Head South to Explore Shawnee National Forest and Southern Illinois

by Justin Sornsin

A collection of nature conservation areas surround the bulk of Shawnee National Forest (SNF), a massive network of oak-hickory forests lying between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers south of Harrisburg, Ill. that provide a variety of outdoor activities for all skill levels. Time and the swift hands of Mother Nature have altered this unique landscape leaving a multitude of geologic and geographic features. Southern Illinois’s checkered topography is quadrisectioned by four distinct geologic divisions known as 1) Coastal Plain, to the south, 2) Central Lowland Province, to the north, 3) Interior Low Plateaus Province, to the east, and 4) Ozark Plateaus Province to the west. The present-day terrain over these regions owes much of its character to the above ground forces of glaciation, glacial melt, wind, and radical climatic changes thousands of years ago. Extreme southern Illinois represents the northernmost reaches of the ancient Gulf of Mexico, known as the Mississippi Embayment. This geologic playhouse crosses over stacked sheets of bedrock modified through tidal, earthquake and volcanic activity centers evidenced by the disturbed, rippled sandstone and shale beds found there. Unfortunately, the southern Illinois landscape is not still situated on ocean front property, but fossils dating to the Pennsylvanian and Mississippian epochs remain in nutrient rich stream beds and recess pools in pockets across the south.

Glacial melt initiated through dramatic warming of global temperatures twice colossally flooded the southern Illinois region first 500,000 years ago during the recession of the Illinoisan Glacier and more recently 75,000 years during the recession of the Wisconsian Glacier. For the most part, southern Illinois remained largely unglaciated (one of only three such locations in the state), but torrents of water rushing through the bracketed sandstone foundation pounded the hill country for thousands of years. The immensity of flooding left its mark on numerous areas and serve as prime destinations for outdoor travel. Sandstone canyons, banded outcroppings, bluffs, and 50-100’ cliffs are found at locations such as Lusk Creek Canyon in Pope County, Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area and Burden Falls Wilderness in Saline County. The distinct geology and hydrologic patterns (a system of creeks and streams drifting effortlessly across valleys and through ravines) have created a patchwork of moraines and hills picked and tucked with water sources. Generational forests blanket this network and provide critical habitat for 500 species of plants and animals, including 48 mammals, 237 birds, 52 reptiles, 57 amphibians, and 102 species of fish. There are seven federally listed endangered or threatened species and 33 considered regionally-sensitive.

The aesthetic and ecological qualities are underscored by a deep appreciation of human habitation and activity in the land ‘between the rivers’. SNF is named after the Shawnee Indian tribe that briefly lived south of present-day Shawneetown after being forced from their original homeland of the Ohio River Valley in the early 19th century by warring Iroquois nations (archaeological records date native habitation in the area to 15,000 years ago). The French were the first westerners to set foot here as they explored the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys in the mid-1600s. Shawnee Forest’s origin is closely linked to the economic calamity of the Great Depression. The southern Illinois economy was on the skids way before the stock market crash of 1929. It experienced decades of timber exploitation, subsistence farming, and man-made wildfires resulting in massive erosion, declining soil fertility, and a downward spiral of crop production. Non-agricultural jobs were centered in the timber and mining industries, both which suffered deeply in the market turndown of the 1920s. During this time, upstate newspapers, particularly the Chicago Tribune, began campaigning for the establishment of a national forest in Illinois to partly ease the worrying economic troubles.

By 1931, the Illinois Department of Conservation and the Illinois Natural History Survey had pushed consent language (required by Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution) through the State Legislature. This provided broad authority to the United States to establish, consolidate and extend national forests in the state without any limitation of acreage or need for approval by local or state agencies. Although the first try at establishing SNF failed in 1931, but was immediately brought to civil and governmental attention by Illinois Congressman Clyde V. Parsons resulting in the Enabling Act of August 30, 1933 which designated 2 protected Shawnee National Forest Units (the Illini Unit near the Mississippi containing 307, 840 acres and the Shawnee Unit near the Ohio protecting 291,392 acres). Approved by the National Forest Reservation Commission on January 21, 1935 SNF became a staple of preservation in the era of FDR’s New Deal package during the Great Depression (establishing the CCC as a major force in the process). The ‘Gap’ between the Illini and Shawnee Units was purchased (~ 125,000 acres) on December 27, 1968 and the past thirty years has seen major improvements in the management and health of the greater Shawnee ecosystem. In the early 1990s, a slew of additional lands were purchased by both federal and state organizations including Panther Den, Bald Knob, Clear Springs, Burden Falls, and Bay Creek Wilderness Areas that link critical corridors and join Shawnee making a seemingly endless stream of uninterrupted wilderness. Although only 1/3 of the forest (277,506 acres) is operated by the government, the greater Shawnee area contains seven Congressionally-designated wilderness areas, six candidate Wild and Scenic Rivers, 4 National Natural Landmarks, 10 Research Natural Areas, and more than 80 other designated Natural Areas considered important for botanical, ecological, geological or zoological reasons. This backdrop of geology, ecology, and human habitation give a traveler to southern Illinois a variety of options for discovery.

