The Great River Road

North of St. Louis on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, the high-speed section of the GRR between Grafton and Alton is widely considered one of its most scenic stretches. Towering limestone bluffs, their curving faces pocked with caves and overhangs, push the road to the edge of the broad lake formed by Lock and Dam No. 26.

Speeding along Hwy-100 south of Grafton, it’s easy to miss the turnoff for Elsah, but even if you have to turn around and come back, it’s worth it to check out this tiny hamlet tucked away in a cleft in the palisades. Light years away from St. Louis but only a half-hour’s drive away, Elsah is listed in the National Register of Historic Places in its entirety and is an architectural gem, with 19th-century cut-stone and clapboard buildings and narrow lanes reminiscent of some idyllic English country village. Two small B&Bs and the Green Tree Inn (618/374-2821, $135-165) offer unexpectedly romantic getaways, a taste of New England in southern Illinois.

South of Elsah, before the bluffs give way to grain elevators at Alton, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Piasa Bird (pronounced “PIE-a-saw”) high on the wall of an old roadside quarry. Marquette and other early explorers mention a pair of huge pictographs on the cliff face, representations of the Illini people’s legendary “bird that devours men.” Faded by the 1840s, the original site was destroyed by quarrying. The current 20-by-40-foot replica, based on various eyewitness descriptions, resembles something from the notebook of an adolescent Dungeons & Dragons fan.