When those from other states think of Illinois, they usually think of Chicago or flat, rural farmland. While both are technically correct, there is a section of Illinois that is unlike the rest of the state: southern Illinois. The northern section is mainly suburbs due to Chicago; the middle section is in fact mostly flat, rural farmland; and then there is the southern section. This is the part of Illinois I called “home” for half my life (ages 10-17, and then again from ages 21-26, with a year and a half interlude living in Indiana – I hated Indiana & don’t recommend it). Southern Illinois is the part of Illinois that houses the Shawnee National Forest and all its hidden gems.
A few of these gems are: Garden of the Gods, Kinkaid Lake spillway, Burden Falls, Stoneface, Cave-in-Rock, Jackson Falls, Devils Kitchen Lake, Bell Smith Springs, the Iron Furnace, and Rim Rock (just to name a few), as well as historical places like the Pioneer Village Museum in Harrisburg, the first bank chartered in Illinois in Shawneetown, the reportedly haunted old “Slave House” (as it is known to locals; it is no longer open to the public), or Fort Massac located in Metropolis (home of Superman). I will be covering a handful of these in this blog.
Garden of the Gods
The better-known Garden of the Gods is located in Colorado, but this one is Southern Illinois’ main claim to fame. I doubt that many lifelong residents of the area even know the one in Colorado exists. I firmly believe that our Garden of the Gods is worthy of such a name. Located within the Shawnee National Forest, within numerous counties (Saline, Pope, Hardin, and Gallatin), it is absolutely beautiful, with giant rock formations and a view for miles and miles. There are formations in the shape of human and monkey faces, as well as the best-known rock formation: Camel Rock.
Locals climb these rocks their whole lives, and many out-of-towners try to do the same, but it doesn’t always work out well for them. On average, at least one person per year dies at Garden of the Gods, and 9 times out of 10 it’s an out-of-towner. The rocks are tricky and deceptive, and people tend to get too close to the edge and slip. They don’t realize just how far down the drop is, nor how slippery the rocks are. When you grow up in the area, you are aware of such things and the deaths that occur every single year. If you stay on the path or don’t get too close to the edge, you’ll be fine. 👌🏼
I have been to this place more times than I can remember. My personal favorite time to go is fall or early winter. During the fall you can see the leaves changing throughout the forest, which is quite a beautiful sight. During the early winter, traffic to the Gods starts to die down due to the frigid temperatures, so you could possibly have the place to yourself, or at the very least be only one of a few people there. The summer is a completely different story, in all regards. It’s hot, it’s sticky, there are bugs and snakes, and there are people. A lot of people. Not only is it a favorite place for out-of-towners, it’s also a favorite for locals since it’s roughly just a 30-minute drive from any of the surrounding towns.
But don’t let the scary thought of humidity and snakes deter you from visiting here if you do happen to go during the summer. I’ve taken my brother, mother and stepfather (all of whom are native Californians) to Garden of the Gods in summer and it was perfectly fine. The best time to go is at dusk, because there are fewer people and cooling temps.
I grew up with Stoneface in my backyard. Literally. I could walk from my father’s house to Stoneface every single day if I wanted to. Stoneface is in Saline County, in a less-visited area of SoIll than many of the other locations I will mention, and I’m not quite sure why. It’s a nice little hike with plenty of cool rock formations and caves to check out. Sadly, the last time I attempted to hike at this location, my friend and I were run off by the overgrowth and ticks falling all over us. Oh yes, I forgot to mention, on top of snakes you also have to worry about the lovely ticks.
When the trail isn’t so overgrown that it’s causing you to be a tick buffet, getting from the parking lot to and from the rock formations is a breeze. The trail starts out just like any normal trail in the woods, and soon the rocks start to appear out of nowhere. Here is where all of the little caves and alcoves are located. As you continue up the trail, you eventually find yourself basically on top of the rock formations you were just walking past and you can continue your hike to an opening where the power lines are, and here is where you can see out for miles and miles.
This place makes for a cute little day trip and will leave you plenty of time to visit other outdoor spots if you choose. Many of them aren’t that far away.
