Travel to Southern Illinois in 2008
Traveling to southern Illinois may not sound like your typical vacation destination - and it isn't. But for those that have been there, they know that the area, and the Shawnee National Forest in particular, offer some rather unique and beautiful settings and recreation opportunities. For my Spring Break during the Spring of 2008 semester, I traveled around southern Illinois looking at rocks, visiting State Parks, seeing some of the sites in the Shawnee National Forest, and hiking on the trails. Below you will find links to picutres of some of the sights and areas that were visited, and a map of the routes traveled. Below the map and picture links, is a day by day description of my travels and activities.
The map of southern Illinois shows the areas that were visited and the routes traveled (red lines).
Click on the camera image to view pictures from that area.
March 7: Friday morning I gave an exam at 11 a.m. As soon as the exam was done, and I had taken care of a few things in the office, I hopped in my truck and hit the highway heading south. Mostly Interstate routes before I arrived in Anna, Illinois. The worst of it was once I got south of Mount Vernon. There was a major storm system that had developed, and was dumping snow across a good portion of the Midwest, including southern Illinois. The brunt of the storm hit further east, but several inches accumulated east of the Mississippi River. And I was driving through that snow storm to get to Anna. Go figure. I headed south to supposedly warmer weather and end up at one point creeping along at 30 mph on the interstate in a snow storm. Not how I planned the start of my vacation!
March 8: From the town of Anna, Illinois, I headed west on Hwy 146, crossing some hills in the Shawnee National Forest. At the town of Ware, it was north on Hwy 3 to my first area of interest. The town of Grand Tower is right on the Mississippi River at the southern end of Fountain Bluff. I had some detailed maps of the state that show all of the roads and used them to find the Forest Service access road onto Fountain Bluff. The map showed a lookout on the northern end of the highland. The road was dirt but not in too bad of shape. The snows from last night really weren't a factor as the areas right along the river must have been on the edge of where the storm developed. There was hardly an inch of snow on the ground, and much of that was already beginning to melt. The roads were already clear by the time I got onto them.
I headed up to the top of Fountain Bluff. There were a couple of pulloffs on the west side facing the Mississippi River with halfway decent views. The road ended before the lookout, but it was only a short hike from where the road had been blocked by the Forest Service. The lookout at the top doesn't exist anymore. It was probably an old fire watch tower, but the only thing that remained were the cement blocks that marked the four corners of the foundation. The trees, while still without foliage, were thick enough that I couldn't see much. I decided to try and hike along the rigde crest towards the river to see if there was a better view point. At that point I was not following any trail - there was no trail. I was bobbing and weaving under branches and around trees on the ridge crest. I didn't ever find anything of a view so I headed back to the truck.
After I drove back down to the main road, I headed back down to Grand Tower. In town, right on the river is Devil's Backbone Park. Within the park is a hogback ridge of sandstone (the devil's backbone don't you know!). There is also a natural gas pipeline suspension bridge across the Mississippi River - pretty nice looking little piece of engineering.
I spent a bit of time walking aroung the park and the river bank. It was definitely off season down there. I had the park entirely to myself. Only two other cars came through and neither one stopped. I drove from the park into town and took a look at the levee system there. It is one of those classic situations. Mississippi River on one side of the levee, the town center on the other side. Where the town once had a nice view of the river, they now see a grassy slope on the levee.
After leaving town I headed just a little south to where Hwy 3 crossed the Big Muddy River and took the levee road over to the La Rue - Pine Hills Ecological Area. There are some bluffs and cliffs along the edge of the Mississippi River valley that have some exposed outcrops of rocks and a place called Inspiration Point. A short drive up the bluffs on a Forest Service access road and a short trail and I was standing on Inspiration Point overlooking the wide expanse of the Mississippi River and Big Muddy River flood plains, and the La Rue swamp. Pretty nice looking view. Not as good as the view from Pike Peak State Park in Iowa where the Mississippi River is joined by the Wisconsin River, but still a nice view.
