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Featured Photo by Illinois Office Of Tourism

Illinois: 5 Places To Go In The Ohio River Valley For Outdoor Adventure!

While Illinois is most well-known for its border on the Mississippi River, the southern part of the state offers many unique opportunities for outdoor recreation that you might not know of. This part of Illinois borders the Ohio River and some of the best kept outdoor adventures in the state are found within this river valley. Here you’ll find an endless list of state parks, designated recreational areas, and bodies of water all within one region with opportunities for almost every outdoor adventure you can imagine. Hikers, bikers, climbers, equestrians, campers, photographers, and many more will be right at home in the Ohio River Valley, finding someplace new to try at every turn.

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Covering most of the southern tip of Illinois with rolling hills, forests, rugged bluffs, lakes, and creeks, the Shawnee National Forest is over 250,000 acres of outdoor recreation and adventure between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. If you’ve never been before, the stunning natural beauty of the area can make it easy to forget you’re still in the Midwest. You can enjoy a 403-mile system of equestrian and hiking trails, five different recreational wilderness areas, and numerous campgrounds throughout the forest. Other specialty areas to check out include Snake Migration, Milestone Bluff, La-Rue Pine Bluffs, Garden Of The Gods, and Jackson Falls. Activities vary from zip lining and rock climbing to water recreation and backpacking, so the possibilities are seemingly endless in this natural Illinois playground.

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Located just south of the Shawnee National Forest along the Cache River, the Cache River State Natural Area is another hidden gem in the Ohio River Valley in southern Illinois. If you’ve made your way through the swamps and bayous of Louisiana or Mississippi, you’ll feel right at home in the northernmost cypress swamp in America next to towering cypress and tupelo trees and over 100 threatened or endangered plant and animal species. Visitors enjoy nature watching and birding, but you’ll see the most wildlife if you head out on the trails or by canoe. However, if you would rather bike, the Cache River can be accessed by the Tunnel Hill State Trail. You can also enjoy a unique day of fishing on the Cache, catching prized catfish, crappie, bass, and bluegill, as well as swamp fish like grass pickerel, bowfin, and needle nose gar.

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If you’re up for a day of thrills and excitement in the Illinois outdoors then Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour in Makanda is the perfect place. Offering an entirely tree-based, eco-friendly zipline tour experience in the Shawnee National Forest, Shawnee Bluffs has consciously utilized the natural terrain to create an environmentally friendly outdoor adventure. You can safely zip through the trees, viewing and learning about the flora, fauna, geology, and history of the area, while exploring different platforms high in the trees, aerial suspension bridges, and ziplines. Try out the Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour, featuring a 3 -hour tour on 8 zip lines, 3 suspension bridges, and 3 short hikes, or opt for the shorter 2-hour Chipmunk Canyon Run with 5 zip lines, 2 aerial bridges, and 2 short hikes.

Mesabi Trail

Another beautiful destination in the Shawnee National Forest, Ferne Clyffe State Park is a less visited site than other Ohio River Valley destinations, but it still has plenty of natural scenic beauty and recreational opportunities to offer. If you’re interested in a quieter, more serene adventure Ferne Clyffe is a great option. Hike on trails that wind by fascinating rock formations, wooded areas with beautiful ferns and plant species, and scenic vistas, or take in natural beauty while enjoying a picnic with friends. You’ll want to look out for Hawks Cave, a 150-foot-long shelter bluff, and the outstanding 100-foot-tall intermittent waterfall, which are some of the best-known park sights. If you want to stay a couple of nights, Ferne Clyffe also offers camping options for every type of camper including modern sites with RV hookups, primitive sites, and designated spaces for backpackers or equestrian riders. Water is available on-site at some of the campgrounds, and you can choose the level of serenity and privacy you want, making Ferne Clyffe State Park the perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts of all types.

Iron Range

The most visited site in the Shawnee’s Wilderness areas, the Garden Of The Gods Wilderness is one of the most beautiful in the Ohio River Valley. This area is considered the crown jewel of the Shawnee National Forest because of its extraordinary scenic beauty, panoramic views, and unusual sandstone rock formations, making it a hiker and photographer’s dream. During your visit, you should be sure to hike the popular Observation Trail. You’ll see dramatic rock formations, such as Camel Rock, Anvil Rock, and Devil’s Smoke Stack, and beautiful views from the cliffs, with plenty of interpretive signs and resting areas on this ¼-mile hike. The recreation area also has designated spaces for camping, picnicking, and nature watching, so you can relax after a day of hiking or horseback riding.

I am a student, aspiring writer, and avid reader of books. My favorite things in the world are my two German Shepherds.

Maeve Miller

Writer , River Travel Magazine