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Illinois’ Trail Of Two Rivers

On its way from the Ohio to the Mississippi, Illinois' new River to River Trail takes you through a surprisingly wild side of the Corn Belt.

A hard frost covers the ground. It’s still dark when I pull my van into the Lusk Creek/River to River Trail parking lot. I’m a few miles northeast of Eddyville, a small town on the River to River Trail, and a long day’s hike southwest from Garden of the Gods. A skyful of stars hints of another clear day ahead.

At first light, I slip into my backpack and walk down a gravel road 100 yards or so to the trailhead. Here, at the edge of the national forest, the countryside is a mixture of second-growth woods and pastoral fields. To my right is the Circle B Ranch, one of several privately owned campgrounds catering to equestrians in the Shawnee area. The large, fenced-off area is jam-packed with an assortment of pickup trucks, trailers, recreational vehicles, and wooden stockades full of horses. At this early hour the camp is not yet awake. The silence is soothing as I slip past and enter the dusky forest.

Walking softly, I hear the haunting hoots of a barred owl, the cheery warbles of a Carolina wren, and the resonant, staccato call of a pileated woodpecker. I don’t know who is surprised more, me or the half dozen white-tailed deer I flush. They bound away in great leaf-crunching leaps.

A half-hour after leaving the trailhead, I come upon an always welcome “Wilderness Boundary” sign. Ahead is the Lusk Creek Wilderness Area, a 4,796-acre geological anomaly of broad ridgetops overlooking deep sandstone gulches and narrow ravines. The area is known among local backpackers as the least civilized land in Illinois, and by O’Dell as “some of the most beautiful country in the world.”

A brisk downhill hike brings me to Lusk Creek itself, a sinuous, perennial stream in the middle of the wilderness. The River to River Trail crosses a rocky ford and continues up the opposite bank, but I’m not going on. Instead, I push north through waist-high grass, following a faint dirt path along the creek. Beside a deep, clear pool to my right, I am startled by a loud, sudden thwack! I glance over in time to see the tail end of a beaver vanish underwater. River otters are also known to prowl Lusk Creek, but thanks to the beaver’s alarm, I probably won’t see any this morning.

Soon I reach a majestic sandstone canyon from which huge blocks have split off to form narrow crevices and winding passageways. I climb the escarpment, pitch my tent in a thick stand of maple and oak, and trade backpack for daypack. I hike upstream along a cobblestone creek, stopping every so often to peer under logs for salamanders or take photographs of the sylvan scenes. I can understand why so many people have such strong feelings for this place. It is wild country, replete with wondrous rock formations, mysterious side hollows, tracts of virgin timber, and one of the state’s highest-quality streams…the stuff of a backpacker’s dream.

But not all is perfect in this bantam-size wilderness. On my way back to camp I hear loud voices and horses neighing. From a bluff top, I watch a train of over 50 horses and riders clatter by. A few minutes later, an equally large line of equestrians clip-clop past in the opposite direction. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Most people still see Lusk Creek and the River to River Trail from the saddle.

Later that afternoon, after bumping into several more groups of riders, I set off to explore the south end of Lusk Creek Canyon. As I tramp past the River to River Trail ford again, the gorge becomes narrower, brushier, and less horsey. The creek makes a hairpin turn south and back north in a chasm rimmed by enormous, moss-covered boulders and rock ledges and walls. Except for the asthmatic squeals of a red-tail hawk soaring overhead, it’s blissfully quiet.

Enfolding the loops and bends is a cliff face rising to 100 feet and extending a mile or more in length. I veer off from the stream and bushwhack closer for a better look. Nearly hidden in a sheltered alcove, beneath a dizzying overhang, I stumble upon a crude rock wall made by human hands. I remember O’Dell saying something about an archaeological site around here where Native Americans resided thousands of years ago. I step gently and wonder if this is the place.

