Featuring ancient cypress-tupelo swamps, bottomland hardwood forests, sandstone bluffs and limestone glades, the Cache River Wetlands is a rich and diverse area that provides habitat for many unique and fascinating plants and animals. It is a place to enjoy hiking, birding, kayaking and canoeing, hunting, fishing, photography and learning about the natural world. With its wooded hills and cypress swamps, it would be easy to mistake this magical place for Louisiana rather than Illinois.
A great first stop on your visit is the Cache River Wetlands Center. The 7,000 square-foot facility, owned and operated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, offers a variety of interpretive exhibits and information about the natural and cultural history of the Cache River Wetlands. The center hosts a variety of educational programs throughout the year, and includes a wildlife viewing area and walking trails featuring both wetland and prairie communities.
Get acquainted with the unique biodiversity of the flora and fauna that live here before you set out to see it in person. Explore the interactive diorama of a wetland. Learn more about the ever-changing Cache landscape, migratory birds, state champion trees through touch screen displays. And be sure to catch the award winning 12-minute orientation film, “The Enduring Cache,” which provides an excellent introduction to the region’s landscape as well as its fascinating human history.
The Cache River Wetlands Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Be sure to check in here first before you head on out on our trails. Happy exploring!
Section 8 Woods is a very easy and accessible 450-foot boardwalk near the wetland center that transports you to a primeval flooded forest of cypress and water tupelo. Depending on the season, pileated woodpeckers, prothonotary warblers or winter wrens may serenade your stroll, which provides a great view of the State Champion Water Tupelo. This majestic aquatic tree has an impressive circumference of 22.5 feet, and is known for its wide base that tapers into a long narrow trunk and then spreads out at the top like a crown.
Also known as the Blackgum, Sourgum, Cotton Gum, Water Gum or Swamp tupelo, it's species name, Nyssa Aquatica, was inspired by Nyssa the Greek water nymph. The word 'tupelo' means swamp tree in the Creek Indian language. The wood from the base of the tree has been used as a replacement for cork in local fishing nets, and the tree itself is beneficial to honey bees.
Along the boardwalk, a total of 10 tree species are identified. There is a kiosk with interpretive panels providing further information about each. Stop here for the perfect quick introduction to the swamp.
Heron Pond Trail is a must-do destination at the Cache. This 1.5 mile easy trail features a truss bridge overlooking the river and a floating boardwalk that leads you to the middle of Heron Pond’s cypress grove. Even better, there are 10 interpretive panels located along the trail to guide your way.
This floating boardwalk especially should not be missed. It takes you out into the cypress/tupelo swamp so that you can experience the breathtaking other-worldly feel of this beautiful wetland.
You can retrace your steps, or for a longer hike, follow the trail as it skirts the swamp and eventually leads to the State Champion Cherrybark Oak. This gentle giant has over a 22-foot circumference and is more than 100 feet tall.
Wondering why 11 of the state record trees are in the Cache River wetlands? It's because the climate in Southern Illinois is less harsh than the rest of the state, so the growing season is longer. Also, less people means less development and more timber in the southern half of the state. See how many giants you can visit!
Imagine paddling through six miles of tupelo-cypress swamp while being serenaded by tree frogs at dusk. Or hiking waterside to the more than 1,000 year-old State Champion Bald Cypress Tree. Sound great? You'll find all this and more at the Lower Cache River Swamp Trail.
The Lower Cache River Swamp Trail parallels the Cache River and Cypress Creek, letting you enjoy views of the cypress and tupelo swamp by foot. This 2.5-mile easy trail is accessible and ends in a viewing platform that offers the best view of the State Champion Bald Cypress tree. It stands 73 feet tall, has a trunk circumference of over 34 feet, and boasts a crown spread of 35 feet. It also has many "knees," also called pneumatophores. These are cone-like extensions of the root system that help to stabilize the tree and promote aeration.
Access to the Lower Cache River Hiking Trail is found between Route 37 and the town of Perks by following signs off the Perks blacktop. Keep in mind, there may be times during rainy periods where this trail may be flooded, muddy and impassable. Be sure to visit on a dry day to fully enjoy the spectacular views and wildlife.
Whether traveling by canoe or on foot, the marked trail is flanked by some of the oldest trees east of the Mississippi. Spy eagles, owls, hawk, osprey and other flying friends soaring overhead. Encounter abundant aquatic life during your visit, including numerous species of water snakes and ghost shrimp. On shore, catch a glimpse of mink, possum, beaver, deer, and other mammals.
If you decide to paddle through paradise, you'll enjoy easy, flat water on a marked canoe route with no canoe shuttling necessary. Canoes or kayaks rentals are available from Cache Bayou Outfitters. Call ahead to arrange for a guided tour, where their trained naturalists/wilderness guides reveal the many hidden secrets of this magical place.
If you happen to be in the area during a full moon, you'll want to take advantage of their full moon evening tour, with a different theme each month from March through November.
After you're done exploring the wetlands, hop on over to refuel and relax at the intimate Cache River Basin Vineyard & Winery, opened in 2001 by Jack Dunker. His vision included not only a vineyard, but also a restaurant where his guests could enjoy food, wine and views of the countryside, and cabins where they could extend their stay in the area. Today his vision is a reality. You can experience his wines and his sense of humor at his aptly named Wineaux’s Restaurant and Boondocks Cabins.
Wineaux's serves American cuisine, including Angus Beef steaks and burgers, ribs, and seafood, and specializes in food cooked with wine! Take home a bottle of Southern Illinois fine wine, produced on site, with names like Cache River Swamp Water, Copperhead Red, and Hummingbird Nectar.
Relax with refreshments on the deck overlooking the vineyards and the wine bottle-shaped pond.
Tucked up in the woods behind the winery are two pet-friendly cabins. These remote and peaceful getaways feature two bedrooms, queen size beds, and Sealy Posturepedic mattresses with Eurotop for your sleeping comfort. Renters enjoy hot tubs and an infrared sauna on the enclosed back decks.
This article was written as part of the Illinois Bicentennial 200 Years, 200 Stories project. Read more stories from the project.