LEAVE NO TRACE:
Snake Road Style
In this article, I take the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace and apply them specifically to LaRue Pine Hills Snake Road. As Snake Road continues to grow in popularity among both tourists and those who are interested in the scientific aspects of the road, it is ever more important for visitors to be educated on the importance of how we should be visiting and leaving the road. Leave No Trace is a standardized system of practices that allows people to enjoy nature without leaving a significantly negative footprint when they depart it. It is important to protect nature and wildlife otherwise it will eventually cease to exist for the generations after us. We should never ruin nature for those who will need it after we are gone.
As a disclaimer, this article in no way applies the following as official Leave No Trace principles but rather interprets existing 7 principles and suggests how they can be applied to LaRue Pine Hills Snake Road. Please see the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics homepage for official information, principles and education about how you can become better at outdoor ethics.
Please see my Recreate Responsibly article to learn more about how you should recreate responsibly in time of public health importance to protect yourself, other recreationalists and nature as a whole by using common since safety practices. Hiking with Shawn is an official partner of the Recreate Responsibly Movement.
Leave No Trace Tip #1: Plan ahead and prepare
LaRue Pine Hills Snake Road is a diverse area with many different types of wildlife, plant and wildflower species. Some of the wildlife and botanical species are of rare and precious existence making the road significantly important for conservation, scientific research and natural preservation. Because of these factors, the road and its surrounding area is officially designated as a Research Natural Area (RNA) and is officially managed by the US Forest Service (the land manager) and Illinois Department of Natural Resources (the wildlife manager). Aside from its diversity of animals and plants, the area contains a diverse variety of terrain from gradual hilly forest road surfaces to rugged trails, rolling hills and very steep and treacherous bluff conditions. To be blunt, Snake Road isn’t always an easy walk in the park, and it is important to plan for that factor before visiting.
Some key information and conditions to know before you go and plan for are safety, how to minimize damage to resources and education about the area. You can find most of this online through Google Search, asking questions on the LaRue Pine Hills Snake Road Facebook Group and through books like Snake Road: A Field Guide to LaRue-Pine Hills by Joshua Vossler. You are also encouraged to call the US Forest Service – Shawnee National Forest for any information and questions you might have about visiting the area. Knowing the weather conditions, lack of amenities and remoteness of the area before visiting will help ensure that you have a positive experience since you will be able to plan ahead before going.
- The main goal of your trip should be safety. Please understand that venomous snakes occur in this area and the majority of snakes you will likely encounter are venomous. A bite could seriously injure to even kill you if you are not treated.
- The area also contains rugged conditions and does not provide sources for water, food, restrooms or resting.
- Weather conditions vary in southern Illinois from extreme icy conditions in the winter to severe wind and tornadoes during the warmer months.
- Always try to travel with a buddy or significant other and always tell someone where you will be before you go in case you don’t come back home.
Leave No Trace Tip #2: Traveling on the Road
The main area of tourism and interest within LaRue Pine Hills is the actual forest road that has earned the famous nickname of Snake Road. Forest Road 345 nestled in between LaRue Road and Muddy Levee Road within the LaRue, Winter’s Pond and Otter Pond swamps is the famous road known as Snake Road. Twice, annually, Snake Road will close to vehicle traffic so that wildlife can safety migrate from one side to the other. The closure typically starts on March 15 and ends May 15 for the spring migration where wildlife is moving from the bluffs to the swamps for mating and feeding. During the fall migration, September 1 to October 30, wildlife will move from the swamps back to the bluffs for a hibernation period. At times, closures may occur earlier if weather impacts the movement and wildlife needs further protection. The 2.7 mile stretch of gravel roadway is closed using a locked gated system at each end maintained by the US Forest Service.
While the road is closed and gated, foot traffic is welcome. Bicycles, motorized vehicles and equestrian pack animals are not allowed on Snake Road during the migration as those users could easily kill wildlife attempting to migrate. Any travel other than foot traffic (aside from wheelchairs) is strictly prohibited and illegal. Visitors are encouraged to report illegal activity to US Forest Service Law Enforcement or Illinois Department of Natural Resources Conservation Police. There are two parking areas for travelling the road on foot including the north trailhead (offering the most amount of parking space) off of Muddy Levee Road (right or south at the T) or the south trailhead (limited parking space) off LaRue Road. Both of these roads are gravel and loaded with potholes. Please use caution when driving on them. People live on LaRue Road so please consider them and the fact that they have to use the road every day. Railroad tracks go across both roads and are commonly used by fast moving trains – please use caution and do not trespass on railroad property.
