Shawnee Hills Scenic Byway: Explore Picturesque Illinois

Route Details Length: About 100 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Pleasant year-round, but best from spring through fall.

Shawnee National Forest
In the Shawnee National Forest the works of humankind are 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.

Route Details

Length: About 100 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Pleasant year-round, but best from spring through fall.

Nearby attractions: Burden Falls Wilderness Area, southwest of Mitchellsville. Old Shawneetown, historic town with a few restored buildings, Rte. 13 at Ohio River.

Further information: Shawnee National Forest, 50 Hwy. 145 South, Harrisburg, IL 62946; tel. 800-699-6637, www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/shawnee.

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.

4. Cave-in-Rock State Park
The drive veers to the south as it follows Rte. 1 to the Ohio River and Cave-in-Rock State Park, which offers campgrounds, overlooks of the waterway, and trails that wend through groves of oak and hickory trees. Though peaceful today, this spot was once a hideout for river pirates, who used the park’s namesake — a 160-foot-deep cave in a limestone bluff — as a den in the decades following the Revolutionary War. The bandits lured into the cave early pioneers rafting down the Ohio River, then took their possessions — and sometimes their lives. By the mid-1800s the villains had been apprehended and brought to justice, and the cave enjoyed a more respectable role as a refuge from inclement weather for latter-day travelers.

For a different perspective on the state park, take a cruise aboard a ferry that departs from the nearby town of Cave-in-Rock. Like old-time travelers, passengers can view the chalky limestone cliff and the opening of the cave as they cross the Ohio River.

5. Tower Rock
The drive briefly backtracks, then heads west on Rte. 146, a gently meandering highway that proves anew that travel at its best is much more than just a journey between two points. Miles of rolling farmland border the two-lane road, which also passes stately stands of maples and oaks. For camping and for unobstructed views of the Ohio River, take the turnoff to Tower Rock. The giant cliff — it rises 160 feet above water level — is the tallest bluff on the Illinois bank of the Ohio River.

6. Elizabethtown
Looking at the river today, one is likely to see many sleek pleasure boats — a marked contrast to times past when the only craft would have been steam-powered vessels and makeshift rafts. In those days travelers and pilotmen often stopped at Elizabethtown to provision their barges and escape the rigors of river life, perhaps spending the night at the Rose Hotel.

Opened in 1812, the Rose was first a boardinghouse, then a hotel that was once the pride of southern Illinois; today the completely refurbished hotel — a national historic landmark operated by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency — continues to provide lodging as a bed-and-breakfast. Relaxing on its veranda, visitors can dream of the past as they watch the river glide by just yards away.

Rosiclare, yet another rustic river town, lies a few miles to the southwest. A century ago, if you wanted to cross its Main Street, chances are you would have had to wait for a passing wagon laden with either coal or fluorspar. Today fluorspar, a mineral chiefly used in glassmaking, is still mined in Rosiclare, though many of the region’s mines have been closed down.

7. Illinois Iron Furnace
In a wooded valley northwest of Elizabethtown stands the Illinois Iron Furnace, a massive smelter originally built about 1838 and restored in 1967. It produced pig iron, which was shipped out for further refinement and, according to local legend, was used in cannons and ironclads during the Civil War. Today the grounds around the historic furnace attract picnickers, who can walk beside the scenic Big Creek.

8. Golconda
Handsome 19th-century architecture throughout Golconda testifies to the town’s glory days when its commerce on the Ohio River brought vast riches. Although trade has long since peaked, fishermen still find plenty of rewards here as they cast off the docks at the local marina for bass, bluegills, sunfish, and catfish.

Recalling a sad chapter from the past, a historical marker just outside town indicates the route of the so-called Trail of Tears. Thousands of Cherokees, escorted by the army, crossed the river here in the fall and winter of 1838-39 on their way to reservation lands in Oklahoma. The hardships encountered on the 1,200-mile journey — lack of food and brutal cold — proved unbearable for many, and some 4,000 Cherokee people perished.

9. Smithland Locks and Dam
Pioneers and the Ohio River had at least one thing in common: both were traveling west. But even then it was obvious that the waterway needed to be tamed, and today the Smithland Locks are just one link in a system of 20 locks and dams that slow the river into a series of steplike pools. A visitor center tells about the locks, which you can observe as huge barges pass through, and it traces the history of the Ohio River and the impact it has had on the surrounding states of Illinois and Kentucky.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest