This is what ziplining sounds like: It starts as a low hum and then revs up to a soprano trill as you gain speed. The aria is broken only by shrieks of delight as participants zoom through the forest on a Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour. The three-hour ziplining adventure crosses 35 acres of dense trees and sandstone bluffs bordering the Shawnee National Forest near Makanda, Illinois, about 115 miles southeast of St. Louis. It’s just one way to explore this scenic region that is home to a wine trail, parks and surprises like the towering rock formations at Garden of the Gods.
Outdoor enthusiasts make tracks to Giant City State Park, which gets its name from the steep, carved sandstone cliffs that resemble city streets fit for a giant. Hikers explore miles of trails or gather their gear and tackle rock-climbing and rappelling on the massive bluffs. Giant City Stables leads guided horseback tours along wooded paths. The clear and calm waters of Little Grassy Lake, part of the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, are ideal for a day of fishing and boating. For a colorful detour, the quirky Makanda Boardwalk showcases the works of local artisans, including metalwork and gemstone jewelry.
Spend even a little time among the 12 family-owned wineries on the hilly, wooded Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, and you’ll feel a welcome tug: Do you stay just long enough to do a tasting and purchase a couple bottles, or do you linger with a glass and watch the sun set over a vista stretching more than 35 miles?
Most people stay on the trail awhile, because these little towns—not a stoplight among them—offer enough to fill several days. Fresh-picked apples fill baskets at Rendleman Orchards’ Farm Market, and apple dumplings tempt at Flamm Orchards. Walking trails around Cedar Lake cross creek shallows; hilly hikes through Little Grand Canyon shred stereotypes about Illinois’ landscape. Dozens of bed-and-breakfasts and cabins burrow in the hills, and the wineries reveal personalities all their own—not to mention a mix of sweet and dry varieties reflecting the region’s deepening understanding of wine making.
1) Sample the flavors of southern Illinois grapes at 12 vineyards and wineries on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail. Blue Sky Vineyard, inspired by a Tuscan villa, is known for its picturesque grounds with outdoor terraces overlooking a lake. At Cobden’s Owl Creek Vineyard, the hard ciders are nearly as popular as the wines and are best enjoyed on the shady upstairs deck.
2) White Crane Canoe Rentals in Ullin gives two-hour guided tours, by canoe or kayak, of the Cache River, Illinois’ hidden bayou.
3) Spot little blue herons, black vultures and other wildlife in the wetlands and forests of the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge.
4) A quarter-mile trail at Garden of the Gods features towering sandstone outcroppings formed millions of years ago.
5) Within Giant City State Park, explore eight hiking trails, rock climb and rappel, and spend the night in the Giant City Lodge. Stop at the visitors center in Makanda for trail maps and to catch a 20-minute film about the park’s history and ecology.
6) In Carbondale, the General Store at Walker's Bluff offers great shopping, with kitchen items and gifts.
1) For a fine dining experience, Tom’s Place in De Soto offers a six-course menu of seasonal items chosen by proprietor and chef Lasse Sorensen.
2) Yellow Moon Cafe in charming Cobden is another local favorite. Ingredients are sourced from area farmers, so the menu changes weekly, with favorite items like baked peach salad and Asian sea bass. Bands play in Yellow Moon’s intimate listening room.
3) Cobden’s rustic The Blue Boar Restaurant serves Cajun cuisine (think étouffée) along with baby back ribs from local caterer The Great Boars of Fire.
4) Refuel in Anna with dinner at Brick House Grill, which tops filets with thick blue-cheese gravy.
5) Stop for lunch at the 17th Street BBQ in Murphysboro. The barbecued meats and baked beans are legendary, and the decadent banana pudding is served in a mason jar.
1) At Rocky Comfort Cabins, an offbeat lodging option is the hobbit-style Cove, a grass-roof earthen shelter with round windows and sun tunnels that flood the cabin with light.
2) The stunning Makanda Inn and Cottages, an eco-friendly retreat located on 18 forest acres, is constructed with all-natural building materials.
3) Groups of friends love the Alto Wine Trail Loft—a two-bedroom vacation rental in an Alto Pass historic building.
4) The Davie School Inn stuns with classy decor and in-room breakfasts in a rescued Anna elementary school building.