- For traveling at Snake Road, it is strongly suggested that you stay on the actual road. You are more likely to see wildlife migrating by staying on the main road. Staying on the main road will minimize damage to natural resources off the road.
- Remember – the forest and swamp are the homes of the wildlife and we protect that as we would want our homes protected.
- The best advice that can be given to Leave No Trace while traveling Snake Road is to Watch Your Step as micro-snakes, precious botanical species and other wildlife may be present. Harming these species can have a significant impact on the natural area as a whole.
- If you do go off the road, which is not recommended, consider the importance of the ground beneath you and tread lightly. Every rock, puddle, flower, plant and log provide food, shelter and shade to the wildlife that lives within it. They deserve to have their homes preserved – right?
Leave No Trace Tip #3: Waste Disposal
LaRue Pine Hills and the Snake Road area is considered a sensitive and precious natural resource. Worldwide, there are little to no other areas as diverse as this particular area in a sense that a road is closed strategically in order to protect wildlife during their seasonal migrations. The diverse array of swamps, bluffs, rolling hillsides, prairies and forests contained within the natural area all needs one and another in order to provide such a diverse ecosystem. If one area is badly impacted or damaged, it will cause a negative concern for the entire area as a whole. For example, some argue that the construction of Muddy Levee has considerably harmed the ecosystem of Snake Road because important mineral and water amounts from the nearby Big Muddy River are unable to reach the area like it once was able to. The Levee was constructed to aid agricultural operations and may have significantly and negatively changed the ecosystem of the area. You can see how our impact can harm an area – the same goes with smaller impacts as well like waste disposal.
One of the most challenging efforts in many forested and rural communities is garbage problems in reference to littering. Litter is more harmful environmentally than it is in terms of being a sore sight. For example, an orange pill or a cigarette butt will take years to degrade down into nothing. If wildlife were to eat these forms of litter, it likely kills them. If the litter blocks water movement or contaminates and kills local vegetation, wildlife and precious botanical properties will likely parish. Larger amounts of trash, chemical product spills and items with invasive species on them will often create largescale destruction to natural areas with little to no chance of recovery. Natural resources are that delicate and it is completely up to us humans to preserve them or not – will we be ethical to nature?
- There are no real trash services at LaRue Pine Hills Snake Road. By littering, you not only put nature in harms way but volunteers who clean it up could get hurt as well and those who littered are responsible for issues like that. Littering is wrong and it is highly illegal, especially in a place as precious as LaRue Pine Hills.
- Pack out what you pack in no matter what it is including dirty diapers, food and drink containers, masks, cigarette butts, unused fruit peelings and bags of dog poop.
- Human waste should be buried at least 200 steps away from any water source.
- And lastly, be a public lands hero and pick up litter you see even if it isn’t yours. The Shawnee National Forest is your backyard, would you want people to litter in your backyard?
Leave No Trace Tip #4: Leave it how you found it
Natural environments do naturally change when elements within them must change. This is often brought on by weather, the life of natural elements and climate. Unfortunately, human aided climate change is dramatically changing nature at a much faster rate, but we can still counter the impacts that we have on the environment through a Leave No Trace effort. We just have to try to let nature be the one who changes nature rather than humans being the one deciding when it comes how our natural environment should be. We already do enough as it is by simply existing and it is understandable that we have to be able to exist, but we can still make changes that will be significantly beneficial to saving the environment and nature for generations to come.
A core concept of the Leave No Trace movement can be applied to the practice of leaving a natural area just as you initially found it. The only time you should change it is when previous human activity has promoted harm and the harm can be removed. An example of this would be finding trash in a natural area and packing it out. But if there is no trash and just nature being nature, our goal should be to leave it as we have found it so that nature can continue being nature the way it intends to do it. In areas where we live, we will dictate nature in order to live. But in natural areas where we wish for the areas to stay as natural as possible – shouldn’t we allow nature to be the one who dictates its own existence?
- Leave it how you found it by not moving important cover for habitats like rocks and logs. If you lift a rock or log, gently put it back in place how it was to protect what lives under it. If not, the environment will dry up and any species living under the dirt will likely die. This could cause a chain reaction to other species who depend on other species and dramatically impact nature.
