A Gem Hidden in Plain Sight
I pull into the trailhead parking area just south of downtown Alto Pass. As I scramble out of the truck I look over my shoulder and take in most of the business and brick building of downtown. I love the atmosphere here. It is like I have stepped back into a scenic eastern mountain town nestled in a small valley. Time seems to have slowed here just to the right pace. On the outskirts of Alto Pass lies the first winery to start the wine boom in the Shawnee Hills. Alto Pass Vineyards took a chance on this small town and struck proverbial gold.
I am here today to hike a trail that one could easily pass up while driving by. A sign designates this place as Quetil Trail. The trail receives its odd name from a man named Charles Julius Quetil. Around 1860 this area was known as Quetil Gap and in 1882 the town officially became known as Alto Pass.
I grab my camera gear and backpack and walk between a gap in a sandstone wall. My backpack is only necessary because of the lens I carry for my camera. The trail is at most 1/2 mile long, just the right length for stretching out the legs from a long drive. As ones heads out they immediately notice that this trail was not always a trail. The level, flat surface was formerly a railway that was created around 1878. One can almost imagine a huge steam train soaring through the forest undergrowth, the train blaring its whistle, the sound reverberating off the sandstone making it even louder. What a sight to have seen, but the railway was abandoned in 1981 and the sound of trains evaporated from the residents of Alto Pass.
I pass what looks to be the crumbling remains of shale that the railway had cut into to make way for the tracks. I soon see house-sized chunks of sandstone on both sides of the trail. One of the hidden treasures of this trail is a rock-stepped staircase that lies hidden between a split in these sandstone giants. As I walk up the steps I am reminded of another staircase at Bell Smith Springs. Both have a unique design and flow naturally with the surroundings.
As I reach the top a picnic shelter comes into view. It appears to have been built-in the same time period as the staircase. The failing light makes the dullish-brown sandstone of the shelter come alive with a vibrant reddish hue. I continue past the shelter to an overlook area.
Cars in the background whiz by at varying speeds. Two pullouts spots are located here giving easy access to anyone passing by. The area on top is referred to as Cliff View Park and rightly so. The view from this sandstone bluff is one of the best in Illinois. The greenery of the forest undulates with the inspiring foothills of the Illinois Ozarks. The skeletal structure of the “being renovated” Bald Knob Cross can be seen on the highest hill in the distance. This hill reaches an elevation of 1030 feet making it 36 feet shorter than the highest point in Southern Illinois at Williams Hill in Pope County.
I head back down the staircase and continue on down the former railway. The trail soon ends at private property and I head happily back to my vehicle.
Quetil is only a short hike, but I can think of no other scenic trail in Southern Illinois that resides in a towns backyard. Alto Pass is a special place and if you are passing through on the way to the Pomona Natural Bridge, Little Grand Canyon, or any of the many places to explore on this side of Southern Illinois one should definitely stop here and soak in the easy views.
Use the map below to get directions by clicking on the tab and entering your address. The tab is the approximate trailhead location.