Driving through the Forest

There are quite a few different scenic drives to pursue across the south. My favorite starts in the northeast corner. From Harrisburg, head off toward the eastern portion of the forest to High Knob Camp (located just up the road from Karber’s Ridge, Ill.) on County Road 9. Drive to the top of the observation area and get a great view of the Illinois landscape while standing hundreds of feet above the valleys below, seeing nearly 360* of scenery atop the abutment. Take CR 9 west to 34 north to Herod. This winds through the forest (coming out near Rudement) until you reach 145. Head south toward Eddyville a blanketed post oak and white oak (due to deeper soil depths in this area) forest through the towns of Dellwood and Eddyville (past picturesque ridges and valleys of blooming redbuds, dogwoods and wildflowers until you reach Glendale, wherein you head west on 147 towards Simpson). Take a quick detour north to see Trigg Tower, a 50’ rickety observation deck remaining from the CCC days of ‘fire watch duty.’ A few miles outside of Simpson, jump on CR 1200 N (NE towards Tunnel Hill) and go a few miles until you reach 45. Head north on 45 for about 5 miles, take the first right towards McCormick and continue on through Bell Smith Springs and Teal Pond to Dellwood again. Take Forest Service Road 402 east for about three miles to reach the Burden Falls Trail. Stop and here and view the picturesque cascade of water down over 100’ of sheer rock face and the unique variety of plants, including Carolina buckthorn, seldom seen this far north, rock chestnut, prickly pear, royal fern, glade fern and the cardinal flower. Jump back on 145 heading north toward Harrisburg. This is about 150 mile circuit and gives a real sense of what SNF is all about.

Hiking and the River-to-River Trail

There are countless trails that criss-cross the forest floor for miles in every direction (not to mention good old-fashioned bushwhacking), but to truly walk in heaven, head to Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area on Highway 142 south of Harrisburg. The Garden boasts amazing geologic formations including Table Top Rock, Anvil Rock and the frequently photographed Camel Rock. Trails abound in the wilderness, but even in times of heavy visitor traffic, you’re never more than a 5 minute walk from solitude. My first real experience here involved an early morning hike after a few days of heavy rain. Without another person in sight, I watched a flood of eagles ride warm currents of air effortless in and out of the valley below as the fog slowly ascended and the sun hid precariously behind drunkenly deep grey clouds. To say the least, the Garden is magical. Hiking among dry-land communities of red cedar, farkleberry, and blackjack oak, stream beds and large expanses of rock outcroppings makes the Garden of the Gods a must for anyone venturing down south. But for a real challenge, check out the River-to-River Trail. Beginning at Battery Rock on the Ohio River and finishing at Devil’s Backbone on the Mississippi, the River-to-River Trail winds 160+ miles through Shawnee. It is the southern Illinois section of the American Discovery Trail, a 3000 miler that begins in Maine and travels across the U.S. to California.

In Shawnee, the trail passes through just about every recreation and conservation area. Some sections are nothing more than a brisk walk with some minor elevation changes, while others are 15+ milers that require the hiker to endure long and challenging uphill switchbacks that carve their way through the ravines and valleys, past hill-top prairie remnants and through dense expanses of forest. True hikers claim the section between Garden of the Gods and Herod is the wildest place in the state. Engaging in the entirety of the River-to-River Trail takes careful and thoughtful planning. The River-to-River Trail Society (www.rivertorivertrail.org) estimates that almost two full weeks are needed as a commitment to the adventure, but most healthy hikers can expect to complete it in about 10. What is fundamental is to have adequate food and water supplies (I found that iodine or water purification methods are essential–water sources can be scarce with less than 900 acres of water in more than 600,000 acres of forest). The trail can be picked up at a variety of locations and whether you plan on spending an afternoon or a week on the trail, preparation is vital. After spring rains and summer heat, mosquitoes and chiggers are ravenous and poison oak and ivy thrive here. The trail is well-marked thanks to volunteer work from numerous conservation groups and navigating it is not a problem. Once you become comfortable with your surroundings, I suggest taking short detours off the trial to explore. The only problem with the trail is that some sections of it have dual-use designations and must be shared with horses which widen trailbeds, erode soils and trample plants (see www.traildamage.8k.com for more information). Unfortunately, many spur trails have been created (running parallel to the existing trailbed) to bypass this problem, but nonetheless the trail still goes through the beautiful backcountry hills of southern Illinois. Pack light, drink your water, smother yourself in bug dope and hit the River-to-River Trail.

