Southern Illinois State Parks
Southern Illinois state parks are some of the best state parks to visit for the entire state of Illinois. The southern Illinois state parks often blend into or reside very closely to the Shawnee National Forest. So, basically, much of the features found in the National Forest can be found in southern Illinois state parks. Now that 2022 is in full swing, let’s check out some of the state parks in southern Illinois that you should consider visiting this year. And remember to check out the many little Mom and Pop businesses, lodging and dining shops around these parks because you’ll get a unique experience while helping the local economies out.
PUBLIC HEALTH INFORMATION: Check out this page for Illinois Department of Natural Resources closures and alerts concerning public health issues at southern Illinois state parks. Please remember to have a Plan B (and even a Plan C) while you Recreate Responsibly at your state park!
Southern Illinois State Parks #1:
Dixon Springs State Park
Dixon Springs State Park is one of the more interesting of the southern Illinois state parks because of its history. Starting out as an ancient dwelling ground for Native Americans, the State Route 146 highway that passes the park later became a part of the Trail of Tears later on after European settlers moved into the area. The area was then turned into a resort due to the many natural springs the area had to offer. Now, the property has been turned into a state park and it includes hiking trails, waterfalls, and even a public swimming pool.
When visiting Dixon Springs State Park, be sure to check out the Dam on a wet day for a perfect roadside waterfall that doesn’t even require you to leave your car. For hiking, you’ll love Ghost Dance Canyon which is a short hiking trail that takes you to a magical waterfall cascade. Check out the other trails in the park near the tent camping area for more hiking even designated mountain biking. This park offers primitive tent camping, electrical hook-up camping and cabin camping.
Southern Illinois State Parks #2:
Fort Massac State Park
Fort Massac State Park is located in the Hometown of Superman in Metropolis, Illinois! This history-rich park was used by Native Americans long before the arrival of European settlers. There is a legend that in 1540, Spanish explorers constructed a fort at this location because of the benefits of the Ohio River running along the banks of the land. The French eventually built a fort at this site in 1757 during the French and Indian War. The Cherokee attacked the fort and at the end of the war, it was burned to the ground. Later on, in 1794, George Washington ordered the fort be rebuilt and it served as a protection for the area for the next 20 years. Over the years, the fort was diminished, and the wood was removed. In 1908, this area became the first state park for Illinois. In the 1970s, a replica fort was built. The original area of the fort still exists with a trace of what it might had looked like. Annually, encampment events occur at the park where historical settings are reenacted.
When visiting Fort Massac State Park, be sure to bring your bicycle. The park is home to the George Rogers Clark Discovery Trail which is an 8-mile rail trail used by cyclists, runners, dog walkers, and hikers. The trail is completely paved making it accessible for road bicycles as well. There is a short hiking trail in the park and a very challenging disc golfing course. There are numerous electrical and primitive camping spots available in the park as well as rentable shelters near playgrounds and a boat ramp into the Ohio River.
While visiting the park, be sure to check out the Superman Museum in Metropolis. For great food, check out Bill’s BBQ and Fat Ed’s Bar & Grill. For awesome desserts, be sure to check out Frosted by Mollie and Sissy’s Sweet Shop. The Metropolis square feature many different shops and a statue of Superman.
Southern Illinois State Parks #3:
Pyramid State Recreation Area
Pyramid State Recreation Area is an example of what mined land should essentially be turned into. The area that makes up the recreation area was home to a coal mining operation that used the name Pyramid in its name, Pyramid Coal Company. The mining operation was strip mining which left many strip pit ponds created throughout the property. In 1959, the coal company ceased its operations. Southern Illinois University (SIU) acquired over 900 acres to research the area in an effort to rehabilitate former strip-mining areas. In 1960, the Illinois Department of Conservation (now Illinois Department of Nature Resources) took possession of the research site and continued its rehabilitation. It was later turned into a state park. Thousands of more acres of land was acquired adding to the recreation area over time.
