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The Ultimate Playground: Outdoor Adventures in Southern Illinois

Apr 06, 2020 Regional Getaways

Two people climbing up big rocks in Shawnee National Forest

Attention, work-hard, play-hard types: Illinois’ southern tip has your back.

With seven wilderness areas and nine state parks, plus lakes, rivers, waterfalls and even a swamp to explore, the gorgeously green area around Shawnee National Forest offers all the ways to unplug and reconnect through recreation.

The area’s main play spots hug the Ohio River, which forms the eastern and southern borders, and the Mississippi River, which marks the western edge. The area covers more than 400 square miles, but you can drive between the rivers in less than 90 minutes on the interior roads, stopping in small towns and rural retreats for coffee shops, restaurants and wine tastings. Or cruise the riverbanks on national drives—the 550-mile Great River Road through Illinois and the 188-mile Ohio River Scenic Byway, both of which rim the Shawnee region.

A person walking down a fallen tree

Nature Thrills

Get a flying fix among the sandstone bluffs. Zip through the trees near Makanda with Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour. Test your balance on a 180-foot suspension bridge and cruise hands-free on one of eight lines, the longest zip (1,100 feet). Shorter treks traverse five lines in about two hours. One Saturday a month in summer, fly like Batman on a full-moon tour.

For boulderers and climbers, Jackson Falls in Shawnee offers the largest number of climbing routes in Illinois, including 50-foot technical climbs up the sandstone bluffs. If you’re new to climbing, guides found through Egyptian Hills Resort in Creal Springs or Vertical Heartland Climbing School in Buncombe can teach you the ropes.

Paddle Pursuits

Have big fun on the bayou in the middle of the Midwest. In the Cache River State Natural Area, J-stroke through emerald green duckweed and around 1,000-year-old cypress trees growing out of a swamp carved by glacial floodwater of the Ohio River. On your paddle of 3 to6 miles, look for the state champion 73-foot-tall bald cypress tree with a 34-foot trunk circumference. Ullin’s Cache Bayou Outfitters offers gear and trips.

Near Giant City State Park, Little Grassy Lake pampers paddlers with 31 miles of shoreline to explore. Rent canoes, kayaks and paddleboards at the marina. You can camp there, too, plus fish for bass, crappie and catfish. For more lake-based camping, boating and swimming, stop by Pounds Hollow Recreation Area in Harrisburg and Lake Glendale Recreation Area near Golconda.

Two people biking through a tunnel

Scenic Rides

Cruise the forest’s heart on two wheels along the Tunnel Hill State Trail, a 45-mile path connecting Harrisburg to Karnak. Ride over 23 trestles and through a 543-foot-long tunnel. Pass through farmland in the north, forest and bluffs in the central stretch, and the Cache River at the south. Stop by Henry Barkhausen Cache River Wetlands Center to learn about the swamp. If you need a bike, check out Sandburn Junction in Vienna.

If horseback riding is on your summer to-do list, saddle up at Giant City Stables in Makanda for one-hour trail rides. Small kids can ride ponies with a wrangler’s assist, while anyone head-over-hooves in love can sign up for equestrian day camp.

For epic forest and river views, drive the 188-mile Ohio River National Scenic Byway from Cave-In-Rock State Park to Cairo. Spend a day exploring river towns and natural sights, including the 55-foot-wide limestone cave at Cave-in-Rock State Park and Garden of the Gods. You’ll also find frontier history at Metropolis’ Fort Massac State Park, the first Illinois state park. Learn about the fort’s history (it dates to 1757) and see a replica of the 1802 structure. Extend the drive on the Great River Road in Cairo to loop up the Shawnee’s eastern section.

Big rocks with a person sitting on one Big rocks

Adventure Trails

Four hundred miles of trails spoil hikers in the Shawnee region. You could spend several weeks in silence on the 160-mile River to River Trail connecting the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, crossing five wilderness areas and several state parks. Bring a map for your all-day hike. If you want to overnight, backcountry gear is 
a must. For shorter treks, try one of these trails:

Burden Falls

Located in the Burden Falls Wilderness near Eddyville, the 1-mile loop crosses bedrock to the falls, a series of upper and lower cascades (and one of Illinois’ largest). Explore the side trails to spot barred owls and other birds, and do some bouldering (climbing low rocks without ropes). Visit after a rain for the best waterfall views.