Located in Hardin County, right next to the Ohio River and the small village of the same name, Cave-in-Rock is hands down one of the coolest places to visit in southern Illinois. Sadly, vandals have somewhat dampened the beauty of the place with all their graffiti. It’s a free state park open from 8am to 9pm. It sits right across the river from Kentucky, where you can drive your car onto a ferry and visit Amish country. While this is one of the coolest spots, I must be frank: it’s just a cave. BUT, it’s a pretty good-sized cave and a great day trip to take with the family. There are picnic tables and play areas for children located near the parking lot in the state park. If you do choose to cross the river into Kentucky, the ferry is free.
***History note: as I mentioned above, the cave has a long and sordid history with gentlemen of less than great moral stature. Many well-known outlaws in the area used this cave as a hide-out beginning in the late-1700’s and well into the mid-1800’s because of its extremely close proximity to the river. Some of these outlaws include: counterfeiters Philip Alston and John Duff, James Wilson (who dubbed the cave “Wilson’s Liquor Vault and House for Entertainment” with a sign above the entrance), the Sturdivant Gang, the Ford’s Ferry Gang, and the Harpe Brothers. After the cave had seen its days of debauchery and outlandishness, it became a place of worship (talk about one extreme to another), when churches began using it in the mid-1800’s. That no longer happens, of course, since it is now a state park owned by Illinois.***
Devils Kitchen Lake
Located in the county of Williamson, right outside the town of Marion, is Devils Kitchen Lake. It’s one of the lesser-known and used spots in the area, likely due to its “no swimming” policy.
Getting to the lake isn’t that difficult, although if you’re unfamiliar with the location it can be a bit confusing. While I am not a Marion local, I am an area local, and even I got lost and turned around while driving through the wildlife refuge. There are many turn offs to get to various areas of the lake, and the turn off my friend and I found (and went to) was just by chance.
This lake is a pretty decent sized body of water, about 4 miles long, and is a favorite spot for fishermen because of the abundance of fish. As mentioned, swimming is prohibited due to submerged standing trees from when it flooded (I’m guessing this could cause major injuries).
Even though swimming is prohibited, which can be a major bummer on a hot, humid day, Devils Kitchen Lake is still a great place to take the family or go on a date and just do some fishin’ and picnicin’.
Back in Saline County, Rim Rock sits next to a local watering hole known as Pounds Hollow. On a hot summer day it’s a nice little day trip to go hiking through the rock formations of Rim Rock, and then take the trail over to Pounds Hollow for a dip. I’m personally not a huge fan of Pounds Hollow, simply because I find the water to be revolting, plus I can’t see what’s under me and there are very poisonous water snakes native to the area. I do enjoy hiking around Rim Rock, however.
You begin from the parking lot to the trail, which can be rather misleading. It starts out smooth, paved, and relatively easy; however, at a certain point you come to a wooden observation deck and staircase. Here is where you have a choice. You can either continue on the paved path and have a relatively easy time (blue pill), or you can go down the staircase into another realm (red pill). The staircase leads you down to a maze through the beginning of the first rock formation, and on a dry, summer day, it’s no big deal, but if you go during or after a rain storm, be prepared for puddles and mud.
Once you make it through the underworld, you have to start climbing down to the trail. By climbing down, I don’t mean spelunking or anything that extreme, but there is no man-built staircase (the rocks are your staircase). My friend did it with her 3-month-old baby strapped to her chest, so ya’ll should be fine. After making it down the rock staircase, it’s pretty much smooth sailing from there. The trail is dirt, but it’s worn-down and not hard to walk on, nor is it easy to get lost. It eventually whips around the rock formation and you can either go left and head towards Pounds Hollow, or you can swing right and continue on the dirt trail back up to the parking lot. If you choose this trail, you will walk alongside more glorious rock formations and cliffs, but if you choose the Pounds Hollow way, it is simply a trail through the woods. Choose wisely.
Pioneer Village Museum
Growing up in Harrisburg (back in Saline County), I’ve always wondered why this place wasn’t more popular. It was a legitimate pioneer village from the olden days, so why wouldn’t people want to go see it?! Then I learned that while the buildings are real, this is not an actual real village that existed at one time. It is a replica of what a real village could have looked like, and these buildings were brought from all over southern Illinois as a means of preservation. Either way, I think it’s a great little place to visit at least once, especially if you have children.
