Fall On the Western Side of the Shawnee National Forest
– by Gary Marks
Exit Fall, Enter Winter
The calendar has finally rolled over to November, the time for change in the Shawnee Hills. This is the month that trees become silent and the cooler temps blow swiftly from the north. Winter will be quickly approaching giving rise to collisions of warm and cold fronts making November rains and waterfalls a very high possibility.
There is one thing that November is usually not know for and that is fall colors. The eastern side of the Shawnee National Forest has given way to skeletons of former growth, but the western side is still vibrant with scattered pockets of fall.
To The “State”
There is something here. Something that encourages the growth of hearty woods. Is it the transition from the sandstone bluffs to the limestone foothills of the Ozarks? Is it the deep ravines and steep valleys? Not for sure, but what is known is that fall clings here longer than the rest of the Southern Illinois.
It is places like the Trail of Tear State Forest that keeps bringing me back again and again to discover the one-lane gravel roads of the South and North Forest Roads. The CCC shelters and stone-laden creeks are, also, a hidden treasure of the “Hills” that keeps the shutter clicking.
Pine Hills, Just Not for Evergreens
The State Forest’s neighbor, Larue Pine Hills is, also, a sanctuary for late fall. Pine Hills is well-known amongst snake-lovers for the aptly named Snake Road. Here during spring and early fall this road is closed for none other than our slithering friend, but this is not why some come here in late fall.
Snake road re-opens and allows one to drive near the base of massive limestone bluffs and at water-level with the swamps of the Mississippi floodplain. This three-mile stretch is a haven for yellow and red maples, golden paw-paws, and resilient beech trees.
One can spend several hours exploring and photographing this one-of-a-kind environment exclusive to extreme southern Illinois. The lowlands are not the only section to explore. One can wind there way up to the top of the limestone bluffs. Besides the panoramic views into Missouri, one can gaze down into the the tree-laden valleys.
It is hard to believe that the first week of November can sometimes be filled with greens, yellows, and reds. What a sight and well worth packing up the vehicle and exploring the gravel country roads of rural Illinois.
A Fountain With No Water
A short distance down the road from Pine Hills, is the often overlooked Fountain Bluff. Located near Gorham, this chunk of sandstone stands in stark contrast to its limestone neighbor. Carved by the mighty waters of the Mississippi, this gnarly resilient stone has became a haven for vines and rampant growth.
Having never visited this area in fall, the scenery was unexpected. Even though many of the trees had shed their growth, there were signs of fall perched upon small ledges of the reddish sandstone. The scenes were like something from the mountains where aspen cling to to the slopes, but this was here in the Shawnee Hills in miniture form.
That’s All For Fall?
As I put away my camera, and drove home, I enjoyed the challenge of finding fall amongst the brown. It had been almost three weeks from the peak of fall around mid-October, but with a little perseverance and knowing the lay of the land, the Shawnee Hills revealed some of the best colors not only during the first week of October, but during the first week of November.
It just reminded me to continue to explore the surroundings not only during the “peak” times, but to discover nature throughout all the seasons. So get out there and explore what going on this week in your own backyard.
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