Drowning worms in the sun…

SNF is situated in between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, naturally, and these rivers provide good paddling for those with the heart for real adventure and a willingness to play ‘chicken’ with the numerous barges that use these waterways. The southern Illinois watershed (the Big Muddy) contains a variety of places to paddle or fish. During high water, the Cache River can be canoed for miles out of Belknap, Ill.. Located in one of Illinois' best-kept secrets, the Cache River State Natural Area (~11,500 acres), the Cache River contains remnant examples of high quality wetlands. Bald cypress and tupelo trees (their most northern range) rise majestically from a carpet of intensely green duckweed. Flocks of white egrets and great blue herons greet visitors in the early morning fog along the road to the put-in. A 6-mile round trip paddle starts in the swampy part of the river and takes paddlers past the State Champion Bald Cypress, which is over 1000 years old, and continues through Eagle Pond with its many cypress trees, one having over 200 knees. The trail is marked with international canoe symbols and yellow bands on the trees. Fishing spots and wildlife abound further to the west in a system of lakes near Makonda. Devil’s Kitchen, Little Grassy, Cedar, and Crab Orchard Lakes provide great day or weekend trips to paddle, fish, or simply catch some sun on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Located on State Highway 148, just west of Marion, on the northern edge of the Ozark foothills, the lakes are not circular or oval in shape, but rather have numerous tentacle-like arms that branch out from a central corridor and provide safe harbor from other boaters and give the paddler a sense of real solitude. Wildlife includes herons, cormorants, loons, egrets, kingfishers, and abundant duck species as well as other birds like warblers, woodpeckers, swallows, thrushes, eagles and hawks. Bass (small and large-mouth), panfish, and even muskellunge inhabit their waters.

Clinging to rocks…

Being that geology and rock formations define the terrain through Shawnee, it’s fitting that certain regions in the park serve as a climber’s paradise. Jackson Falls, Giant City, Draper’s Bluff, Cedar Bluff, and Ferne Clyffe are excellent climbing destinations. From bouldering in the Garden of the Gods or inside narrow ‘hallways’ that formed between shifting formations to climbing 5.10b technically-assisted climbs over sheer rock face with little margin of error, SNF has just about everything a novice or veteran climber could want. I recommend the following routes in order of most challenging. The 5.7 "Hawk’s Beak" at Ferne Clyffe. It leads up a spillover drainage outcropping of rock and has good foot and hand holds as well as some features to practice more complicated moves on. "Joe’s Variation" at Giant City and the "High Flying Bird" at Cedar Bluff (both 5.8 routes) can be challenging due to a laborious amount of overhangs and boxes to maneuver. The "Antkiller" at Draper’s Bluff (5.9) and the insane "Psycho Therapy" (a 5.10c at Jackson Falls–whose wicked handholds and washouts can stifle even the most seasoned climbers). Bottom and Top-Roping routes are available and new rocks are being discovered every season for either fully-assisted or free climbs. Check out the Southern Illinois Tourism Development Office at www.adventureillinois.com/rockclimbing for more information on climbing in southern Illinois.

Regardless of why you come to southern Illinois this travel season, get there. Boasting outdoor activities for the most novice or adventuresome travelers, Shawnee National Forest is the outdoor-enthusiasts’ playground. Schedule a climbing session, fish and watch nesting birds at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, or lace up your hiking boots for a quick venture through hardwood forests and immense geologic formations. Southern Illinois has just about everything. Explore it for yourself. What I’ve outlined is just a microcosm, a starter kit if you will, to activities in the region. Explore the quaint towns that dot the countryside, visit the museums, see the archaeological sights, and talk to some locals. Find out for yourself what Shawnee National Forest (www.fs.fed.us/r9/shawnee ) and Southern Illinois have to offer. With hundreds of thousands of acres of forested wilderness, there is definitely enough space for you to choose your own adventure.