Out and About in Hardin County and the Illinois Ozarks
Southern Illinois offers beautiful and diverse outdoor experiences in any season. As warmer temperatures awaken the plant and animal life, spring serves as a prime time to visit Hardin County and surrounding areas.
Part of the Shawnee Forest Country, this area in southeastern Illinois boasts numerous trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Federal- and state-managed recreation areas bring opportunities for a variety of outdoor adventures.
10 Places to Visit in Hardin County
“The misconception of the Shawnee National Forest is a lot of people think it’s more like a state park. There’s a road you drive in and a road you drive out, and when you’re in there, everything is the state park,” says Carol Hoffman with the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau. “That’s not the case with the Shawnee National Forest. The Shawnee National Forest has boundaries, but not everything within those boundaries is U.S. Forest Service property. We’re in Shawnee Forest Country, but within Shawnee Forest Country there are towns, there’s privately owned land, there’s state-owned land and then there’s also the federal-owned land within those boundaries. There are several state parks within the Shawnee Forest boundaries.”
The area also gets referred to as the Illinois Ozarks, a description given to it many years ago before geologists made it clear that the Ozarks actually end with the Mississippi River bluffs and don’t extend further east.
“Culturally we’re not any different than southern Missouri and northern Arkansas,” says Todd Carr, director of tourism in Hardin County.
The Ohio River itself draws visitors. Those heading south on Illinois Route 1 will not find a bridge, but instead can cross into Kentucky on the Cave-in-Rock Ferry. The service operates seven days a week at no charge to motorists and pedestrians.
The 160-mile-long River to River Trail begins at Elizabethtown in Hardin County, eventually connecting the Ohio River with the Mississippi River. The hiking trail, which is part of the American Discovery Trail, passes the Illinois Iron Furnace, a restored 1800s furnace. Hardin County manufactured iron, the only place in Illinois to do so, and a historic site honors the area’s iron industry today.
The county also has a claim to fame as the largest fluorspar-producing area in the state. Learn more about the official state mineral and the local mining history at the American Fluorite Museum in Elizabethtown.
Further exploration on the River to River Trail brings hikers past the historic High Knob Lookout and Camp Cadiz, the site of a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps Encampment. The trek along the trail eventually finds Garden of the Gods, probably the best-known destination in the Shawnee National Forest. With sandstone cliffs and rock formations, visitors can take advantage of the quarter-mile observation trail or tackle the entire trail system of nearly 17 miles. But Hoffman says Garden of the Gods is just one of many worthwhile stops. Both Hoffman and Carr agree that visitors often overlook Rim Rock National Recreational Trail, a loop trail near Pounds Hollow Lake.
“You’ve got two different ecologies. The trail goes up on top of the bluff and steps through rock formations to the bottom of the bluff. And you’ve got two different ecologies there. So, from a biology standpoint it’s very unique,” Carr says. “It’s also a very well-kept trail for hikers to go on, and it’s not one that you can get lost on. And it’s not a very long trail, so it’s one that your amateur hiker can go and enjoy a hike in the woods without worrying about getting lost somewhere.”
The federally managed area also features a piece of Illinois history with the remains of one of 11 stone forts built by prehistoric Native Americans that is easily accessible to the public. The Illinois Ozark Tour, organized by Hardin County Main Street each spring and fall, features scenic and historic sites in this part of the state. Find information about visiting the area at illinoisozarks.com, southernmostillinois.com or by calling (800) C-IT-HERE.