Garden of the Gods

It’s one of the national forest’s most-visited spots, thanks to stop-in-your-tracks scenery—100-foot limestone bluffs formed into shapes like those of Camel, Mushroom and Anvil rocks. Stroll by rock slabs and surrounding valley overlooks on the Indian Point Trail, a 2-mile loop. Find the wilderness area near Herod.

Giant City State Park

Squeeze between massive sandstone walls on the 1-mile Giant City Nature Trail at this Makanda-area park; for a real challenge, try climbing the crevices. The 12-mile Red Cedar Hiking Trail loops through the woods, crossing a stream and accessing a waterfall for explorers looking for a full day trip or overnight backpack.

Jackson Falls

From the trailhead, it’s an easy quarter-mile trek to the top of seasonal falls, dependent on rain for flow. For more of a challenge, descend into the canyon to the base of the falls. The 3.25-mile loop follows a rocky path with plenty of roots through the national forest and towering sandstone bluffs.

Little Grand Canyon

This 3.6-mile loop near Murphysboro leads trekkers through bluffs and forest, then a scramble up a 365-foot rocky creek bed for a view of the Big Muddy and Mississippi rivers. Enjoy the quiet on this lightly trafficked route.

Rim Rock Trail

The almost 1-mile loop follows the rim of a rock escarpment. Interpretative signs share the area’s history as hikers pass the remains of a 1,500-year-old stone wall. Stairs lead to
Ox-Lot Cave, once a shelter used by Native Americans.

Meat on a tray

Local Bites


Put your mouth where the money was at The Vault Cafe on the Square in Marion. Set in a corner bank, you can eat in the vault. Come early for omelets and Hawaiian bread French toast. Further east in Harrisburg, the Steam Cafe dishes hot combos like classic sandwiches (grilled cheese and paninis) with coffee; the downtown eatery also features breakfast all day.

Sip craft espressos and cold-press coffees at Crown Brew Coffee Company in Carterville. The Illinois Made artisans brew their thing downtown in the historic Irons in the Fire building; check out local artists’ works next door.

Oh-so-close to the Ohio River in Golconda, Diver Down fries all-you-can-eat catfish on Friday nights. Start with to-die-for stuffed mushrooms.

Near Cave-in-Rock State Park, The Red Onion in Equality caters to carnivores with prime rib and hand-cut black Angus steaks. Start with apps like crab cakes, alligator bites and corn nuggets.

Taste the best ribs in the country (per Bon Appétit) at 17th Street BBQ in Murphysboro. You can also order pork and ribeye steak with a side of brisket-seasoned green beans and fried okra.

Epic Toasts


Alto Vineyards in Alto Pass cork-started the region’s wine cred in the 1980s. Winner of more than 500 national and international awards, Alto produces 25 varietals, including signature Chambourcin, a dry red table wine. Savor tastings on the back patio before embarking on a journey to 10 other wineries on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail. If you hit the Cache River, visit Cache River Basin Vineyard and Winery and Wineaux's Restaurant.

Make sure to add Scratch Brewing Company to your itinerary. Near Ava, the farm crafts brews using ingredients (like mushrooms or flowers) grown or foraged nearby. Try a brew and a pizza on the patio—one of the most beautiful places in the world to drink a beer, per All About Beer magazine.

Sweet Stays


If roughing it doesn’t ruffle your feathers, the Shawnee region offers multiple camping spots to pitch a tent or pull in an RV. Also find cabins, vacation rentals and lodges for overnights.

At the Timber Ridge Outpost and Cabins, stay in a log cabin dating back to 1852 or up in a tree house at this Elizabethtown complex.

Groups up to six can find upscale decor at Havisham House, a French Victorian in Alto Pass. Families can also rent the Carriage House.

While at the Makanda park, enjoy dinner or drinks in the Giant City Lodge, a sandstone and white oak timber structure built in the ’30s.

More Outdoor Adventures

Related reads

Southern Illinois isn't the only place for outdoor adventures in Illinois. Take a hike to a hidden gem with Natural Wonders Off the Beaten Track. Or take a road trip to see natural wonders at your own pace with Highlights Along Illinois Scenic Byways.

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