Outfitter Joe Mccarmish nudges my kayak off the dock into the murky water. Then he sets me straight down the Cache River, which feels more Louisiana bayou than Midwest tributary. Near the Kentucky line, the southern Illinois waterway marks the start of the Gulf Coastal Plain, which stretches 500-some miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Joe guides me down a water trail through trees that sprouted before the 12th century. They form North America’s northernmost cypress marsh, which feels as remote as I imagine it did when French voyageurs named the Cache in the 1800s. But some locals have changed. “Watch for flying Asian carp,” Joe says. With no predator, the invasive fish has become an issue for some of the 100 endangered and threatened species native to this fragile ecosystem.
Stories leap straight from the water on the Lower Cache River paddling trail. Yes, flying carp. But also, a 1,00-year-old cypress tree. Book a trip with Cache Bayou Outfitters to find it.
One hundred miles southeast of St. Louis, the Illinois Ozarks, as the region is known locally, gets a fraction of the traffic that flocks to the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks. This is a land of secluded bluffs, sprawling tree canopy and small pockets of humans—not water park resorts and party boats. Like two green islands on a map, the twin sections of Shawnee National Forest hold the gold.
I zigzagged between them on a three-day trip, discovering the Cache, roadside sunflowers, ziplines and the best barbecue in Illinois (with a proclamation from the state legislature to back it up). For creature comforts, stick west, where you’ll find cute bed-and-breakfasts, hobbit-inspired rentals, a wine trail and good eats. To the east, hikers clamber across iconic boulders above the trees at Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, then cook dinner over a fire or in a cabin.
Garden of the Gods Recreation Area
To see all of Shawnee country, plan for some hour-long drives (and a downloaded playlist). When you find yourself on an empty road with no painted stripes and spotty cell service, you’re going the right way.
Murphysboro and the college town of Carbondale anchor the western swath of Shawnee National Forest. Base your trip here if you want more to do (and eat!) between outdoor excursions.
Stay Sustainability is more than a schtick at Makanda Inn and Cottages, next to Giant City State Park. Book an earthen-roof cottage in a hillside or a bed-and-breakfast room.
In Anna, Davie School Inn has transformed elementary school classrooms into huge suites with comfy beds, blackboards and mod touches updated over the past two years.
Play Thrill-seekers shove off a platform at Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour to fly across a lush valley at 40-plus mph. The full tour hits eight ziplines and three suspension bridges.
Families, backpackers and even horseback riders explore Giant City State Park. The popular 1-mile Giant City Nature Trail weaves along mossy sandstone tunnels and crevices. Hikers can also pitch a tent midway through the 12-mile Red Cedar Trail. Stop in the lodge to rent a cabin or snag a hot meal.
Giant City State Park
Eat On a gravel road 12 miles outside Murphysboro, Scratch Brewing gets national buzz for making beer with foraged sweet clover, spicebush or sap (in lieu of water). “We try to add a distinct regional botanical to each beer,” says Kris Pirmann, staff beer farmer. Open Thursday–Sunday, Scratch fires up a pizza oven on weekends.
East of Carbondale, sun-splashed Crown Brew Coffee opened in 2017 with all the trappings of an urban coffee shop: salvaged wood, potted succulents and pour-over coffee brewed to order.
Craving fluffy Dutch baby pancakes topped with lemon curd and blueberry compote? Head for The Iron Whisk Bistro and Bar in a reclaimed auto garage in Cobden just north of Anna.
Out of 27 Barbecue Hall of Famers, two live in Murphysboro, aka the Barbecue Capital of Illinois. Mike Mills’ 17th Street Barbecue (pictured below) hogs the love with dry-rub ribs and his Praise the Lard cookbook. But Pat Burke’s pulled pork is king at Pat’s BBQ. Each September, a big-time barbecue competition takes over the city.
17th Street Barbecue
The Garden of the Gods vista alone warrants a day trip to the less-developed half of Shawnee country. Or make it home base: Pack a cooler and tent, or book a cabin up in the trees.
Stay “The nearest stoplight is three counties and 22 miles away,” says Elizabeth Canfarelli of Timber Ridge Outpost and Cabins. Settle into an 1850s log cabin (with kitchen added) or a tree house in towering oaks. The property includes an archery golf course and it’s 5 miles from Garden of the Gods.
Play High above a forested wilderness, Garden of the Gods Recreation Area’s Camel Rock makes the perfect spot to start the day, catch an epic sunset or pitch your tent in the nearby campground.
Camel Rock at Garden of the Gods
Hikers wind through a labyrinth of sheer rock walls and mossy canyons to reach Ox-Lot Cave on Rim Rock National Recreation Trail. Close by, the small beach and swimming area at Pounds Hollow Recreation Area marks the birthplace of Shawnee National Forest, established during the Civilian Conservation Corps era of the 1930s.
Rock climbers travel from out of state for Jackson Falls’ many sport-climbing and bouldering routes. At Bell Smith Springs nearby, hikers crisscross a clear stream on a trail system that also leads to daring catwalks and cliffs above swimming holes.
Head to the banks of the Ohio River for a 55-foot-wide cave carved into limestone at Cave-in-Rock State Park. The park’s lodge has a simple restaurant, Kaylors’, featuring catfish and other regional staples.