When envisioning the Ozarks, most people think of the hills and hollows of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. In fact, the same geological features cross the Mississippi River and form some of the most beautiful scenery in the nation, just a little more than an hour’s drive from Evansville in the Shawnee National Forest. Though I’ve visited the area many times, the mountain — rising from the plains to the south viewed from U.S. Highway 13 outside of Harrisburg — always surprises me.
Right before fall color set in the forest, I spent three days in Hardin County, Illinois, with officials from Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau who are eager to show the assets of their rural community.
“We often hear that this area is Illinois’ best kept secret,” says Hardin County Main Street President Todd Carr, a manager at Hardin County General Hospital. “We hope to change that.”
Hardin County, with population of 4,320, is the least populous county in Illinois. Covering 178 square miles, it also is the second smallest county in the state by area. Three towns, Rosiclare, Elizabethtown, and Cave-in-Rock comprise the county that has no stoplights and no fast food restaurants. Yet, for tourists seeking remarkable natural beauty and cultural experiences, Hardin County offers many rewards.
Before arriving at my base for two nights, Elizabethtown, Illinois, my agenda called for a stop in Carrier Mills for a bike ride on the Tunnel Hill State Trail, developed from a railbed and opened in 1998. The trail is named for the 543-foot long tunnel near Vienna, Illinois; it also features 23 picturesque trestles. On the eastern section of the trail, bicycles can be rented from You’re So Vane Bicycle and Portage Shop.
At Elizabethtown (population 301), I checked into the Historic Rose Hotel overlooking the Ohio River. On the National Landmarks of Historic Places, the hotel, built in 1830 to serve Ohio River travelers, now is operated as a bed and breakfast, along with its sister property, the River Rose Inn, across the street. Within walking distance of the accommodations is the E-Town River Restaurant. It’s a floating restaurant, and, of course, you eat catfish there — either river or farm-raised. On Main Street, a couple of friendly bars welcome visitors and regulars.
Other lodging options in the area include campsites, cabins, and lodges, including properties offering unique tree homes. (See When You Go.)
Like most visitors, I was eager to visit the grand attraction — The Garden of the Gods — but was advised to first visit The American Fluorite Museum in Rosiclare. This small, tidy museum located in the former office of a fluorspar mine informs visitors of the powerful geological forces that shaped the area. For decades, Illinois was the nation’s leading producer of fluorite, which is beautiful and has many industrial uses, including the production of steel. The last mines closed in the 1990s largely due to foreign imports. The museum features numerous items representing the fluorspar mining industry, which have been donated by interested citizens.
Garden of the Gods and Rim Rock Recreational Area are the must-see locations on the eastern side of 280,000-acre Shawnee National Forest. Although beautiful any time of year, fall and winter provide prime viewing.
At Garden of the Gods, a bright red sign at the trailhead reads, “Caution High Cliffs Ahead.” This awesome collection of rock formations was carved by ancient forces of nature more than 320 million years. Fierce wind and freezing water eroded huge slabs of limestone and sandstone to create impressive ridges, canyons, and formations. The most often photographed formation, Camel Rock, will be featured on the America the Beautiful Quarter Program representing Illinois in 2016.
There are two main trail systems at Garden of the Gods. The Observation Trail is a quarter-mile stone path featuring some of the most well known formations.
While not as well known as Garden of the Gods, Rim Rock/Pounds Hollow Recreation Area is just as awe-inspiring. To early settlers this unique formation was known as “the Pounds,” an old English term meaning “enclosure.” The trail leads past remains of a 1,500-year-old stone wall built by Native Americans, an observation platform, and steps descending through huge rock formations and narrow rock passageways to the floor below. Ox Lot Cave, at the bottom, is a massive rock overhang where 19th century loggers kept their oxen and horses. The hike continues to the beautiful 28-acre forest lake known as Pounds Hollow Lake, where I enjoyed kayaking.
Also in this part of the forest is the massive Illinois Iron Furnace Site, a nice place to picnic. The remnants of the last iron furnace in Illinois (as reconstructed in 1967) are a reminder of early industry. Active at various periods in the 19th century, the furnace produced pig iron using the charcoal blast method and employed some 40 people living and working at the site to keep the furnace fully active.
If you’ve heard tales of Southeastern Illinois being a stronghold for river pirates and bands of thieves in the pioneer days, that lore began at Cave-In-Rock (population 307), home to the striking 55-foot-wide riverside cave formed by wind and water erosion, and the cataclysmic effects of the 1811-1812 New Madrid Earthquake. Piracy and other crimes attributed to Cave-in-Rock outlaws actually were known to occur on both the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers between the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and there is no historical evidence Cave-in-Rock ever actually sheltered criminals beyond brief stopovers.
At Cave-in-Rock, you also can ride the only Illinois ferry crossing the Ohio River. The ferry (free) runs daily across to Marion, Kentucky, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The final adventure on my itinerary was horseback riding at Lake Glendale Stables and Equestrian Center, in Golconda, Illinois (in neighboring Pope County). Owner Carol Marino says she welcomes many guests from Evansville who come for the day to ride in the forest or to stay overnight in their rustic lodge.
Horseback rides from 30 minutes to unlimited riding are offered and feature scenic views of the forest, streams, towering rock bluffs, and caves. You also can arrange to stop at Hogg Hollow Winery in Golconda. An hour-long ride provided plenty of opportunity to experience the sometimes steep, rocky terrain of the forest. My horse was prone to sideswiping trees as maneuvered his preferred route.
Carol Hoffman with the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau notes, “The Illinois Ozarks is a great getaway destination for getting off the beaten path and for planning romantic getaways, family and multi-generational travel, pet friendly vacations, fall color and scenic drives, and soft adventure with opportunities for hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, horseback riding, rock climbing, and so much more.”
When You Go:
• Illinois Ozarks
• Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau
• River Rose Inn — 618-287-8811
• The Historic Rose Hotel — 618-287-2872
• Timber Ridge Outpost & Cabins — 618-264-9091
• Rim Rock’s Dogwood Cabins — 618-264-6036
• Hilltop Hideaway — 618-527-6171
• Cave-in-Rock Lodge — 618-289-4545
• E-Town River Restaurant — 618-287-2333
• Iron Furnace
• American Fluorite Museum — 618-285-3513
• Shawnee National Forest
• Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area