1. WALK THE STREETS OF A GIANT NATURAL CITY
Giant City State Park – What’s a trip to southern Illinois without exploring the most visited park in the Shawnee Hills? This 4,000 acre park boasts miles of hiking trails and the necessary scenery to make every mile enjoyable. The most popular trail in the park is the Giant City Nature Trail, which guides one through the sandstone “streets” of Giant City.
The park is, also, home to one of the most rustic and beautiful lodges in Illinois. Built in the 1930’s by the CCC, this natural stone lodge is known throughout the state for its home-fried chicken and its friendly atmosphere.
2. GET AWAY AND VIEW THE HILLS FROM ABOVE
LaRue Pine Hills – Standing on a 150-foot bluff, the stresses of the world seem to easily slip away as the enormity and awe of the Mississippi floodplain is sprawled beneath your feet. LaRue Pine Hills is arguably the best view in the Shawnee National Forest. From atop the crumbling limestone outcrop ,appropriately named Inspiration Point, you can look off to the north, south, and west and see the power that the ancient Mississippi River has over this area. The river has stripped clear the once lofty stature of the undulating hills and has replaced it with a smooth corridor for flooding.
This act of nature has produced one of the most varied and ecologically rich environments in not just Southern Illinois, but the Midwest. The sheer limestone bluffs give way to vibrant wetlands that are abundant in rare plants and wildlife. At the base of the bluff lies one of the only known roads closed twice a year for the seasonal snake migration.
3. WHEN NATURE MAKE ITS OWN BRIDGE
Pomona Natural Bridge – Tucked away at the end of a dusty gravel road is a natural wonder that deserves its place among the top places to visit in the Shawnee Hills. A 1/3 mile trail takes you steeply down to a bluff that overlooks this 90-foot span of solid sandstone. It is one natural formation that actually resembles its name. The best view is from below, where one can imagine how this oddity came into existence. A small wet-weather stream has chiseled patiently over the years into the resilient sandstone leaving us with one of the best examples of a natural bridge not just in Illinois, but the entire Midwest.
4. THE HIDDEN GEM AMONGST THE HILLS
Trail of Tears State Forest – Situated near the floodplains of the Mississippi, this 5,000 acre piece of land is one of only five state forests located in Illinois. What makes this forest unique is that it is part of the eastern foothills of the Ozarks. Unlike most of its southern Illinois neighbors this park consists of little to no sandstone. The steeply ravined hills and valleys are made up of limestone, which is easily sculpted by the forces of erosion.
The main draw for this forest is the shelters and playground areas that were first created by the CCC in the 1930’s, but its beauty goes deeper than that. The best way to get a feel for the area is to hike one of the several steep trails that take you deep into the forest canopy. Here you will see and feel that not all of Illinois is made of flat prairies. In the fall, the forest turns into a photographer’s paradise with brilliant colors intermingling with each other.
5. EXPLORE THE GRAND FORCES OF EROSION
Little Grand Canyon – Little and grand, these two words are normally not associated with one another, but here in the far depths of Illinois it seems to work perfectly. The Little Grand Canyon lies along the floodplain of the Big Muddy River and consists of a massive expanse of sandstone that has slowly eroded into the canyons we see today.
The best ways to experience the are is to hike the 3.6 loop trail that traverses two side-canyon that both lead in and out of the main canyon. Erosive force have carved out curves and sinkholes that will have you admiring, this wonder of Illinois.
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