- Rock stacks and cairns are 100% unfriendly to nature. They are responsible for killing ecosystem and rare and endangered species. They are often built for art but do more resource damage than they are worth. Rock stacks at Snake Road are highly discouraged and may be met with angry response.
- Leave it how you found it by not carving on trees or bluffs. This is illegal and also harmful to the natural area. Leave your mark by not making a mark. A photo will last a lot longer than a carving. Even downed logs and trees shouldn’t be carved into as they are providing a home from some sort of critter.
- Don’t add anything new to a natural area. Don’t stack rocks. Don’t leave toys and fake snakes. Don’t create a new parking space that was not there before. Don’t move a trash can to a different location or a picnic table to a different location. Leave everything the way you found it and don’t add to it.
Leave No Trace Tip #5: Camping and Fires
Many of us humans are drawn to the powers and escapes of nature to the modern world we live in. We enjoy hiking and walking natural areas like LaRue Pine Hills and others as it gives us a break from the reality of living with our technologies. This is a good thing. This is needed in order to preserve nature and these special areas. One particular type of activity enjoyed by the mass of nature lovers is camping and building campfires. From young scouts on a campout to backpackers through hiking the River to River Trail, the Shawnee National Forest is prone to many camping and campfire adventures. But it is important to fully understand that camping does impact nature.
Don’t quit camping! Don’t quit making fires! Just be smart about it. You should only camp is designated camping areas. Pine Hills Campground is a fee-based recreational campground (no water/electricity) with vault toilets, fire rings and a community pavilion-shelter. The nearby Clear Springs Wilderness and Bald Knob Wilderness offers the ability for hikers to disperse camp for free. Camping in a wilderness area should be done away from trails and sources of water. Always leave a campsite the way you found it, if not better than how you found it. And remember that campfire manage practices is critically important to the safety of the natural area, you and others using it.
- LaRue Pine Hills Research Natural Area is for day-use only. Camping within the natural area is not allowed.
- Building fires in the natural area is not allowed. There are grills available at the north trailhead which can be used for building a fire for cooking activities. Only you can prevent wildfires by always fully extinguishing campfires and ensuring they are cold to touch before you leave the area no matter if it is in a grill or a fire ring at a wilderness campsite.
- If camping where allowed, consider camping where a fire ring already exists. Creating a new one will require you to move rocks. In a sensitive area like LaRue Pine Hills and even outside of the natural area, removing rocks is like ripping the roof off the house of wildlife. When their ecosystems dry up because of removed rocks, logs and trees – they die.
- Understand there is a difference between a prescribed burn operation verses an unintentional wildfire. A prescribed burn is operated under the strategic authority of land managers and such operation has been thoroughly planned and evaluated before it is put into motion. Burns are often done before or after a migration. An unintentional wildfire will likely kill wildlife migrating and of course threaten the lives of forest users, people who live in the area and first responders who are attempting to extinguish the flames. Remember what Smokey says, “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires!”.
Leave No Trace Tip #6: Respect Wildlife
The wildlife at LaRue Pine Hills and especially Snake Road is the most vital natural element of the natural area. Protecting the wildlife from unnatural harm is significantly important for survival of species. There are rare and even endangered species living within LaRue Pine Hills that depend on protection from land management in order to not become locally extinct. Without these precious variants in wildlife species, LaRue Pine Hills and Snake Road would not be what they are today. There wouldn’t be much of an importance in protecting the area and closing the gates if it wasn’t for these species of wild animals. It is so important to protect them and also a key principle of Leave No Trace that everyone should adopt.
Snake Road is said to have over 30 different species of snakes according to the US Forest Service. There is also over 170 species of birds known to occur within the LaRue Pine Hills RNA. Before the area become property of federal land managers, much of is belonged to the general public and pioneer settlers. Extensive timbering operations on virgin growth forest was conducted which caused significant erosion consequences. Aside from the natural short-leaf pine trees, non-native pine trees were planted in this part of the forest during the 30s and 40s in order to help restore erosion control and moisture to once again aid in creating a second-growth hardwood forest. When this area was owned by private citizens, many of the wildlife, snakes in particular was likely killed in masses. Now protected, the animals and their natural environment has a chance to thrive – and we should take that serious, right?
