Vistas of cornfields and soybeans are plentiful in Illinois, but head south toward the rolling hills of Shawnee Forest Country and you’ll find scenery that’s quite different. The Shawnee National Forest covers much of southernmost Illinois between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. As a result, outdoor adventures are available any time of year.
Nestled by the Ohio River, the extreme southeast corner of Illinois is dominated by these forested hills, many of them in the Shawnee National Forest. Here you’ll find fantastic rock formations, lakes, streams, archaeological sites from the late Woodland period, and remnants of pioneer activities. There are plentiful opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, and birding, as well as other wildlife viewing. Fishing and hunting are also a big draw.
A few miles south of the forest, the landscape drops down to the river. You can browse the small towns of Rosiclare and Elizabethtown and hear tales of river pirates at Cave-in-Rock State Park.
Shawnee National Forest
Wildflowers, dogwoods, and redbuds flourish in spring, while the Shawnee National Forest dresses in spectacular colors for fall. The Ohio River National Scenic byway winds through the area. The Shawnee National Forest mobile interpretive tour (http://myoncell.mobi/shawneenf) gives information about 27 sites by scanning a QR (quick response) code with your phone or calling (618) 219-7032 to hear about a particular stop in the forest.
Trails crisscross the forest and adjacent lands. The 160-mile River-to-River Trail runs from the Ohio to the Mississippi. You can rent a horse from area stables or bring your own to go exploring. Or join a trail ride like the One Horse Gap nine-day trail ride from late July to early August. There are several horse camps in and near the forest.
The Rim Rock National Recreational Trail takes hikers past an ancient stone wall and around a wooded hill. Don’t miss the side trail that drops down a stairway through deep crevasses in a cliff. It passes under an imposing bluff overhang and on to pretty Pounds Hollow Lake, where you can swim, boat, and fish.
Garden of the Gods is one of the best-known sights in southernmost Illinois, and for good reason. The quarter-mile Observation Trail passes along the top of a cliff, which affords spectacular views of unusual rock formations like Camel Rock and Devil’s Smokestack. Both Garden of the Gods and Pounds Hollow have campgrounds and picnic areas.
The Iron Furnace Historic Site preserves a reconstructed stone furnace. Between 1838 and 1881, the furnace produced molten iron that flowed into molds called pigs. The pig iron was taken to Elizabethtown in Oxcarts then shipped down the Ohio River.
A variety of lodging has developed in the forest area. Among others, Rim Rock’s Dogwood Cabins sit on 77 acres of wooded hills. The dogwoods aren’t just in the name–they bloom profusely in April. The cabins have full facilities, including kitchens. This pet-friendly site is right across the road from the Rim Rock Trail.
Timber Ridge Outpost and Cabins offers two fairytale tree houses with full facilities, as well as log cabins, on 35 acres. In addition,the resort offers archery lessons, birding hikes, and access to mountain biking and boating.
Cave-in-Rock State Park
This cave above the Ohio River was notorious for river pirate attacks on unsuspecting travelers during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Hence it is linked to outlaws like the Harpe brothers and the Mason gang. According to Mark McCorvie, an archaeologist at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, 23 scalps were in Mason’s bag when he was caught. Members of his own family brought him in to claim the reward.
Today, the cave is peaceful and the park is developed with attractive cabins and a restaurant on a bluff overlooking the river, as well as a campground. Take a free ferry ride across the Ohio River and back. In addition, Hardin County Golf Course is nearby.
Colorful river towns
Elizabethtown, a few miles west of the park, was settled in 1814 and has a look of contented maturity. The first portion of the stately, two-story Historic Rose Hotel was built as a tavern on a low bluff on the river in 1812.
For a closer river connection, indulge in a fresh fish dinner at the floating E’Town River Restaurant or take the free ferry to Marion and Amish Country in Kentucky.
The nearby town of Rosiclare grew up around the discovery of large deposits of fluorspar in 1843. In fact, it was the largest fluorspar-producing area in the U.S. until Chinese imports put it out of business. The American Fluorite Museum is located in the former office building of the Rosiclare Lead and Fluorspar Mining Company. It features samples of yellow and purple fluorite, as well as mining paraphernalia and fascinating photographs of the miners.
For a relaxing break, stroll along the town’s river walk. In addition to river views, there are informational signs about native fish, birds, and wildlife. Several spots for camping are on the waterfront. Browse Rose Clare Craft and Antique Mall. The town sponsors the annual Fluorspar Festival in October.
Whether you want to participate in an outdoor activity, take in gorgeous scenery, or explore small river towns seemingly caught in a time warp, this small section of Illinois has enough to satisfy on all counts.