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Little-Known Fact: Cache River State Natural Area boasts the 1,000-year-old state champion bald cypress?
This wasn’t going to be one of those laid-back summer Sundays ~ no leisurely wake-up, no morning paper, no second cup of coffee. Instead, my friend and I were bound for the Cache River State Natural Area, where we’d be on the water at first light, tromping the trails at midday, then back in the canoe by sundown.
An ecological novelty in the Land of Lincoln, this 10,430-acre natural area is composed of two distinct sections: the famed Heron Pond-Little Black Slough wetland on the Upper Cache River, and the Cache River Swamp, a nine-mile corridor lining both sides of the Lower Cache. Both sections are precious remains of a wetlands ecosystem that once encompassed more than 250,000 acres and spanned the entire southern tip of Illinois, from the Mississippi River on the west to the Ohio River on the east and south. Today, only the Cache River watershed and a few nearby smaller tracts are left, representing some of the best undisturbed swamp in the southeastern part of the United States.
We paddled quietly in the morning mist through an otherworldly cypress-tupelo bog, a section of the Lower Cache called Long and Short Reach Slough. Bald cypress trees surrounded us, and great blue herons rose out of the still backwaters to croak their displeasure at our intrusion. I could have sworn I was in a Louisiana bayou or Georgia’s Okefenokee.
We did not linger, however, because we had other stops to make and not all of them from a canoe ~ nine miles of foot trails penetrate the Cache River Natural Area. After grabbing a quick lunch, we headed for the scenic 1.5-mile wooded path leading into Heron Pond. A floating boardwalk wound between the cypress trees, providing easy access to the heart of the swamp. A 6.5-mile trail through Little Black Slough provided a bit more challenge. It skirted a bald cypress and tupelo swamp, and passed through flood-plain forest, barren sandstone ledges, dry limestone glades, and hillside prairies, proof that the entire state of Illinois does not suffer from topographic monotony.
But it was the night that we were anticipating since a swamp is most alive after sunset. Returning to the Lower Cache River in darkness, we eased the canoe into a narrow channel where the trees and buttonbush closed around us. Our only source of light was faint starlight and the strobelike flashes from what seemed to be millions of fireflies.
A rhythmic din created by myriad unseen creatures ~ bird-voiced tree frogs, green frogs, bullfrogs, and others ~ rose from the swamp. A loud splash and a thump momentarily silenced the nocturnal chorus. Was it a beaver, a muskrat, an endangered river otter, or a bobcat?
My partner broke the spell, reminding me he had to be at work early the next morning. Craning my neck, I strained for one last glimpse into the darkness of the swamp, reluctantly leaving its mysterious waters.
Cache River State Natural Area
930 Sunflower Lane
Belknap, IL 62908
The Cache River State Natural Area is in southern Illinois, 145 miles southeast of St. Louis and 50 miles southeast of Carbondale.
The canoeable section of the Lower Cache lies between Karnak on the east and Perks on the west. The best public put-in is 1.8 miles west of Rt. 37 on Perks Blacktop Road, then one mile south on a gravel road. (Follow the Lower Cache River Access signs.) There are four access areas for hiking; consult a park brochure for locations.
Spring and fall are the recommended seasons, when temperatures range from 40 to 70 degrees F.
The great blue heron, green heron, and the rare yellow-crowned night heron and egrets are regularly found here. Pileated woodpeckers and black and turkey vultures are also common. Migrating osprey and bald eagles are occasionally seen, and wood ducks nest in hollow trees throughout the swamps. Warblers and songbirds also make an appearance.
Beaver, muskrat, river otter, red and gray foxes, fox and gray squirrels, mink, swamp and cottontail rabbits, deer, coyotes, and bobcats live near the Cache. At dusk, you might glimpse bats as they sweep over the water in search of insects.
In the water, there are bowfin, grass pickerel, banded pygmy sunfish, cypress minnow, and channel catfish.
The melodies of frogs ~ bird-voiced tree frogs, green frogs, bullfrogs, and others ~ rise from the swamp.
No information available.
The Cache River watershed represents some of the best undisturbed swamp in the southeastern part of the United States. The Cache watershed is also the northern-most reach of the Mississippi Valley’s cypress-tupelo swamps.
Floating or submersed plants like pondweed, coontail, and duckweed can be seen in the river, swamp, and pond areas.
A serpentine channel through buttonbush leads into a sunlit pothole framed by a majestic bald cypress measuring 34 feet 3 inches around. This tree is estimated to be more than 1,000 years old and is possibly the oldest living thing east of the Mississippi. At last count, the area contained eleven state champion trees.
The swamp border and low floodplain forests feature Drummond’s red maple, red elm, overcup oak, pink oak, swamp white oak, and pumpkin ash.
The low ridges are a striking contrast to the wetlands with sweetgum, cherrybark oak, tulip tree, white oak, black oak and several species of hickories.
Little bluestem, side oats grama, big bluestem, prairie dock, and Indian grass can be seen on the barrens.
No camping is permitted in the Cache River State Natural Area.
Camping and other recreational activities are available at a number of Illinois Department of Conservation and Shawnee National Forest ((618) 253-7114) sites within a 30-mile radius. Campsites also include Ferne Clyffe ((618) 995-2411), Fort Massac State Park ((618) 524-4712), and Giant City State Park ((618) 524-4712).
Pit toilets are available at the Heron Pond and Lower Cache River access only.
Private canoe rentals are available for $25 per canoe per day from: Cache Core Canoe Rental
RR #1 Box 71AA
Ullin, IL 62992
No information available.
No permits are needed for canoeing or hiking, day or night. Groups of 25 or more must pre-register.
- Pets must kept on leashes at all times.
- Camping and building fires within the SNA are not permitted.
- Motorized vehicles ~ including off-road vehicles, trail bikes, horses, and ATVs ~ can destroy fragile habitat and are not permitted within the SNA.
- Hunting and fishing are permitted in designated areas.
- Watch where you walk; three types of venomous snakes ~ the copperhead, timber rattler, and cottonmouth ~ inhabit the region.
- Poison ivy is common.
- The Upper Cache River is very difficult or impossible to canoe due to the severe bank erosion that causes many fallen trees and log jams.
Leave No Trace:
All LNT guidelines apply.
For maps, contact Cache River State Natural Area at above address.
Other Trip Options:
There are a number of state parks a short drive away. See listing in FACILITIES.