It may be in the same state, but it feels like a whole new world.
An abundance of outdoor activities and unique attractions make Southern Illinois perfect for a weekend away. Visitors can hike, bike or drive along the winding roads that connect quaint towns, state parks, wineries and miles of breathtaking natural scenery.
Cory M. Jobe, director of the Illinois Office of Tourism, says that the area boasts some of the best outdoor recreation in the state.
“You can spend a week in Southern Illinois and get lost in all the amazing things there are to do there,” he says.
The southern part of the state also is home to award-winning wineries, artisans and other unique experiences.
From must-see sites to hidden gems, here are Jobe’s top picks of things to do in the southern part of the state.
Shawnee National Forest
If you drive south to Route 13, you’ll begin to see something you may not have seen for miles: hills. This change in landscape means that you’ve almost reached Shawnee National Forest, which is comprised of approximately 286,000 acres of land nestled in the southern tip of Illinois.
The forest’s natural diversity, coupled with an array of activities, makes it one of best forest preserves in the state, says Jobe.
The forest offers six natural ecological regions, resulting in an incredible assortment of plants, animals and geological features. In a single day, visitors can explore forests, wetlands, lakes, creeks and bluffs, and view rare wildflowers and towering cypresses.
Within Shawnee National Forest, visitors can hike and bike along more than 400 miles of trails. The area also is perfect for horseback riding.
Jobe recommends Rim Rock recreational trail, where hikers and equestrians are greeted by moss-covered rock walls and paths that meander through canyons.
Also, several areas exist within the forest where visitors can fish, swim and boat.
Thrill-seekers may be drawn to the Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour, a zip line tour that sends guests flying high above the ground through bluffs and valleys. Don’t let the adventure stop there; head to the scenic Jackson Falls for rock climbing.
The Shawnee National Forest offers a variety of camping options that range from rustic sites for backpackers to more developed campgrounds with showers and electricity. There are several camping areas dispersed throughout the forest. Lake Glendale Recreation Area is centrally located, which makes it easy to visit all of the area’s main attractions.
Tunnel Hill State Trail
The 47.8 miles of Tunnel Hill State Trail aren’t always easy, but they’re always worth it.
The trail, which stretches from Harrisburg to Kamak, follows the path of a former railroad. The route takes bikers back in time as they pedal through abandoned train tunnels, picturesque trestles and the occasional ghost town. The ever-changing landscape includes ravines, rocky streams and reclaimed strip mines.
Bikers along the crushed gravel trail will experience extended inclines and dark tunnels. If you’re up for the challenge, you’ll be rewarded with an up-close look at some of the state’s most stunning scenery.
Shawnee Hills Wine Trail
While the area draws visitors for its natural wonders, “Shawnee is really known for its wineries,” says Jobe.
Blue Sky Vineyard is a must-stop for wine buffs. Housed in an ornate, Italian-style villa, the winery offers regional wines that reflect the distinct attributes of southern Illinois. Stop in for a tasting or enjoy a bottle on the outdoor terrace with sweeping views of the rolling countryside.
Not a wine drinker? No problem.
“There are some fantastic microbreweries in the area,” says Jobe, who considers Scratch Brewing Company in Ava one of his favorites.
The farmhouse brewery offers a changing selection of small-batch beers made from foraged local ingredients, such as nettle, dandelion, maple sap and mushrooms.
Cache River State Natural Area
These vast wetlands are situated in a floodplain created long ago by glacial floodwater. Today, the area offers a variety of recreational opportunities, such as hiking, biking, canoeing and fishing. The Cache River is home to a diverse collection of wildlife, including more than 100 endangered or threatened species.
Spend an unforgettable afternoon paddling through the area by canoe or kayak. White Crane Canoe and Pirogue Rentals offers tours that paddle through groves of massive, thousand-year-old cypress trees.
“It’s something people probably don’t know about, and it’s unbelievable,” says Jobe.
This spring-fed stone quarry in Belknap is an ideal spot for scuba diving. The quarry is 120-feet deep and covers about 8.5 acres. Divers can explore a submerged airplane – used in the film “U.S. Marshalls” – a school bus, a semitrailer truck and a cement petting zoo. You’ll also get up close and personal with paddlefish, one of the largest freshwater fish. On-site training and equipment rentals are available.
Garden of the Gods
The spectacular rock formations of Garden of the Gods began forming more than 300 million years ago. Hikers can explore the dramatic landscape that includes towering sandstone pillars and scenic bluff overlooks.
“The views are just amazing,” says Jobe. “There’s great hiking, and the rock formations you’ll see are incredible.”
The park covers more than 3,300 acres and features 5.5 miles of interconnecting trails for hikers of all ability levels. Make sure to see Camel Rock, Anvil Rock and Devil’s Smoke Stack. The park is open year-round, and there are campsites and picnic areas nearby.
Giant City State Park
Get a taste of the best of Southern Illinois wilderness at Giant City State Park. The area has a striking combination of soaring sandstone bluffs and lush greenery. Visitors can marvel as they walk between the sheer, stone walls of the “Giant City Streets.” Extend your visit by spending the night at the rustic Giant City Lodge, which features three types of cabins and an outdoor swimming pool.
Makanda is the perfect stop after a morning spent exploring nearby Giant City State Park. The tiny artists colony is a quiet but thriving hub of cultural activity. Visit the historic boardwalk to peruse the galleries and craft shops of local artisans.
This year, Makanda is hosting special events to celebrate the solar eclipse. The city will be the perfect spot to view the rare cosmic event on Aug. 21, and the occasion will be marked with festivals and parties.
For more information on Southern Illinois attractions, visit enjoyillinois.com.