While in Chicago last week at Amtrak Tourism Day in Union Station representing Great Rivers Country, one of four tourism regions in the state, I was reminded of just how vast and varied the Illinois landscape is. From the hurried streets of Chicago to the wine country of the Shawnee Hills, the state is filled with destinations that provide adventure, breathtaking views, family fun, educational experiences, couples retreats and some much needed rest and relaxation.
One of the questions from a visitor to our booth really struck me. They pointed to the Illinois sign hanging behind me and asked, “Where are those mountains?” Confused, I turned to see what they were pointing at. It was the image of the Garden of the Gods in southern Illinois: Camel Rock to be specific. I continued the conversation and let them know that that mountain was located in the Shawnee National Forest in southern part of the state. They were in disbelief, which was understandable due to the difference in landscapes between the northern and southern part of the state.
Having spent some time living in the Carbondale area in southern Illinois myself, that conversation reminded me of all the enjoyable times I had while traveling and recreating in the lush landscape of this portion of the state. Like the times I went kayaking on Cedar Lake, backpacking through the Shawnee National Forest on the River to River Trail, rode my bike on the Tunnel Hill State Trail, or took a hike in one of the many parks and natural areas.
Within the forests of southern Illinois, there are plenty of opportunities for viewing wildlife and bird watching. The Pileated Woodpecker is a must see and hear, as there is nothing quite like the sound of a natural jackhammer while hiking through the forest. The Indigo Bunting flourishes in the forests and is a stunning contrast to its emerald backdrop. Wildflowers in the early spring are a photographer’s dream when the floor of the forest comes alive in a blanket of color. Giant City State Park is a great place for photography.
Make sure to take a hike on the Giant City Streets Trail that winds through rock formations the size of 2 story buildings. Look closely at the rocks to find names carved by locals, Civil War Soldiers and Civilian Conservation Corps members. If you plan to stay a while, the park offers cabins for rent and a lodge with a restaurant. Just like many of the National Park Lodges, the Giant City Lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Southern Illinois University, where I spent a considerable amount of time, is just up the road from Giant City. You can’t miss the turn for the park as the bright yellow smiley face water tower marks the spot. The tower is also adorned with a black bow tie in honor of the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon, who lived in Makanda while teaching at Southern Illinois University.
History is also rich in the landscape of southern Illinois, whether it is Native American, Civil War, Pioneer, or local heroes. There are numerous sites to visit while traveling the area including the local museums and historical societies. These institutions provide a wealth of information on local lore and famous or infamous individuals including General John A. Logan, the first Memorial Day Celebration, Theodore Wilson Thompson, and many more.
Whether it is a weekend trip or an extended vacation, southern Illinois delivers on diverse experiences. Its rich and varied landscapes, as well as the abundant history of Illinois, are what draw me to back to visit southern Illinois as often as I can.