Though only five hours away, the landscape of southern Illinois has little resemblance to the flat farmlands most think of when picturing the midwest. Cornfields give way to dense forests, rolling hills and intense rock formations. If you are looking for a weekend getaway that feels like you are in a different place, southern Illinois (and northern Kentucky) just may be the place to go.
A little over 5 hours from Chicago on I-57 south will bring you to the southern tip of Illinois, just past the heart of the Shawnee National Forest. There are a number of places to stay both in and out of the forest. We have stayed in Paducah, KY (just over the border) the two times we have been there, though that is not necessary.
The weather is always a bit warmer than Chicago, so plan accordingly. Additionally, the trails we have wandered in Shawnee and the surrounding areas are loaded with rocks and tree roots – hiking shoes with ankle support and good grips have been a great benefit.
Southern Illinois is huge – maps are deceiving. In many parts of the Shawnee, along with the other places we have visited, sites and hiking trails can be anywhere from a 15 to 45 minutes drive from one place to the next. Directional signage is also limited and with spotty internet, detailed maps of the area would have been a great help. Learn from our frustrations and get a cheap gas station map when you arrive in the area. Many of the roads are gravel and even when our Maps apps worked, we often received incorrect directions.
In all, 2 full days would be the minimum to hit a number of spots. Shawnee National Forest is divided into two halves (this post covers our visits to the eastern side)- it would be very difficult to cover a lot of ground in both of those in less than three days, and there are a number of other sites that are well worth the additional trek, including the unique swamps of the Cache River. In our experience, we have been to the area twice for a total of 5 days and we have only done one trail in west Shawnee.
Cache River Swamps
Cache River State Natural Area (CR) is a stunning site for Illinois – literal swamps with cypress and tupelo trees! Though we assume swamps like these are located in Louisiana or South Carolina, Illinois is home to a small but impressive swampland.
Located in between the two halves of the Shawnee, CR is split into a number of sections, each about 10-15 minutes away from each other. We stopped at 4 of the areas and without a doubt, Heron Pond was the crown jewel.
Heron Pond starts as a dirt trail hugging the Cache River where we came across deer, crayfish, and a baby raccoon while we walked. The signs on the trail were well marked, and after a 15 minute walk we were given a choice – left for the Heron Pond or right to see a state champion tree. We chose left and within minutes we walked a floating boardwalk under a canopy of cypress trees. The swamp was still, outside of the sounds of frogs squeaking as they jumped from logs into the water. Though the boardwalk was no more than a 5 minute walk, this part of the trail could easily be one of the best nature experiences in Illinois. Overall, we spent about 1 hour at Heron Pond and made a return trip the next day.
Another boardwalk trail is the Section 8 Trail, located about a 20 minute drive from Heron Pond, but only minutes from the CR Visitor Center. Unlike Heron Pond, dry season (late-August through November) had left this area drained of water, yet too muddy to walk anywhere but the boardwalk. While neat to see the cypress and tupelos all the way down to the ground, we’d recommend checking it out in the rainy seasons. We only stayed about 15-20 minutes.
Our first stop at CR was actually a trail at Wildcat Bluff Access- (where Apple Maps took us when we searched for CR,) Lookout Point. The trail was a nice forest hike, ending with an obstructed view of the wetlands below, but easily skippable. 1 hour or less roundtrip.
We also went walking at the Lower Cache River Access area, though if we had planned ahead, we could have gone on a canoe tour. This area appeared to be the largest of the swamp areas, though unless you are in a canoe, most views of the swamps are obstructed. We would only recommend this area if you are going to be boating, and in that case we imagine it would be stunning.
The CR Visitor center, located between Section 8 and the Lower Cache area, is worth a stop to develop an understanding about the area (and learn that 80% of the swamps in the area have disappeared.) There is a an exhibit worthy of any National Park visitor center, and also has a 12 minute informational film. The staff are helpful as well, especially with guidance for directions from place to place.
15 minutes from the southern tip of CR is the town of Metropolis, Il. Known for being the home of superhero Superman, the downtown area has a giant statue dedicated to the comic book character and the stores along the main thoroughfare embrace Superman as well. The downtown area makes for a perfect stop for lunch or ice cream. If comics are your thing, there is a Superman Museum and store just steps away from the Superman statue.
Staying in the city of Paducah led us to wanting to explore a bit of Northwestern Kentucky as well, and as luck would have it, the National Recreation Area, Land Between the Lakes (LBTL) was only about 30 minutes away.
To be honest we found LBTL pleasant but probably not worth a return trip for us. Though it is large and would likely be a hit for either boaters or visitors with children, the rains while we were there limited us to two pleasant forest hikes and a drive through their elk/ bison prairie.
Other activities/ sites include a planetarium, a nature center with owls, an eagle, a bobcat and more, and an 1800’s settlement. There are a number of boat launches surrounding the peninsula. If you have a family and are looking for a getaway, LBTL could easily provide a full day’s worth of activities.
As for Paducah, the city is large enough to support all of the amenities you would expect. Only about 15 minutes from Metropolis, getting to Shawnee takes a bit longer, though the side road drives are worth it. Should you find yourself in Paducah, Branch Out was a spectacular vegan restaurant – we went 2 of the 3 days we stayed in Paducah.
Shawnee National Forest
Shawnee National Forest (SNF) is the reason we’re writing this – it’s what drew us to southern IL a few years back and it’s what brought us back in early fall of 2019. There simply is no other place like it in Illinois.
We have done 4 hikes in Shawnee, and because of the size of SNF, we have probably driven a few hundred miles through it. For this post we’ll focus on three hikes in the eastern side.
Garden of the Gods is one of two crown jewels in all of SNF. Though it takes some driving to get there, and parking/ crowds can be a pain if you arrive after 9:00am, this 30-45 minute hike is jaw-dropping.
Hikers bounce among the rock formations which rise above the blanket of forest below. There are number of these large formations where we were able to take in panoramic views of park – the leaves were just beginning to change colors. This is a can’t miss hike.
Rim Rock is another well known hike, just about 15 minutes down the road from Garden of the Gods. The hike is about an hour and includes some descents/ ascents that require a little effort. The half-way point brings hikers into an odd rock formation where one descends down into a valley below. This is a neat hike and worth doing after Garden of the Gods.
Burden Falls look so great in pictures. We had been researching which hikes to do and this seemed perfect – except the waterfall was not running when we were there. I guess all the more reason to visit again in the spring. We walked about about 35 minutes through a carpet of fallen leaves on the ground. Though most other trees in Shawnee had yet to lose their leaves, the Burden Falls hike gave us a sense of what late fall or winter would be like here.
We are already planning on a spring trip to both Shawnee and Cache River. We look forward to finally taking time to explore western Shawnee and seeing Cache River in all of its swampy glory.