An activity we have embraced since settling at Crab Orchard National
Wildlife Refuge is hiking. If you were to look at a map of the state,
there are numerous red designations for government-either state or federal-operations
in this part of the state. Some represent colleges, some prisons, but
the majority of them represent nature sites, such as state parks and
forests, nature preserves, conservation areas, and federal recreation
sites. The further south you go, the red designations become more and
more numerous. This is Southern Illinois.
The name of a hiking trail often gives away what one will find along
the path. For example, a massive stone wall is found on the Stone Fort
Nature Trail in Giant City State Park in Makanda. It is thought that
the stone fort was originally built by prehistoric Native Americans,
probably around A.D. 600-800. At one time the stone wall measured 285
feet long, six feet high, and nine feet thick. Some archaeologists suggest
that these stone forts were designated areas where different groups
could meet, socialize, and trade on neutral ground, while others think
that the stone wall was a sacred space reserved for ceremonious occasions.
Also in the same state park lies Devil's Standtable Nature Trail. Here,
a unique geological formation has dominated the bluffline landscape
for thousands of years. Called "the mushroom rock" by many,
this large, free-standing pillar of sandstone must have seemed more
like a pulpit for the devil to many locals.
You can imagine our reaction to reading about another hiking trail,
called Garden of the Gods. Now, a name like that sets the benchmark
quite high, don't you think? Curiosity, more than anything, led us some
35 miles southeast to the intersection of Gallatin, Hardin and Saline
Garden of the Gods is Southern Illinois' premiere attraction, and nearly
every brochure promoting the area has a picture of the site. We read
the information at the trailhead and initially were disappointed that
the trail was only a quarter-mile long. But why would it take an hour
to walk, we wondered?
It didn't take long to find out why. Flagstone covered the trail, making
the hike extremely easy. But numerous short, abrupt paths lead to enormous
bluffs just begging to be climbed. The craggy, worn and mountainous
landscape was striking and the overlooks reminded us of just how small
we are in this massive universe.
How could landscape like this be here? Well, a few million years ago,
glaciers covering most of the Midwest were headed for the southernmost
reaches of Illinois. But for some reason, just before reaching Cairo,
the ice stopped, retreated, and then melted. What remains is rugged
terrain that is awesome and strikingly beautiful.
Perched atop one of the bluffs, I spotted a hawk soaring above. He seemed
to be aware that I was trying to capture the moment, he seemed to be
posing as he casually drifted one way and then another.
The information at the trailhead was correct. It took us every minute
of one hour, and then some, to explore the Garden of the Gods. The more
of Southern Illinois we discover, the more we love it. Undoubtedly,
it is one of the Midwest's best kept secrets.