A view of the biking trail in the Shawnee National Forest
Springtime for cyclists means riding in ideal temperatures that are warm but not stifling along trails that haven’t yet become major traffic arteries for mosquitoes and gnats. Here, three great rides at three skill levels in Southern Illinois:
Horseshoe Lake State Fish & Wildlife: Easy
Birders will want to explore this area in Alexander County seven miles north of Cairo. Make the loop around the lake and you could see swans, warblers, frigate birds, cormorants, among many other species that have been spotted along the shoreline. The area is reminiscent of a Louisiana bayou with its bald cypress, Tupelo gum, and swamp cottonwood trees surrounding the lake, and blooming buckeye shrubs. For maps and more information, click here.
Tunnel Hill State Trail: Medium
This 45-mile route from Harrisburg to Karnak features tunnels and gentle hills. The longest tunnel is a 543-footer between Tunnel Hill and Vienna, and landmarks along this 9.3-mile trail include an intersection with the Trail of Tears, the route the Cherokees took on their tragic forced move from east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma. There are also 23 trestles along the one-time railroad bed, offering views from 34 to 450 feet up. At New Castle, you’ll enter the Shawnee National Forest. At New Burnside, you’ll be up on the bluffs. When you reach Karnak, you’ll enter the cypress swamps of the Cache River State Natural Area. For more information, click here.
Shawnee National Forest: Difficult
The trails winding through Shawnee’s 280,000 acres include portions of the River to River Trail, a 160-mile route running between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. If you want to test your mettle (and own a mountain bike built to withstand rugged terrain), try the 30-mile-long round trip from Kinkaid to Buttermilk Hill Trail, which starts 7.5 miles west of Murphysboro. Plan on portaging the beginning—there’s a lot of roots and rocks as you approach Crisenberry Dam. The going gets easier as you approach Kinkaid Lake, ribboning along comparatively smooth slopes before getting rooty and rocky again near Hidden Cove all the way until the final approach to Johnson Creek Recreation Area. For more information, click here.
Where to stay: The Lafayette Inn (202 W. Poplar St., Harrisburg; 618-252-7599, lafayetteinn-il.com) has 14 guest rooms spread out over two mansions and a carriage house, which were once home to a 1920s coal baron; rates range from $65–$76 a night. The Irish Inn (600 Soloman Ln. off Trigg Tower Rd., Ozark; 618-695-3355, irishinn.tripod.com) is a stone-and-log chalet with three guest rooms, an extensive art collection, and easy access to the Tunnel Hill trail; rates are $131–$169 per night.
Where to eat: Johnson’s Southern Style Barbecue (700 E. Walnut St., Harrisburg; 618-252-0477, johnsonsbbq.com) has been cooking up ribs and chicken in its signature sauce for four generations. Bonus: The family recipe is bottled for sale. Connie’s at the Gambit (1550 State Rte. 146, East Vienna; 618-658-6020) offers steakhouse dining with golf course views.
Photograph: Courtesy of the Illinois Department of Natural