Heron Pond Trail – Cache River State Natural Area
– by Gary Marks
Giant cypresses some over 1,000 years old, brilliant green swamps, an ancient long ago abandoned riverbed, and over 100 endangered or threanted species, these are just a few things that make the Cache River Wetlands well worth a visit.
Wetlands are not what one usually envisions when thinking about the Land of Lincoln, but as much as skyscrapers and prairie land dominate our landscape here in Illinois, quite possibly the best natural features reside in its far southern tip, the place where two great rivers meet.
It is here where flooding and river course change has scoured the land and has given rise to one of the northernmost wetlands in the United States. Nestled to the far south near the foothills of the Shawnee Hills, towering sandstone bluffs give way to a damp and moist environment that heralds in a profusion of life and great natural beauty.
The Cache River State Natural Area protects just a small part of a vast ecosystem that once existed prior to the drainage of the wetlands in 1818. Over 90% of the wetlands were devastated during this time, mainly for the virgin timber, but also because we lacked the knowledge of just how important wetlands are to the overall environment.
The times have changed and we now recognize that wetlands have many benefits. Several of these are the ability to act as a natural reservoir to control the unbridled affects of flooding. Wetlands, also, act as large filters absorbing pollutants and nutrients that in excess can be hazardous to the surrounding landscape. The wetland environment is, also, conducive to vasts amounts of life that are just not present in other environments. Hundreds of birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and native plant species call this place home.
Hiking Heron Pond
In the heart of the 14,791 acre Cache River State Natural Area resides Heron Pond. The 75-acre pond is mainly dominated by cypress trees, some have reached the young adult stage of 300 years. This area was dedicated in 1973 as a Nature Preserve, thus protecting it for generations to come.
The 1.5 mile (round-trip) Todd-Fink Heron Pond Trail is the centerpiece of the Cache River State Natural Area. It allows hikers, nature explorers, and photographers an intimate glimpse into the working of an active wetland.
The trail begins on the outskirts of Belknap, IL. The path promptly descends to the intersection of Cache River and Dutchman Creek. There is no need to get your feet wet here though, because an impressive steel bridge straddles the merged waters.
Informative signs take you on a guided tour of the area as you parallel the erosive carving power of the Cache River. The trail is well-maintained and for the most part level after the initial descent to the river. This trail is kid-friendly, just keep them from the edge of the river.
Soon Heron Pond will begin to come into view on the left-hand side of the trail. Some people may actually smell the earthy-tinge of standing water before they actually see the swamp. Depending on the water-level it may not seem impressive on your initial contact, but it gets better.
Down on the Boardwalk
When you come to the first intersection, veer to the left. In just a few yards an unnatural sight comes into view. A floating boardwalk zig-zags deep into a cypress swamp leading you to some of the most impressive views of a wetland at work and it does it all without getting you feet wet.
Giant cypress trees jut out from the watery surroundings creating a conifer canopy. Gnarled cypress knees poke through the green carpet of duckweed, showing the trees vast root system. Observing the environment from the boardwalk is truly a unique experience and one that everyone visiting Southern Illinois should partake in.
… But Wait, There’s More!
After you take in the sights from the boardwalk, you can continue up the trail to the State Champion Cherry Bark Oak Tree. Awarded in 1991, this massive tree has a circumference of over 22 feet and towers over 100 feet high. To say the least it is a very impressive tree and well worth the additional steps to view.
Use the map below to get directions by clicking on the tab and entering your address. The tab is the approximate trailhead location.
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