Even in a sleepy stupor, I think I’ve figured out why this place is called Panther Den. From somewhere off in the rain-soaked forest comes a sound unlike any I’ve heard, one that raises the hair on the back of my neck. At first I’m certain it’s a woman screaming, which is frightening enough, but a few more blood-curdling shrieks make me believe otherwise. I’d bet my hiking boots that skulking across the damp oak and beech leaves is an ornery bobcat. For a Midwest backpacker, having a solitary, nocturnal feline within hissing distance is about as wild as it gets.
Camp is set up in the middle of Panther Den Wilderness Area, at 940 acres the smallest of seven pocket-size wilderness areas dotting Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest. A few feet away a sandstone cliff rises 70 feet from the valley floor-a perfect lair for bobcats and other critters. On the other side of my tent gurgles a shallow, clear-running creek. A little farther afield are low, rounded bluffs, their thickly forested slopes ablaze in the reds, yellows, and oranges of a fiery autumn. I’ve lived in Illinois most of my life, but until yesterday I didn’t know such a place of solitude and beauty existed.
Winding past my cliff-lined camp is the trail that brought me here. Wooden diamonds painted white and overlaid with blue “i”s (the “i” is Morse Code for “trail entrance”) identify it as part of the recently completed River to River Trail that spans the southern tip of Illinois. Stretching from Battery Rock on the Ohio River to Grand Tower on the Mississippi River, the 146-mile route sometimes follows dirt or gravel roads and occasionally crosses a state park campground or small town, but for the most part it’s a forest path through a vast semi-wilderness.
The River to River Trail also does double-duty as a leg of the American Discovery Trail, which traverses the continent. Heading west, I could follow this path clear to California. Ambling east would take me past the White House on my way to the Atlantic Ocean. A worthy quest, but maybe some other time. Right now, I’m content to trace the River to River through the Shawnee’s rolling hills, unusual rock outcroppings, and hardwood forests-a reprieve from corn-and-beans Illinois.
A few days before my visit to Panther Den, I met with John O’Dell, founder and chairperson of the 650-member River to River Trail Society (RTRTS), and the American Discovery Trail’s southern Illinois coordinator. “Before the River to River Trail was finished, this was a great place to get lost in,” chuckled the mild-mannered, 62-year-old retired school superintendent. He’s also the author of the society’s guidebook to the trail and the driving force behind the route’s completion. RTRTS was recently handed the American Hiking Society’s Trail Development Award for its work.
When O’Dell invited me to join him on a mid-October ramble to some of his beloved haunts along the trail, I jumped at the chance. He also agreed to steer me to a couple of great locales for solo backpacking jaunts, like Panther Den. From my perspective, this trip was long overdue. I’ve journeyed to five continents seeking wild country, but I’ve never gotten to know the 270,000 acres of steep slopes and craggy hollows of the Shawnee, practically in my backyard.
There is no better time to be in southern Illinois than autumn. The woods are ablaze, the bugs are gone, and blue skies and fleecy white clouds are predicted through the weekend. O’Dell has chosen one of the better-known sections of the trail for my inaugural hike: a 16-mile trek beginning at High Knob Recreation Area, once the site of a forest fire lookout tower, and ending near Herod, a small hamlet to the west with a single country store that is open sporadically. A highlight of the route will be a traverse of the Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area. Most backpackers take this same approach to hiking the River to River Trail-breaking it into bite-size chunks of one- or two-night stays, says O’Dell. Hiking straight through requires 10 to 14 days and as far as he knows, only one person, 17-year-old high school senior Owen Callahan of Carbondale, Illinois, has done it. “We’re putting him in our Hall of Fame,” says O’Dell.
Because of last night’s rain our boots slip and slide on the soft clay, but the same slippery conditions make it easy to look for animal tracks. There is an assortment of wildlife sign, including evidence of white-tailed deer, raccoons, opossums, coyotes, squirrels, even wild turkeys. O’Dell says a friend of his, “a trail veteran,” swears he saw a black bear mother with two cubs near here. “I know what you’re thinking,” he smiles, noting my skepticism. “But if there’s an area in Illinois where you’ll see bears, it’s here. There’s some awfully woolly stuff in these parts.”
At Buzzards Roost, a rock ledge high atop an escarpment, we get our first good view of the surrounding terrain. The rough, unglaciated Shawnee Hills can be viewed for miles around. A mix of maple, gum, beech, oak, and pine provides an eye-filling autumn spectrum of resplendent colors. With all this untouched land in front of me, I have to remind myself that I’m in the Land of Lincoln, a state that ranks 49th out of 50 in “natural areas” remaining.
After lunch, we continue west from Garden of the Gods Recreation Area and encounter a large, official sign proclaiming that we are about to enter the 3,300-acre wilderness area of the same name, known for its remnant old-growth forest and rugged terrain. I’ll return here in a few weeks to do some backpacking, but today we’re dayhiking the River to River Trail’s languid, 10-mile S-curve directly across the center of the wilderness.
A local historian with a doctorate in education from Indiana University, O’Dell is eager to share his knowledge of the area’s rich history. I learn that Shawnee Indians once inhabited the region, but were pushed out in the early 1800s by an influx of settlers who quickly turned the frontier into farmland. By the late 1920s, many of the farms and even some entire towns had been abandoned, victims of erosion and the Great Depression. In 1933, the federal government stepped in and began to acquire old, worn-out land that would later be designated Shawnee National Forest.
“It’s hard to believe, but much of southern Illinois is wilder today than at the turn of the century,” O’Dell says. He delights in pointing out where the River to River Trail traces the wagon trails and dirt roads traveled by the old farmers and loggers.
We’re almost to the highway when we’re suddenly enveloped in the noise of hooves crushing dead leaves and the yap of a black-and-white sheep dog as a troop of horse riders gains on us. These are the first people (and horses) we’ve seen all day outside the Garden of the Gods. O’Dell chats with one acquaintance, a man dressed like a fashionable cowboy, complete with Stetson hat and shiny spurs. The man mentions that tomorrow is the start of a week-long trail ride across the Shawnee, an event held each spring and fall. “There’ll be hundreds of riders on these trails. It’s gonna be a real humdinger week!”
I stifle a groan. I like horses as much as the next person, but I’m not keen on being trampled in a stampede.
The next day O’Dell takes me south and west of Garden of the Gods to two of his favorite spots along the River to River Trail: One Horse Gap, featuring a thin sliver in the rocks that is about the only convenient way to gain the ridgetop above; and Jackson Hollow, a 2-mile-long cleft isolated from the surrounding terrain by impressive sheer rock walls.
While One Horse Gap, directly on the River to River Trail, has some sensational vistas and old cemeteries and homesteads hidden among its rocky bluffs and glades of prairie grass, Jackson Hollow, a mile detour north of the trail, is more alluring. Its lush, riparian woods, waterfalls, and house-size sandstone blocks that have broken from the face of the bluffs attract bird-watchers, photographers, climbers, and backpackers.
When we pause to admire a translucent splash pool below a water-streaked cliff, O’Dell reminds me that some of the best parts of the River to River Trail are off-trail. “I know of several hikers who started out on the River to River thinking they were going to trek great distances, but instead ended up staying at just one spot because there was too much to see and do,” he says.