Back down the service and levee road and back onto Hwy 3. I headed north to check out a point along the Big Muddy River that was marked on the map as "Little Grand Canyon". The bad thing was that is was located on the east side of the river and the nearest road is on the west side. I hoped to get a view of the canyon, but after driving on the access road to a boat launch, I found that there wasn't anything to be seen. So, back out to Hwy 3.
From there I headed to Carbondale. Then, I headed south out of town on U.S. 51. At Makanda, I headed east to Giant City State Park. The park is known for its sandstone outcrops that have interesting erosion patterns, and large blocks of the cliffs that have been undercut and moved away from the main bluff forming some narrow passages. I spent a bit of time on a couple of trails, looking at rocks and taking pictures.
By this point the sun was starting to get low towards the horizon and the light was getting bad for pictures, so I headed back out to U.S. 51 and headed south into Anna.
March 9: I headed south on Hwy 127, then west a short distance to Hwy 3. I then stopped at the Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area. Southern Illinois has the northernmost cyprus swamps in the country. Horseshoe Lake is an old channel of the Mississippi River that has been cut off - what is called an oxbow lake. The shallow waters support cyprus trees along the shore and other shallow areas. I spent a bit of time walking along the shore on the east side of the lake looking at the trees and wildlife. I then drove around three quarters of the lake ending up on the north side of the lake at the town of Olive Branch.
From town it was a short jaunt up the road heading northeast out of town to an old abandoned tripoli quarry. Tripoli is a very fine grained silica sediment that is typically used in industrial grinding and polishing processes. You may also be familiar with the stuff, once a blue color is added to it, as pool cue chalk.
From Olive Branch I headed west to a "town" (wide spot in the road really) called Fayville. There was suppose to be some examples of gully erosion and another quarry in the area, but I never saw them. I followed the dirt road north to the town of Thebes, where I got back onto Hwy 3 and headed south to Cairo.
The plan was to go to Fort Defiance State Park - the southern most tip of Illinois where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers meet. Melting snow had raised the water levels enough that the park is partially under water, and thus it was closed. After a quick look at the map, I decided to head across the Ohio River into Kentucky. It looked like there might be a chance to see the confluence from somewhere around Wickliffe. Drove over there, and as I am heading towards town I see this huge cross on the bluff above the town. I'm thinking, its big, its visible, and it is high up, and there is probably a church there that I can park at and see if there is a view. Well, it turns out that it is a memorial cross on the site of the old Fort Jefferson. The fort is long since gone, but it can lay claim to the fact that Lewis and Clark slept there at one point. The site did provide a view of the confluence in the distance - not the best view of the river meeting, but a view. And it was rather panoramic.
Back through Cairo, Illinois - what a sad, sad sight. The town is literally rotting away and appears to be dying. On my way back north I took a side trip into what had once been the downtown area. Abandoned buildings, broken windows, collapsed roofs, pealing paint - a modern ghost town is the only way to describe it. Very sad.
Once through Cairo, I continued north on U.S. 51 a short distance then took Hwy 37 through Mound City. The next stop was Olmsted. I was looking for another abandoned quarry to look at the rocks there, but couldn't find it. Instead I did find the construction site for the new Lock and Dam #53. It is just down stream of the old dam. They still have a long way to go before it is complete, but the framework for the lock is pretty much in place at this point.
From Olmstead I continued north on Hwy 37 to the town of Karnak. North and west of Karnak is a large area that is designated as the Cache River State Natural Area. Lots of swamps, cyprus tree groves and wetlands. I spent most of the afternoon hiking on trails and driving from spot to spot - it is rather spread out, and connected by narrow country lanes. It was neat to see it in the winter without foliage, but I'll have to come back sometime in the summer to see how different it looks.
March 10: Not as much moving around as previous days. I headed north on Hwy 145 out of Metropolis and went to the Bell Smith Springs area of the Shawnee National Forest to hike. The areas is a series of canyons bounded on both sides by cliffs of sandstone. Getting to the canyon had its interesting point. On the access road, the recent snows had brought down a number of trees. Two of them had fallen across the road. I was able to get around them, but it was very muddy, and a near thing. Because of the trees I had the canyons to myself - nobody, and I mean nobody else was there.
