By Cortney Fries
While Illinois is the second flattest state (Florida is the first); it’s not quite as flat as you might think. The rolling hills of Southern Illinois are home to Shawnee National Forest, which protrudes with towering rock formations at Garden of the Gods and huge sandstone bluffs at Giant City State Park. Bring your next outdoorsy vacation to unexpected levels by zipping through the trees on a canopy tour, toasting to good times on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, staying in interesting accommodations and interacting with animals amongst natural beauty.
At the bottom tip of Illinois, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, Southern Illinois offers outdoor enthusiasts a natural playground with awe-inspiring landscapes, a slower pace and warmer weather. Bright blue skies beckon you to go outside and explore. The vast Shawnee National Forest spans almost 300,000 acres with ancient sandstone cliffs, woodlands and wildlife.
On the West side of Southern Illinois, prepare to be enthralled by Garden of the Gods. Short hikes lead to panoramic views over the vast green landscape of Shawnee National Forest. Enjoy scenic viewpoints over sandstone sculpted by wind and water to create incredible rock formations.
Cool off with a swim in Pounds Hollow, then make dreams of sleeping in the trees come true at Timber Ridge Outpost & Cabins. Say goodnight in a tree house perched 200 feet up amongst the branches. With many comforts, like a modern bathroom, kitchenette, heating and air conditioning, you’ll feel cozy camping in the canopies.Giant City State Park, on the east side of Southern Illinois near Carbondale, is a nature lover’s paradise with rugged topography and opportunities for rappelling. Hike Giant City Nature Trail, a 1-mile loop amongst wildflowers and huge sandstone bluffs formed 12,000 years ago. Saddle up at Giant City Stables for a guided trail ride through the forest. Hear the clop, clop, clop of horse hooves as you follow friendly guides through streams and past creeks, at one with nature. On your way out of Giant City State Park, stop at the Makanda Boardwalk to bum around the eclectic shops and indulge in ice cream.
The Shawnee Hills Wine Trail includes 11 wineries over a 40-mile trail, where you can indulge in wine flights and tasty bites amongst vineyard landscapes near scenic outlooks. You might feel like you’ve been swept off to Italy at Blue Sky Vineyard. Tuscan-inspired decor and a beautiful outdoor terrace enable relaxation to wash over you. Alto Vineyard in Alto Pass features ample outdoor seating and a rooftop deck with views of the vineyard.
Feel the trees sway in the breeze as you swing between them on a zip line. Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tours are sensational any time of year. Enjoy the lush greenery of summer or peep the fiery oranges and reds of autumn. Soar across eight zip lines, bounce on three suspension bridges, and chuckle at all the tree jokes your guides can dish out.
Accommodations that Rise Above the Rest
When you’re ready to rest, consider a stay at the Davie School Inn, an old school building converted into a bed and breakfast with 8 subject-themed suites. Not only is it fun to peruse the historic school treasures, but the breakfast the innkeepers deliver to your room is outstanding. Other standout accommodations to consider include the Big Sky Cabin in Alto Pass, which features a large fire pit among wide open spaces, with a pool table and arcade games indoors. Fish or paddle on your own private lake or feed the miniature horses out front the Wine Country Farmhouse.
Heightened Meal Experiences
Southern Illinois boasts nationally acclaimed 17th Street BBQ as well as many mom-and-pop restaurants to happily fill your belly. The Kitchen on Lafayette sets their menu each day with fresh, delicious, homemade offerings that are available for pick up, delivery or dine in. Once you enjoy one of their scrumptious, multi-course meals, you’ll want to go back again and again. Breakfast at The Iron Whisk is not to be missed. Their baby Dutch pancakes and smoked Bloody Mary loaded with goodies and a house-made mixer are sure to make you swoon.
Other Places to Peak Your Interest
Visit Rolling Oak Alpaca Ranch for a chance to pet the adorable alpacas, learn how their fiber is harvested, and participate in events like yoga or wine tastings with alpacas. When the daughter’s crocheting inspired her to seek out the softest yarn, the mother daughter duo behind Rolling Oak Alpaca Ranch opened their own business raising these curious creatures and selling handmade products like shawls, socks and felted goat milk soaps.
Savor blue skies and fresh air with a hike to the cascading waterfall at Fern Clyffe State Park. Find lofty views of gorgeous rock formations at Inspiration Point. For a short, rewarding Shawnee hike, visit Pomona Natural Bridge. Sandstone carved over time into this natural bridge, which you can cross at a height of up to 30 feet. Elevate all your senses with the natural wonders that await in Southern Illinois.