This series, Notes from the Trail, focuses on thoughts and events that happen with the interactions in nature.
I find myself amongst the steep hills and ravines of the Trail of Tears State Forest. The sun is low in the sky as I head out for a last-minute hike. Up to now most of the day has slipped effortlessly away as computer issues destroyed precious time. I look at my watch and notice that it is 5:30 pm. I am cutting it close and may have enough daylight to film one of the several hiking trails here.
The Trail of Tears State Forest lies amongst the eastern foothills of Ozarks. Unlike the Shawnee Hills, which are made up of mostly sandstone, the Illinois Ozarks are primarily made up fractured limestone. The forest was established in 1929 and today consist of 5,114 acres. It is only one of five State Forests in Illinois. One of the reasons a state forest is different from a state park is that part of the forest goals is growing timber for timber products.
I drive the road next to a stone-laden creek and passover to a parking lot by the largest shelter in the forest. I get out and am pleased that the humidity of late July has subsided. Later this week they are calling for air temperatures of over 100 degrees. I push this out of my mind and decide to hike the CCC Heritage Trail, which is dedicated to the men of the 1930’s who worked the land and created most of the shelters and rock structures we see today.
This trail holds a special place for me. I can remember as a kid going to church picnics at the forest. The kids would always want to go out and explore the steep hills. An adult would be delegated to take us up the vertical terrain. At the time this may have been the only trail in the forest and as I think about it this may have been my first “official” hike in Southern Illinois.
I hop out of my vehicle and grab my gear. I cross a bridge and immediately begin ascending. This is a common occurrence in this forest. The limestone does not usually erode into bluffs like sandstone. The limestone weathers away surrounding areas and creates steep hills, topped by ridges that criss-cross the forest.
The lack of sheer bluffs and house-sized boulders concerns me at first, but as I travel up the trail I am forced to notice a subtle beauty that lingers here. As I look for angles to film I start to recognize the natural flow of the trail. I notice curves that on previous hikes went unrecognized. A bend of a switch back looks as though one is zigzagging up a mountain and not really gaining any ground. Human disturbances, such as stairs and pieces of wood across the trail to prevent erosion, take on new meaning as I look find unique perspectives for my camera.
The trail is lined with old-growth trees that cling precariously to the loose limestone. I noticed on my drive here that many trees have succumb to the drenching rain and ice storms of previous years. The trees sheer bulk and the slippery slope make an uneasy combination tumbling trees down hillsides.
I continue to climb as my heart quickens and reminds me that I am alive. Soon after the last staircase the pitch of the trail becomes flatter. Rays of the remaining sun focus golden hues of light into the undergrowth of the forest canopy. I take time to focus on some of the larger trees and try to incorporate the deeply grooved bark into the footage.
As I near the end of the trail, the footprint of a rusting giant comes into view. If one did not know that it was here they would be startled by its presence. Deep on a forested ridge, next to the South Forest road, resides one of the last remaining Southern Illinois fire towers. What stands before me is a relic of the past. A history of fire towers located throughout the eastern forests. As time has passed their usefulness has diminished.
The tower is no longer climbable and is guarded by a security fence around it base. The first several flight of stairs have been removed to prevent trespassers who might be tempted to climb the unstable structure, but it was not always this way.
As a child, this was our real reason for wanting to climb the steep trail. At its end was a massive playhouse, that shook and creaked as people climbed and screamed their way to the top. There would always be some kid who would run up the stairs and look down from the top and yell something like they were king of the mountain. I remember getting to the top and sitting down, because I was too scared to look over the metal sheets that acted as a fence.
As an adult I look up at the fire tower and smile as I relive the years of my youth and my first ramblings in this beautiful place called Trail of Tears State Park.
Disclaimer: Please respect the no trespassing area around the fire tower. The author and Shawnee Hills Outdoors disclaim any liability or loss incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use and application on any information contained in this blog. Please check ranger stations and park superintendents for latest information regarding these areas. Please
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Take a look at the official Trail of Tears State Forest brochure. Click here to download the pdf file.
Use the map below to get directions by clicking on the tab and entering your address. The tab is the approximate trailhead location.