There is one building on the grounds that was there from the start. It is the biggest building and cannot be missed. Made out of red brick, it was once the Saline County Pauper House, and is now a museum. Other buildings on the grounds include: a blockhouse, a barn with a threshing floor (one of the few remaining in the United States), a post office, a school, a Quaker Church, a jail, a regular cabin, and the Wilson (remember him?) pirate cabin that came from the Cave-in-Rock area.
Even though I lived in Harrisburg all those years, I never actually toured this place until I was 26 years old and 10 months pregnant (of all times). My mother and stepfather were in town in anticipation of my daughter’s birth and we had some time to kill (my daughter did NOT want to make her entrance to the world on time). When my mother and I went, there was nobody there even though online it said that the museum was open. Turns out visitation to the museum is so sporadic that you have to call in advance and let them know you will be there and would like a tour. Sooo, major FYI there.
As luck would have it, we went back the next day with my father and stepfather in tow, and a grounds keeper happened to be there when we arrived. Right here is an example of small-town USA: this man didn’t know us from Adam but still went around with us through the entire grounds and unlocked all the doors to the cabin, school, post office, and church so we could have a look around. He also let us into the main museum building and let us roam free. This is something that would NEVER happen in a large city! Being the respectable people that we are, we of course appreciated his kindness and did not disturb anything. We were extremely grateful that we were getting to see all these buildings (for free, and without other visitors annoying us!). The museum is, umm……. unique.
Located back ￼deep within the Shawnee National Forest, in northwestern Pope County, sits Burden Falls Wilderness. As the name suggests, the area includes a small waterfall called Burden Falls. These falls are a fan-favorite among locals and are decently trafficked, particularly during summertime. Sitting at only 20 feet, it is obviously comparatively small to the World’s most famous waterfalls, but it’s nonetheless one of the tallest waterfalls in Illinois (the state is like 80% flat so… not that hard to achieve, but still).
Listed as an official wilderness under the Illinois Wilderness Act of 1990, it falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service. They’re in charge of maintaining it, so if anything funky happens out there, if necessary give them a call. Also, it’s only a stone’s throw away from Bell Smith Springs, which is another hugely popular favorite among southern Illinoisans. Many who go to the Burden Falls Wilderness visit both on the same day. Neither are necessarily an all-day outing.
Getting there can be tricky, especially if you are not from the area, as there is no exact address. According to the U.S. Forest Services website, directions are: “State Hwy. 145 to junction with Forest Rd. 447, West to Forest Rd. 402 or State Hwy. to Stonefort, IL. Southeasterly on country roads.” Not exactly helpful, but something. The closest city and town are Harrisburg and Eddyville, respectively.
Burden Falls isn’t really a swimming hole-type area (if that is what you want; go to Bell Smith Springs or Pounds Hallow) and is more of a hiking area with some rock climbing, wading pools, and streams. If you climb down to the bottom you can head under the waterfall, which is trippy if it’s flowing. Climbing down is relatively easy, but it can be a bit dodgy at times. There are dry seasons, but in the spring when the snow melts, or in the summer after a hard ran, its beautiful and spectacular.
Once down there you can walk around and explore. Or you can head back up and frolic around in some of the natural wading pools that form up top, near the mini waterfalls and streams that help pump water into the big waterfall.
Next is the city of Metropolis, located in the county of Massac, which pushes up right against the border of Kentucky. Many of you will probably know this name from the famous Superman franchise, and I’m sure there are other towns in the U.S. called Metropolis, but THIS Metropolis is the one that bangs the hardest for Superman. It is by far their biggest claim to fame, as well as their biggest tourist attraction (aside from the giant casino floating on the Ohio River, just outside that pesky Illinois jurisdiction).
The main attraction is, of course, the man himself. A 200-foot statue of Clark Kent all done up in his superhero garb greets visitors in the town square, who come from all over to see it. Right next to the statue is the police department, as well as a comic-themed store that also houses the Superman store and The Super Museum. There is also a smaller statue of Lois Lane, hidden away from the main Superman statue.