I spent the whole day at the canyons. Hiking, eating lunch, sitting and looking.
The main feature of interest there is a natural bridge. A natural bridge is a span of rock that has running water flowing underneath it. This is as opposed to a natural arch which is a span of rock but without the water flowing under it. The natural bridge at Bell Smith Springs is rather different than the ones that I've seen in Utah. This one is a slab of rock which has separated from the main cliff along the side of the canyon. Water working down the fracture between the slab and the cliff eventually cut through the slab and formed a natural bridge. So the water comes down the slope above the canyon, gets to the canyon edge, drops down a opening between the cliff and the natural bridge and flows under the bridge.
To get to the natural bridge, you have to ford a stream. There is no bridge across it. In the summer, the water level is fairly low, as I understand, and crossing isn't much of a problem - hop from stone to stone. The recent snows had raised the level of the stream above the rocks. To cross it I had to put on a pair of tennis shoes without socks, and rolled up my jeans above my knees. Then, using a pole I cut from a fallen branch to help me keep my balance and to keep me from slipping, I walked across. Damn was that cold!!! By the time I got across, my feet were hurting and starting to turn numb. I carried my hiking boots, wool socks and a towel around my neck. I dried my feet, put on the socks and boots and spent some time looking at the natural bridge. I did the same thing coming back. Another painfully cold walk across the stream.
After that, the only other stop was just to the north of Bell Smith Springs, at a place called Burden Falls. A nice small waterfall - nothing fancy but pleasant. A little hiking there, and I was done for the day.
March 11: Another day of driving and hiking. Once I was on the road I headed out of Harrisburg, east bound on Hwy 13. Just past the town of Equality is the intersection with Hwy 1. Headed south on 1 to the town of Cave in Rock, on the Ohio River. The plan was to go to Cave-in-Rock State Park and see the cave. The only problem was that high water on the Ohio River meant that the trail to the cave was underwater, and there was no way to get to or see the cave.
From Cave in Rock, I headed back up Hwy 1 to Hwy 146 and then headed north on Hwy 34. To the southeast of Herod, IL I went east on some Forest Service roads to drive around a geologic feature known as Hicks Dome. From the surface, it doesn't look any different than any of the other hills in the area. But beneath the surface is an unusual geologic feature for Illinois. A geologic dome is a feature that has the central core of the structure raised up, and the overlying sedimentary layers are draped over the raised area. Each layer takes on an inverted bowl shape. This is the only structural dome in the state. It is believed to be the result of a body of magma beneath the surface that began to rise up and deformed the rock layers over it.
From Hicks Dome it was on to Garden of the Gods in the southeastern most corner of Saline County. I spent several hours hiking around and looking at rocks. Part of my time was spent on the main loop trail, where most of the major rock outcrops are located. The rest of the time was spent on a rim trail. From the looks of the condition of the trail, it hadn't seen much use yet this year.
After leaving Garden of the Gods I headed due north to the Saline County Conservation Area and Glen O James Lake. I then hiked to the top of Cave Hill. Equality Cave is located there, but the Forest Service has block the entrance to preserve the features found in the cave, so that wasn't an option. But I hiked to the top in the hopes of getting a good view of the glacial plains to the north. Cave Hill is on the northern edge of the Shawnee National Forest. The northern edge of these highlands marks the southern most extension of the continental glaciers during the last series of glacial advances during the Ice Ages. Most of Illinois was covered more than once, but the southern tip of the state was never affected by the glaciers.
Near the top I found several good outcrops of rock that are at the top of a cliff that was higher than the tree tops below. The view from the top of Cave Hill gave a nice view of the terminal moraine and outwash plain deposits of the glaciation. I spent several hours hiking up and back. The view was worth the hike. Just like the one trail at Garden of the Gods, this one looked like it hadn't been used yet this year.