- When visiting LaRue Pine Hills (Snake Road or anywhere in the RNA), handling wildlife is prohibited without a permit. This applies to venomous and non-venomous snakes. This also applies to natural area boundaries outside of the gated road. Handling, collecting and equipment used for this is punishable by fine, confiscation and even arrest.
- Do not harass, harm or kill any protected wildlife within LaRue Pine Hills and Snake Road. This includes intentional harm or killing. This also includes preventing wildlife from freely moving in the direction in which it wishes to travel.
- Don’t destroy the elements in which create homes and living resources for the wildlife. For example, don’t cut down or push down a tree. Don’t move rocks, limbs, trees and logs without carefully putting them back the way they were. Watch where you step as you could be damaging a home to a member of the wildlife community. Wildlife comes in many different shapes, sizes and forms – be considered of the little guys that are not often seen.
- Consider what the road means to wildlife. Snakes often cross the road to get to the bluff (during fall) or the swamp (during spring) in order to survive. If humans congregate too much or have significant impacts in tourism on the road, this could prevent snake movement and that could mean that snakes and other wildlife will die from not being able to feed or seek shelter from colder temperatures. Snakes also often use the road to bask in the sun which is very important to their health and future. Think about these issues before visiting especially on days when a lot of people will be out.
Leave No Trace Tip #7: Consider Other Trail Users
Public land is just that, public! It is the right and freedom of all citizens and tourists to be able to witness natural environment by visiting public lands. As the pandemic has shown us, more and more people are visiting our public lands. While this can be good for local economic stimulation through tourism spending and good for converting people into nature lovers, there can be a negative impact as well. More people visiting a natural area means more of a human impact to such area. More feet on a trail could mean more chance of damage to natural resources. But no group of people should be able to access something while another group is not allowed. That violates the ethics of exclusiveness and is textbook discrimination, a serious problem that needs to be addressed in this county.
Considering that other area users will be using the area is important for Leave No Trace in many ways. It is important that we share the paths with one and another to help protect the natural areas. It is important to be considerate of other users in order to promote a safe environment for all visitors. It is important to consider the public health of your fellow visitor in terms of the recent pandemic. And last but not least, it is important to take an opportunity to educate other visitors on the importance of Leave No Trace and how they should recreate at LaRue Pine Hills RNA.
- Always share the trails and the roads with other users. It is important that everyone uses the same designated trails and road otherwise people may create new ones in order to get around other people. This will only cause natural resource damage in the end.
- Consider the safety of other users when sharing the area. If you are taking up the road and someone has to get off the road to get by, their chances of getting bit by a venomous snake increases as they may not see the snake tucked away in the grass. Food for thought is important at special places like this one.
- Take the opportunity to educate others, not intimidate others. If you see a group of people with a hook, they may simply not know they are not supposed to have one. One might tell the group, in a friendly manner, that hooks are not allowed and that they should go put it back in their vehicles. You can also take the opportunity to promote Leave No Trace if you see something going against it. You might even be able to turn a snake hater into a snake lover if you educate them properly. How cool would that be?
- When all else fail in terms of people not following proper rules and guidelines set to protect the area – you should report their activities to Law Enforcement. If you see something suspicious, say something.
In conclusion, LaRue Pine Hills RNA including Snake Road is a special area of precious wildlife and other natural elements. It is important that we humans do whatever we can to protect this area while still enjoying it through ethical recreation. We can do this by following basic, common sense Leave No Trace principles when planning to and visiting the area. Our main goal should be safety and anything after that should be leaving the area like we found it if not better than we found it. I want to thank those who have shown their commitment for protecting Snake Road and have inspired me to create this guide. This includes John P., Mary B., Joshua V., Jeremy S., Matthew L., Michelle M. and the many people I run into on Snake Road every time I visit. There have been a few “bad apples” over the years but for the most part, the significant majority of those who visit Snake Road care deeply about Snake Road and that really puts a smile of my face.
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Shawn J. Gossman
Shawn is the founder and host of the YouTube Channel, Hiking with Shawn as well as Hiking with Shawn LLC. Shawn hikes, backpacks and visits various forested areas in the Shawnee National Forest, local state parks and other areas promoting outdoor recreational activities to obtain video to show to locals and non-locals alike. Please support Shawn’s efforts by sharing this post and leaving a comment below.