Mention Illinois and most people think of Chicago. The state’s attractions, however, go far beyond the urban glamour of its northern reaches, as the beauty of its southern tip clearly proves. The towers here are made of sandstone, not steel, and the thickly wooded slopes of the Shawnee Hills — known to some as the Illinois Ozarks — overlook the beauty of the mighty Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
1. Shawnee National Forest
From its beginning in the flat farmlands around Harrisburg, the drive heads south on Rte. 34 and soon begins to snake through the first line of the Shawnee Hills. This rumpled stretch of countryside, spared by the glaciers that leveled most areas to the north, is part of Shawnee National Forest.
In the forest’s 270,000 acres, the works of humankind are for the most part left behind, and nature steals the scene with an array of lonely lakes and streams, shady gorges and rocky bluffs, and a host of flowering shrubs and leafy hardwoods. The diversity of landforms, in turn, supports a range of wildlife: from ubiquitous white-tailed deer to waterfowl, wild turkeys, and even bobcats.
Miles of roads and trails create a web of opportunity for visitors to follow, allowing access to all but the remotest corners of the forest. Driving and hiking are not the only ways to get about. Some enjoy the area on horseback, while others bring canoes and float silently downstream on the forest’s creeks and rivers beneath a cooling green canopy of trees.
2. Garden of the Gods
A few miles past Herod, turn east on Karbers Ridge Road, where tulip poplars, elms, and maples deck the hillsides. The drive then follows a marked turnoff to Garden of the Gods, whose oddly shaped sandstone formations — rounded, grooved, and streaked with crimson and orange — lie strewn and scattered about like toys left behind by some playful giant.
Names such as Mushroom Rock, Anvil Rock, and Devils Smokestack help conjure up a picture of these fanciful towers, overhangs, and balanced boulders. To understand their origin, though, one must go back millions of years to a time when this region formed the bed of an inland sea. The water eventually receded, leaving behind sandy sediments that compacted into stone. Faults in the earth’s crust then exposed the rocks to the elements, and ever since, wind, water, and other erosive forces have been sculpting the sandstone into these outlandish forms.
3. Pounds Hollow Recreation Area
As Karbers Ridge Road meanders eastward, it passes the Rim Rock National Recreation Trail, which curves beside an ancient Indian wall and continues along the top of an escarpment. The view overlooks the region’s crown jewel: Pounds Hollow Lake, reached by an access road farther ahead on Karbers Ridge Road. The tree-lined drive follows a ridge top on its way down to the lake and the Pounds Hollow Recreation Area, where swimming, camping, and fishing are some of the diversions available to visitors.