Working my way along the cliff, I find a niche that allows me to scramble to the top. When I get there, a long, narrow rock ledge backed by straggly red cedar and black-jack oak provides a convenient spot to catch my breath. Below the ledge, a rolling canopy of unbroken forest glows in the last embers of the setting sun. And somewhere below, out of sight but not out of mind, is a slender pathway marked by wooden diamonds painted white, overlaid with painted blue “i”s. Strung along it, like jewels, are several more Shawnee wilderness areas I’m eager to visit.

EXPEDITION PLANNER: River to River Trail, Illinois

The Trail: The River to River Trail is billed at 146 miles in length, although recent computations put it closer to 170 miles. The route is located primarily in the Shawnee National Forest. A fair amount of the “trail” is actually overlaid on dirt and gravel roads, and open to vehicle traffic.

Your best bet is to hike selected portions of the trail. Three of the choicest are marked in the map at right.

Getting there: The Shawnee is a straight 6-hour shot south from Chicago on I-57, which bisects the forest, and a mere 2 hours from St. Louis, Missouri. There are several trailheads to the River to River Trail. Pick your starting point, then call the River to River Trail Society (see “More Information”). Members can give advice on shuttles and parking.

Camping: Camping is allowed on all parts of the River to River Trail bordered by national forest land. Backcountry permits are not required.

When to go: Spring and autumn are the best times to visit. Winter can offer excellent hiking during mild days with the opportunity to see huge icicles. Think twice before visiting in July and August.

Difficulty: With elevations well under 1,000 feet, the trail does not have long, sustained climbs, but some are steep.

Crowd Control: The entire trail is open to foot and horse travel, and mountain bike use is permitted outside of wilderness areas. The east-central segment of the trail, between High Knob and Bay Creek, is the most heavily traveled. If you’re bothered by horses and bikers, avoid holiday and peak weekends. Weekdays are generally quiet on the trail. Sections of the trail that see the least horse traffic are: Rock Creek to High Knob; Trigg Tower to Cedar Lake (near US 45); and IL 127 to LaRue-Pine Hills. Some of the heaviest hoofed traffic occurs during the One Horse Gap Ride, which is always scheduled for the second week in June and the second week in October-good weekends to catch up on yard work.

Maps and guidebooks: The topographic maps in the River to River Trail Guide ($23, includes shipping and handling) published by the River to River Trail Society are adequate for routefinding, provided you stick to the main trail. More detailed topos are a must when venturing off-trail. To order, contact the River to River Trail Society at the address below. Shawnee National Forest sells an oversize map of the trail for $3, available at the address below.

Local wisdom: In the forest, south of Carbondale, you’ll find the rustic Giant City Lodge (618-457-4921) in Giant City State Park, which is famous for its all-you-can-eat fried chicken dinner-a bargain at $6.95.

More information: River to River Trail Society, 1142 Winkleman Rd., Harrisburg, IL 62946; (618) 252-6789. Shawnee National Forest, 901 S. Commercial St., Harrisburg, IL 62946; (800) 699-6637.

For the locations of scenic high points on the River to River, match the numbers below with the corresponding numbers on the map.

1. Battery Rock: Union troops protected the Ohio River from the top during the Civil War.

2. High Knob: Expansive vistas and trails for exploring along the cliffs. Bring a flashlight for looking into the caves.

3. Garden of the Gods: Vistas and wild rock formations.

4. One Horse Gap: The “gap” (large enough for only one horse to pass) connects the ridgetop with a trail that goes along the base of a cliff.

5. Lusk Creek Wilderness Area: A backpacker’s paradise of rocky glens, deep canyons, and a pristine stream. Also popular among equestrians.

6. Hayes Creek Canyon: Natural water slide. This area also accesses Jackson Hollow and Jackson Hole Natural Area.

7. Sand Cave: Largest sandstone cave in North America.

8. Trigg Tower: The last of the fire towers in southern Illinois. Great vistas.

9. Panther Den Wilderness: A small but fascinating wild area with high bluffs, thick forest, and a clear-running stream.

10. Giant City State Park: Large sandstone blocks with passageways between them.

11. Clear Springs Wilderness: The gravel road at the base of the bluffs closes twice each year for the migration of cottonmouth snakes and other reptiles.

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