March 12: The first stop was prompted by a sign I had seen on Tuesday when coming back from my hike to the top of Cave Hill. On the road back to Harrisburg, there was a sign that said Stone Face, with an arrow pointing west. On the detailed maps was a spot also marked Stone Face. So I went in search of the Stone Face. It is located a little to the southeast of Cave Hill, and is part of the same sandstone formation that I was hiking along while climbing Cave Hill. A short Forest Service road up the lower slopes and there was a parking area. This was even better than I had thought. I figured from the map it was going to be something visible from the end of the road. As it was I got a good hike out of the deal. The bad thing is that the Forest Service isn't real good about marking its trails or pointing out where to go. So there I was following this trail at the base of the sandstone cliff wondering "where is this face?" I saw one outcrop that I thought might be it, because it kind of, sort of, possibly looked like a face in profile. I'd seen worse "face" likenesses and thought that it might be it. If that was it, I was a bit disappointed. So I figured I would just keep going, since there was more trail, and just hike for awhile. Well, the trail eventually worked its way to the top of the sandstone cliff and doubled back. The trail didn't follow the edge exactly, but was pretty close to it. Occasionally I would step over to the edge to have a look. The trail came close to the edge at one point, and there it was, the Stone Face. After taking some pictures, I continued along the trail, just to see what was there. More good views overlooking the glacial terrain below. Eventually, I decided that I had had enough of that trail and turned back and returned to my truck.
After leaving Stone Face, I took another Forest Service road up and over a saddle between Cave Hill and Bald Knob. The road was rougher than any I had been on so far, but not as rough as some I have been on out west. And it was passable. Once over those hills, I headed back to the Garden of the Gods area, but went past it to a place called Pounds Escarpment and Pounds Hollow. The Pounds Escarpment is a mesa-like hill that is surrounded on all sides by sandstone cliffs, except for a narrow area on the south side where it connects to an adjacent, larger hill. It is an archaeological site. Shawnee Indians had built a wall across the narrow access to the escarpment - it is believed to have been a defensive wall. There isn't much to see at this point, just a pile of loose ruble that marks where the wall was. There is also a system of trails around the top of the escarpment and down to Pounds Hollow Lake. I hiked the trail on the escarpment to a set of stairs that had been built on the north side of the mesa that allowed access to the valley floor below and to the Lake. Hiked all the way down to the lake.
The recreation are at Pounds Hollow Lake was originally a CCC project during the depression, but wasn't finished until after the start of WWII. Most of the original construction has been rebuilt since that time, but there are picnic areas, and a swimming area in the lake. Except for just a few other people, I once again had the place pretty much to myself. This trail, like so many of them that I have hiked the past few days, was littered with fallen branches and trees. I cleared what I could move, and left the larger ones.
After leaving the Pounds, I headed over to Hwy 1 and went back down to Cave in Rock on the Ohio River. Hwy 1 literally ends at the river edge, and there is a ferry across into Kentucky. I took the ferry into Kentucky, partly in the hopes of being able to see Cave-in-Rock from the river, which I hadn't able to see from land due to the flooding. I got a good look at the cliff face along the river, but still didn't see the cave entrance. Either it was underwater, or hidden from my vantage point. So, two tries to see the cave, and both failed. Just wasn't going to happen this trip.
I could have turned right back around and gotten back on the ferry, but instead decided to drive around in Kentucky for a bit. I headed south on Hwy 91 until the town of Marion, where I headed east on US 60. I followed this until Hwy 109 heading north, and then west on Hwy 56. I crossed the Ohio River at Old Shawneetown, and was once again on Hwy 13 in Illinois, heading back toward Harrisburg.
That only accounts for half of my day. But the rest of the day isn't very exciting in the telling - lots of driving. By this point I had been feeling like I'd had enough. I had seen all of the sites that I had originally planned on seeing, plus I had seen some things that I hadn't planned on doing, I had gotten a chance to do a lot of hiking, and I was getting tired of the hotels. So, I followed Hwy 13 east to the town of Equality, I turned northwest on Hwy 142, and I headed for home. I followed Hwy 142 to just before Mount Vernon, and got onto I-64 heading west. Got off of I-64 at Nashville, and headed north on Hwy 127 until it met up with I-55. Then I-55 to I-155, and then I-74 to home.