I grew up in Southern Illinois, and my wife is a hiker. I’ve been on hikes in Southern Illinois at age seven, and I’ve been on hikes in Southern Illinois at age 47.
And I’ve always told people that Southern Illinois isn’t like the rest of the state. If you’ve been to Central Illinois, you know that it’s perhaps the flattest terrain in the United States. The glaciers didn’t let a single hill remain -- it’s perfectly flat as far as the eye can see. But once you get south of Interstate 70, the unofficial place where Southern Illinois begins, you will see terrain that will make you think you’re in Virginia or Montana. That’s what makes Southern Illinois the best place to hike in the state -- and even, perhaps, in the Midwest.
Here are seven great hikes to experience in the area.
1. Garden Of The Gods Recreation Area Trails
We’ll start with the “Am I really in Southern Illinois?” spot. It’s easy to get confused, given that there’s a place called Garden of the Gods in Colorado as well. But yes, this is Southern Illinois, and the views are absolutely incredible.
There are many different ways to experience the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, so this is perhaps the best spot on this list for those looking for a wide variety of experiences. If you’re a runner looking for a difficult workout, you can run a 10+ mile loop trail with significant climbs. Or if you’re wanting to take your mom or dad on a flat trail that’s less than half a mile and provides incredible views, you can do that as well. Most trails in the area can be extended, shortened, or combined to give you the length and difficulty you desire.
The centerpiece of all these trails are the rock outcroppings known as the Garden of the Gods. All of the trails run through this central spot. And the easiest, flattest trail is located there as well. The Garden of the Gods Observation Trail is an easy, flat 0.5-mile loop from the parking lot to the rock outcroppings. The other trails connect to it, so if you want to continue on to a moderate or even difficult trail that climbs up and down the hills of the recreation area, you can do that as well.
2. Cache River State Natural Area Loop Trail
If the Garden of the Gods makes you feel like you’re in Montana, the Cache River State Natural Area makes you feel like you’re in Louisiana. It’s a cypress swamp located deep in Southern Illinois. This swamp area provides two great things: It’s flat, unlike most every other hike in this area, and it gives you views you won’t find anywhere else.
The area’s 7-mile loop trail crosses itself several times, so it can be shortened to 2 miles, 3 miles, or whatever length of hike you’re looking for. The highlight is walking through the swamp areas. (Don’t worry -- there are bridges and elevated trails across the wet portions, so you won’t be walking down into the swamp.) You’ll see all kinds of wildlife that you won’t find elsewhere in Southern Illinois.
It’s also a great place in the spring and summer for wildflower viewing. The Cache River and the surrounding areas are unique in Illinois in that they form a boggy wetland like you would see in Louisiana or Florida. As a result, there are wildflower areas you wouldn’t normally see in Southern Illinois. Have your camera ready.
3. Salt Lick Trail
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Valmeyer -- it’s the town that moved. During the Flood of 1993, the largest flood the Mississippi River has ever seen, the entire town of Valmeyer was completely underwater for more than a month. Government agencies decided that the best solution for this town, which often dealt with flooding, was to move it to the top of the bluff, away from the floodwaters. You can still see the remnants of the old town down in the bottoms, but the new town sits up on the bluff, far away from future floods.
Up on this bluff, you will also find the Salt Lick Trail. This is an easy 2-mile loop trail that can be combined with the Johnson Trail to make a moderate 3.5-mile trail. The views are spectacular. This is one of the widest spots in the Mississippi River Valley, and it gives you a really good view of the entire area. You’ll find it hard to believe that the Mississippi River -- way over there -- when flooded, stretches all the way across the valley to the base of the bluff you’re standing on.
4. Panther Den Loop, Panther Den Wilderness
South of Carbondale, surrounding Crab Orchard Lake and Little Grassy Lake, you’ll find more hiking trails than you can count. There are probably two dozen trails in this 20-mile area, but one of the best is the Panther Den Loop.
