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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.

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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.

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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