Pyramid State Recreation Area is home to a lot of hunting and fishing opportunities. But don’t single yourself out if you are into these activities as the park also offers other user features. There are several picnic site with grills throughout the area. There is over 15-miles of trail used for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. There are three Class-C camping areas, an equestrian camping area and hike-in camp spots as well. And of course, there are plenty of hunting opportunities as well as bank fishing and boat fishing activities as well.
While visiting Pyramid State Recreation Area, check out the nearby City of Du Quoin for unique shopping, lodging, and dining experiences. For good food, enjoy Corner Pocket Bar & Grill (cash only but worth it!) and St Nicolas Brewing Company.
Southern Illinois State Parks #4:
Cave-in-Rock State Park
Cave-in-Rock is one of Illinois most infamous historical river areas where pirates, bandits and killers once occupied. There are so many legends of this area that even ghost hunting communities tend to want to visit here. The area has been noted in history by pioneers during the 1700s and 1800s as a place where river pirates of Ohio River would pray upon visitors and fisherman who found the area. Infamous legends such as Samuel Mason and Pott’s Inn has left stories of this area told for ages upon ages. In the 1962-movie, “How the West was Won”, the cave at Cave-in-Rock was featured in a scene where history says what the cave was once used for. In 1929, the State of Illinois acquired the land and turned the area into a State Park.
When visiting Cave-in-Rock State Park, the main feature you want to see is the cave which is a large (and deep) natural shelter with the mouth facing the banks of the Ohio River. If the river is flooded, usually the access into the cave is by boat or kayak. The park also features primitive camping, electrical camping, cabins with views of river, and other hiking trails and picnic spots.
For good food, check out the Cave-in-Rock Lodge. While visiting the area, be sure to take a ride on the River Ferry which is the only way to cross the river from Illinois to Kentucky for quite a ways. You can drive onto the ferry, bike onto it or ride by foot. Riding is completely free of charge.
Southern Illinois State Parks #5:
Horseshoe Lake (Alexander County)
Horseshoe Lake in Alexander County is a special recreation area because the lake itself is the only natural lake in southern Illinois. Horseshoe Lake is an oxbow lake and at one time was a part of Mississippi River. At times, rivers change flowing directions and create shallow lakes as a result. The lake is natural as the river is. A man-made spillway has been constructed on the lake. The lake is made up of many areas with bald cypress and tupelo trees. Some of trees are very old. The lake often resembles a bayou that would be more commonly found in southern Louisiana or within the Gulf Coastal states.
When visiting Horseshoe Lake, you can enjoy many activities. There are a few different electrical and non-electrical campgrounds available. The large amount of paved roadway within the park makes for a great road biking, motorcycle, or scenic driving experience. There is a hiking and bicycling trail located at the lake as well within the central portion of the oxbow. The trail past the gravel can get rough in the summer months and may be more suitable for hiking. Fishing, hunting, and kayaking/canoeing is also popular within this area.
For some of the best burgers around, I highly recommend Horseshoe Lake Bar & Grill. Check out nearby Thebes Historical Courthouse for an awesome history lesson and some of the friendliest tour guides you’ll ever meet.
Southern Illinois State Parks #6:
Wayne Fitzgerrell State Recreation Area is a part of the Rend Lake project from the 1970s. This project dammed the Big Muddy River to create an unnatural lake, Rend Lake which is now used for drinking water for many communities throughout southern Illinois. The lake is also very popular among locals and tourists for fishing, hunting, camping, and other recreational activities. The area of Wayne Fitzgerrell was once leased for agriculture by the US Army Corp of Engineers. Then the state acquired over 3,000-acres of said farmland to create the Wayne Fitzgerrell SRA. The area was named after a state representative from Sesser who was an advocate for the Rend Lake area to be created.