Located at 45 W 5th St, Metropolis, IL 62960, The Super Museum is more or less a shrine to Superman. Its hours are 8am to 6pm, daily. Cost of admission is super low (lol), at only $5 per ticket. Children 5 and under are free with a paid adult. They also offer military and senior discounts. The museum opened in 1993 and claims to house over 70,000 Superman-related items, many of which are collectors items that any Superman super-fan would kill to obtain. According to the Super Museums official website, “Among the items showcased in the museum from the iconic superhero’s 75+ year history are virtually every Superman toy ever produced as well as movie props and promotional materials from all the Superman movies & TV series (including “Smallville” and “Man of Steel”) and one of the only George Reeves Superman costumes still in existence”.
Another cool thing to do in Metropolis is visit Fort Massac, but buyer beware; it’s a replica. The original fort (history nerd-out time!) was built in 1757 by the French during the French-Indian War, but they abandoned it at the end of the war in 1763, and Chickasaw Indians burnt it to the ground. In 1794, George Washington ordered that the fort be rebuilt, but it was damaged again by an earthquake in 1812. After being repaired in time for the War of 1812 and used for a short time for that cause, it was abandoned yet again in 1814 and dismantled by locals who wanted the wood for timber. Very little of the original fort remained, but in 2002 a detailed version of the 1812 fort was built.
Even knowing all of this, the fort is still a cool place to visit and especially to bring the kids. While it may not be an original 1800’s structure, it is still educational to teach youngsters (and adults alike) what life may have been like all those years ago. Every fall they do reenactments of what life was like at the fort during the 1800s, and there is also a small museum located in the visitors’ center. After you’re done exploring the fort, you can hop on over to Paducah, Kentucky and enjoy a day of shopping!
O’Gara Coal Mine
Located back in Saline County, only 5 minutes outside of the city of Harrisburg, in the small “village” of Muddy (population: 44), sits a long-abandoned coal mine. You can’t go inside or underground, but there is nothing stopping you from walking up to and under the tipple (a structure used to load the mined product (like coal) for transport) and around the fenced-off base. Regardless of not being able to enter it, it’s still a pretty unique experience, as many people don’t get to see a legitimate 1920’s/1930’s-era coal mine so up close and personal.
In operation for only 14 short years, from 1923 to 1937, it was abandoned due to a major flood (a known killer amongst many mines). It is always somewhat unfortunate whenever a mine closes, because the impact from the loss of jobs is usually fairly significant. I know that was the case in 2008/2009 when many of the mines in the area closed. I’m sure it rang true in the 1920’s and 1930’s, as well.
There isn’t much history or backstory to the O’Gara Coal Mine, other than it was built in the early 1900’s during one of the first coal rushes in the area. It had a short life that was ended due to a natural disaster and not because of any mysterious or catastrophic deaths or accidents (like other mines), so it’s not allegedly haunted (although it’s super creepy at night). It’s a nice, little hour-long outing, but nothing more that, since you can’t get in unless you dig under the metal bars or bring a hacksaw. It does make a cool backdrop for photos.
Also located in the Shawnee National Forest sits an epic swimming spot that is the result of a large lake forcing water to go cascading over giant rocks. It can be found in Jackson County and is about 25 minutes from Carbondale, 50 minutes from Marion, and one hour from Harrisburg. The spillway is not very large, with only the one main “waterfall” or spillway. There are also multiple little pools that have formed on the various levels of the spillway.
Unfortunately, as with many outdoorsy things (particularly in rural areas; depending on the state), the upkeep and maintenance falls to the wayside. This is sadly true with the Kinkaid Lake Spillway, as it’s not the cleanest or most well-maintained outdoor area I’ve ever visited. There was a lot of trash and the bathrooms were disgusting. There are a few picnic tables, but because of the trash, there are flies. This caused the spillway to be my least favorite or visited area of Southern Illinois. It’s a shame because it’s such a gorgeous place – do better, people!!!
As you can see, there is a ton of things to do and see in Southern Illinois. What I’ve mentioned in this blog is only the tip of the iceberg. There are countless trails, “watering holes”, and other various hangouts in the hills and woods, but some can be difficult to get to and a locals-only, “if you know where it is” kind of thing. But those are only a small portion of the fabulous places SoIll has to offer. This is a diverse state, more so than most people realize, and also a beautiful one… if you know where to look! 😎