Located just south of Devil’s Kitchen Lake, this trail is in an area known as the Panther Den Wilderness. Don’t worry -- you’re not going to run into any actual panther dens. It’s the hidden gem trail in the area -- the one that the locals all know. You’ll see wildflowers, rock outcroppings, and lots of wildlife. It’s a little difficult to find (all hidden gems are), but follow the signs off of Panther Den Road and Robinson Hill Road, and you’ll find the small parking lot that will lead you to this great little trail.
5. Inspiration Point Trail
If you’re looking for a very short trail that will still get you some exercise, consider Inspiration Point Trail near Wolf Lake. It’s a great little hike out to an overlook and back. And when I say “little,” I mean little. It’s only 0.35 miles from the parking area to the overlook (Inspiration Point), and then you retrace your steps for a total of 0.7 mile.
Perhaps a 3-mile loop isn’t your thing, but you still like to get out in nature and maybe even challenge yourself a bit. This would be the perfect trail for that. The elevation change is approximately 160 feet. You’ll walk slowly downhill out to the point, climbing down 160 feet (think 16 flights of stairs); take your photos from Inspiration Point overlooking the Mississippi River Valley; and then slowly make your way back with a steady climb of 160 feet. Good exercise, less than a mile, and a fantastic view.
6. Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park Trail, Wayne Fitzgerrell State Recreation Area
This is the most recent Southern Illinois hike my wife and I have taken. On a trip from Nashville to Saint Louis, we stopped at Rend Lake just south of Mount Vernon. Once there, we headed to Wayne Fitzgerrell State Recreation Area and found the aptly named Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park Trail. We were looking for a 5-mile hike, and this hike was 5.2 miles.
For a 5-mile trail in a hilly area, this trail was surprisingly flat. There are climbs and drops as you wander around the east side of the lake, but it's nothing like some of the other hikes we’ve discussed. This is simply a pleasant, easy, wooded hike with a great lake view.
7. Red Cedar Trail, Giant City State Park
I saved the best for last. Or perhaps I should say it this way: If you want every hiking experience listed above -- a walk to a rock outcropping where you can’t believe you’re in Illinois, a stroll through a lowland glade with wildflowers, a steady climb up out of a riverbed -- then your choice should be Giant City State Park.
In fact, if you’re really adventurous, then you can experience all of these things in one day. If you were to ask me to name my favorite hike in Illinois (and perhaps in the Midwest), I would have to say the Red Cedar Trail in Giant City State Park. It’s a beast -- it’s 12 miles long -- but I’ve done it twice as an all-day, pack-your-lunch hike, and it was awesome both times. You’ll see everything -- massive rock outcroppings, water, deep forests, small waterfalls, and more.
This is not to say that the Red Cedar Trail is the only option at Giant City State Park. There are shorter trails in the park that will take you to some of the famous rock outcroppings. And you can just do parts of the Red Cedar Trail as an out-and-back hike.
But whatever you do, make your way to the lodge at the end. It’s got some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had -- perhaps because I earned it with that 12-mile hike!
What To Know Before You Go
When I hike with my wife, I’m in charge of the map. If the state park or national forest we’re in has a visitor center, I’ll stop and grab a map of all the trails in the area. If not, I can always use the AllTrails app on my phone. This app has seemingly every trail in the country. You open up the map view and simply zoom in to where you are.
And the best part is that the GPS on your smartphone will show you exactly where you are on the trail. If you hike frequently, I’m sure you’ve gotten into a situation where you’re deep in the woods, you come to a fork in the trail, and you’re not sure which way to go. With the app, I can pull out my phone, see the red line for the trail I’m on, and make sure my “dot” is following that trail.
There are both free and paid versions of the app, but the free version provides almost everything an amateur hiker would need. The paid version does allow you to download the maps and use them offline, but that’s often not necessary. It’s a great tool to have when hiking deep in forests with trails going every which way -- which is something you see a lot in Southern Illinois.
This article is presented by KEEN Footwear. I basically spend the entire summer in my KEEN Newports. Because of the toe cage, and because I can get them wet, I pretty much wear them everywhere I go. On a hike, I zip the strap tight and they're just as good as my hiking boots. If we're on a boat, or if I'm headed to a restaurant in a polo and khaki shorts, the same pair of KEENs are always on my feet. Shop KEEN’s Newports and other hiking shoes here.