate Conception dominates this sleepy hamlet. Three miles east of town on Picou Ridge Road, you can enter Illinois without even crossing the Mississippi.

A disastrous flood in 1881 caused a shift in the river's main channel, leaving the town of Kaskaskia, Illinois, on the Missouri side. A small brick building houses the Kaskaskia Bell, known as the "Liberty Bell of the West" French King Louis XV gave the 650-pound relic to the town in 1743.

Drive 24 miles south on US-61, passing through Perryville, where you can visit St. Mary's of the Barrens Church, a yellow brick Italianate beauty built in 1827. Go 4 miles east on County-A.

Frohna

(Population: 250)

Seven hundred immigrants fled Germany's Saxony region in the late 1830s, seeking religious freedom. The group settled in Perry County and founded the Lutheran Church's Missouri Synod.

The Saxon Lutheran Memorial, an 11-acre living-history site in tiny Frohna, pays tribute to these pioneers. You can tour several buildings, including a log cabin and barn that early pioneers built, plus a granary that now houses a country store and museum.

Two miles east in the village of Altenberg, a pavilion shelters the "Log Cabin College" the Missouri Synod's first seminary building.

From Altenberg, drive 1 mile west on County-A, 13 miles southwest on County-C, 1 1/2 miles south on US-61 and 9 miles south on County-W.

Cape Girardeau

(Population: 35,370)

Named for French soldier Jean B. Girardot, who established a trading post here more than 200 years ago, this busy college town climbs gently up a hillside from the Mississippi. The red brick 1854 courthouse commands a terraced bluff. More than 20 antiques shops scatter throughout the downtown, many located in vintage brick buildings.

During the Civil War, Union forces built four forts to protect the city. You can visit one that still stands, Fort D, and the sites of three others.

Learn more about Cape Girardeau's rich history by taking a self-guided tour of murals at several locations (brochures available at the convention and visitors bureau). A huge mural downtown commemorates 45 famous Missourians. Another, at Southeast Missouri State University, shows early settlers at work.

Drive 8 miles northwest on US-61, which becomes State-72.

Jackson

The nostalgic hiss of a steam locomotive draws visitors to the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railway in this county seat town set amid rolling farmland. A 1946 steam engine pulls vintage passenger cars on trips through the surrounding coun-tryside (April through October). You travel on rails originally laid in the 1860s, when trains hauled lead and iron ore from the Ozark foothills.

East of town, visit the Old McKendree Chapel, a Methodist Episcopal church built of poplar logs in 1819. It's reputed to be the oldest Protestant church building west of the Mississippi.

Drive 3 miles west on State-72 and 8 miles southwest on State-34. Drive a mile south on County-OO, which spurs off into County-HH.

Bollinger Mill State Historic Site

Guided tours take you though this stone-and-brick gristmill, which towers four stories high along the banks of the Whitewater River. Watch a corn-grinding demonstration and browse exhibits that tell you about the mill's early days. You also can visit the adjacent Burfordville Covered Bridge. Built in 1868, it's the oldest structure of its kind in the state.

Return to State-34 and drive 5 miles east. Go 56 miles west on State-72, passing through the farming community of Fredericktown, site of an 1863 Civil War battle that involved 8,000 soldiers. As you travel west, the land rises imperceptibly for severalmiles before finally fracturing into the mountains and valleys of the Ozarks.

Ironton

(Population: 1,540)

Large homes dating back a century recall the days when wealthy St. Louis families escaped to this county seat town in the summer. Today, it's a gateway to three gems in the Missouri state park system: Elephant Rocks, Taum Sauk Mountain and Johnson's Shut-Ins(see next three stops). A hole made by a cannonball during a Civil War battle remains in the community's three-story brick courthouse, which dominates the downtown.

From Ironton, drive north 5 miles on State-21 through the small towns of Pilot Knob and Graniteville.

Elephant Rocks State Park

Visitors can't resist this 129-acre preserve's billion-year-old, house-size humps of smooth granite. Youngsters crawl and scramble over the boulders.

Trails penetrate surrounding woods, and a small lake, once a rock quarry, attracts anglers. A self-guiding Braille trail for the visually impaired winds through the state park, which also includes an easy paved trail with gentle slopes that attracts walkers of all ages.

Drive 12 miles south and then southwest on State-21 and 3 miles west on County-CC, passing again through Ironton.

Taum Sauk Mountain State Park

In the rugged St. Francois Mountains, the state's highest point rewards anyone who hikes its summit trail with a commanding view of the surrounding Ozarks. Thick glades of prairie grass dot rock knobs in this 6,500-acre state park. You can follow a winding trail that leads you to Mina Sauk Falls, the highest waterfall in Missouri.

Drive 13 miles south and west on State-21. Go 5 miles north on County-N.

Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park

Bathing suits are the uniform of the day at this woodsy enclave, which boasts 900 varieties of plants and wildflowers. Here, the Black River has sculpted water-smoothed pillars and tables in the granite, along with chutes where racing water seems to boil with immense energy.

Swimmers clamber among the maze, laughing as they slide down the chutes, their heads bobbing above the froth. But be forewarned: In summer, you may have to wait 2 or 3 hours to get into the popular park (no pets allowed).

Drive 5 miles south on County-N and 15 miles south on State-21. Then, go 27 miles west on State-106. Along the way, you'll cross the burbling Current River.

Eminence

(Population: 580)

This relaxed community resembles the area's other small farm and mining towns--except for the canoes and paddling gear that seem to be stacked in every corner. The town steps up a bluff along the south bank of the Jacks Fork River, which flows into the Current a few miles east. Springs feed both of these clear, chilly streams.

The two rivers form the 140-mile-long Ozark National Scenic Riverways, which teems with float-trippers. Visitors can rent canoes from outfitters. Limestone bluffs rise 100 feet above the easy course. You also pass flower-laced meadows, where you might spot deer.

In Eminence, paddlers glide right up to the patio steps of the River's Edge Inn, a small hotel with a loyal clientele.

Drive 6 miles west on State-106.

Alley Spring National Park Site

Beneath a coat of red paint, century-old Alley Spring flour mill rises serenely through dense hardwoods above the blue-and-jade-colored waters of a pond that's filled by a natural spring. You can tour the mill Memorial Day through Labor Day. Exhibits and photos reveal the history of this Ozark landmark, an appropriate ending to your southeast Missouri tour.

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