Wayne Fitzgerrell State Recreation Area at Rend Lake is one of the best of the southern Illinois state parks and recreations areas worth visiting. Fishing can be done on banks or in boats. Recreational boating is also allowed. Hunting opportunities exist during hunting seasons. This area is famous for its extensive dog field trials as well. There are nearly 20 primitive camping sites and over 200 modern campsites located within this area. Horseback riders can enjoy 9-miles of equestrian trail while cyclists get access to countless miles of bike path as well as newly created mountain bike trails. There are numerous events held at this recreation area each year.
When visiting Wayne Fitzgerrell, be sure to check out the Custard Stand in Sesser for some of the best frozen custard in the area. Check out the many beaches along the lake during the summer as well.
Southern Illinois State Parks #7:
Trails of Tears State Forest
Trail of Tears State Forest was previously extensively used by prehistorical Native Americans. These natives were inhabiting the area long before European settlers and pioneers arrived. The natives had dwellings nearby along the Mississippi River and Clear Creek. Chert was also mined from the nearby Iron Mountain. This area is also a part of the Illinois Ozarks, the real Ozark natural area of the state. The state forest was named after the infamous ‘Trail of Tears’ which forced Native Americans to march to reservations leaving many of them dead from bitter winters. Much of the stonework throughout the park was constructed by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s when southern Illinois state parks and the Shawnee National Forest was being created.
Trail of Tears State Forest has numerous sites for picnicking and shelter use. There are many different trails for hiking and equestrian use using the various fire trails within the park. There is even a completely intact fire watch tower located within the park – sadly access to the top cabin is unavailable. There are class C and class D campgrounds available. Many of camp spots feature open-face shelters like you would see long the AT or PCT. While bicycles are not allowed on the fire trails, they can be ridden on the paved and gravel roads (the cars are allowed on) throughout the park making the area ideal for gravel bike rides. There is also a nice Nature Preserve Trail located within this state forest.
For nearby lodging, consider a stay at Rustic Hideaway Cabins in Jonesboro. These cabins are close to the Iron Mountain hiking and equestrian trails as well. The City of Anna nearby has many different places to eat including Dinner Bell Too and Brick House.
Southern Illinois State Parks #8:
Ferne Clyffe State Park
Ferne Clyffe State Park is one of the best southern Illinois state parks for hiking in the region. Historically, George Rogers Clark passed through this area in 1778 on a trip to Fort Kaskaskia. Native Americans have been reported to have used this early from early prehistoric times to the days of the Cherokee tribe. Two brothers from Cairo owned the areas of Hawk’s Cave and Big Rocky Hollow in 1899. The brothers named the area Ferne Clyffe because of the number of ferns that grew in the area. A local and loved schoolteacher (and later superintendent) Emma Rebman owned the area before selling it to the state. She was said to have preserved the area and turned into a park where people could visit for a fee. The land was purchased by the state in 1949 with the help of Greater Egypt Association. At one time, the road into the park was the Boy Scout trail. It was closed for safety and ecological reasons sparking outrage and protests by citizens of Goreville. The park at one time was host to fox hunting events which brought people in from all over.
Today Ferne Clyffe State Park is a local waterfall destination. During wetter days and months, visitors can expect to see various waterfalls of all different sizes including the very tall Big Rocky Hollow and the remote waterfall, Bork, or Hippie Hollow. There are numerous hiking trails in the park including Blackjack Oak and others. The park has several campground for backpackers, primitive, equestrians and electrical sites. Group and youth camping are also available. The park has a small lake where people can fish from the bank (no watercraft or swimming allowed) and there is a trail around the lake. A portion of the River to River Trail goes through this park.
When visiting Ferne Clyffe State Park, for good eating, check out Whiffle Boys Pizza in the nearby village of Goreville.
Southern Illinois State Parks #9:
Tunnel Hill State Trail
Tunnel Hill State Trail is a 45-mile rail trail that begins in Harrisburg and ends in Karnak. In the 1870s, a Civil War General known as Ambrose Burnside helped start a railway line called Vincennes and Cairo Railroad which what is now the rail trail was a part of. The village of New Burnside was essentially named after the general. The railway changed hands over the years. Other operators and owners included the Wabash, St. Louis, Pacific; New York Central; Penn Central; Conrail; and, during its most productive years, the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis line, also known as the CCC & St. Louis or Big Four. The last ownership of the railroad stretch was Norfolk Southern (NS). NS had since abandoned operations and in the early 90s gave Illinois the right-of-way which created the Tunnel Hill State Trail. The first segment of the trail was opened to cyclists and pedestrians in 1998 and the complete trail was opened in 2001. The trail was named after the Village of Tunnel Hill due to the 500+ foot railroad tunnel that trail users pass through.
When visiting Tunnel Hill State Trail, it is best to start at the Vienna City Park and head for the tunnel (or start at the tunnel and head for Vienna) to see all the main features of the trail including the tunnel, trestles, and Sanburn Junction (bring cash for snacks!). Tunnel hill towards Harrisburg is the lesser used portion of the trail and is ideal for people who want a quieter ride. Vienna to Karnak passes through swamps and sloughs and is a great opportunities for seeing reptiles, snakes, and various birds. Harrisburg offers a paved trail experience. Each trailhead offers parking, water spigots, restrooms, and trail information kiosks. If you’re new to Tunnel Hill State Trail, I recommend checking out my Beginner’s Cycling Guide which is appropriate for hikers, too!
While visiting Tunnel Hill State Trail, be sure to check out Sanburn Junction General Store & Nursery in Tunnel Hill. For great food, check out Ned’s Shed in Vienna. If in Harrisburg, our favorite place to eat is Mackie’s Pizza.
Southern Illinois State Parks #10:
Giant City State Park
Giant City State Park is number 10 for my southern Illinois state parks because I wanted to save the best for last. Giant City State Park was created in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Many features created by the CCC are still visible today including creek walls, shelters, and even the famous Giant City Lodge that now serves some of the best fried chicken in the entire state. Giant City was probably one of the most famous and well talked about CCC camps in the southern Illinois region. Many books have been written about Giant City. Previous owners and travelling pioneers have carved their names into the bluffs around Giant City. There is even a Native American Stonefort at this park. A lot of history lies within the several thousand acres of Giant City State Park.
When visiting the state park, there is a lot to do so you might want to spend the whole day or even a weekend enjoying the park. Giant City is home to many different hiking trails and even has a 12-mile loop trail used for backpacking adventures. There is a horse trail, horse campground, and equestrian stables. There is a very nice primitive to electrical RV campground within the park as well. The Giant City Lodge is known for their fried chicken and home cooked styled meals. The visitor’s center is always hosting some kind of event each week. Giant City State Park also has many inner paved roads that are ideal for road biking and scenic driving.
Giant City State Park is located in Makanda, a quiet little community with a very interesting sense of style coming out of the 1969 era. Check out the Makanda Boardwalk for unique shops and treats. Head over to Carbondale to find even more unique places to eat, shop and stay. If you’re looking for a more luxurious lodging option at the park, check out Makanda Inn. The park also offers cabins for rent.
And that wraps up my Top 10 Southern Illinois State Parks that you should consider visiting. Whether you are a local or visiting, these state parks are here for you to enjoy. These and our other state parks, recreation areas and trails help to make this region so unique. Just please remember to shop local and spend money at the many Mom and Pop shops that depend on your business. Thanks again for reading another one of my Top 10 articles. If you’d like to see more of these articles, please share them, especially on your favorite social media pages and groups.
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Founder, Hiking with Shawn
Howdy folks! My name is Shawn Gossman and I founded Hiking with Shawn. I’m an avid hiker, cyclist and outdoorsman here in the Shawnee National Forest. I was born and raised in Southern Illinois and never want to leave. I hope you enjoy my website and I encourage you to interact with me!