Monday, December 3, 2018

River to River Trail across southern Illinois Day 1: Elizabethtown to Karber's Ridge Road

I have long wanted to thru hike the River to River Trail (R2R) through southern Illinois, from the Ohio River in Elizabethtown to the Mississippi River in Grand Tower (note: this is a reroute from the original route which started near Battery Rock).  Last year, a project was completed to re-route, map, and mark the entire length of the River to River Trail, which now spans approximately 157 miles.  The newly released trail guide was exactly the impetus I needed to take action.  That and I felt like I was in good shape after hiking all season, and I wasn't getting any younger.

December is a fine month for hiking in southern Illinois.  As a botanist, I tend to move slowly (I stop and smell the roses, so to speak), but with most plants dormant, I was able to maintain a good pace.  Also, summer in southern Illinois can be brutal.  It's hot and extremely humid, and many tick and chigger bites can be guaranteed.  The heat will wear one out, require lots of water (and dependable water sources in the summer are rare on this trail), and make it hard to make miles.  Plus, since a lot of the trail traverses low quality habitats (pine plantations and fields of invasive species) anyway, I figured December would be a good time to make the trek.

But the main reason for hiking this time of year is because I can take some time off to allow for a hike that lasts many days.  However, I couldn't spare the recommended 14 days for a backpacking trip, so I decided to do the hike in a continuous fashion, but with support.  Essentially, I wanted to complete the hike contiguously without having to carry all the gear required for camping in the wild.  Plus I wanted to move fast so not carrying a lot of gear or water would make that possible.  Not to mention with short days and cold nights, I didn't want to spend the majority of each day in the cold dark by myself.

I began the hike by settling into my lodging accommodations for the first part of the hike at Rim Rock's Dogwood Cabins, run by Steve and Tara Melville.  I stayed there on Sunday night, December 2nd and prepared to start the hike the next morning.  Not only are the owners fun and friendly people, but the luxurious accommodations are situated within a short distance from the R2R trail.  Plus they are pet friendly which was important since my dog Ruby was going to be hiking with me.

At the start of the River to River trail in Elizabethtown.
Steve graciously gave me a ride to the trailhead in the morning and the plan was to hike 14.4 miles back to my cabin on Karber's Ridge Road.  The trail starts in the small town of Elizabethtown on the Ohio River.  It is customary to get your feet wet in the Ohio River before beginning and I did just that, after collecting a small bottle of Ohio River water to carry with me to the Mississippi River.  

New signage along the waters edge marks the official beginning of the trail and provides for a great selfie opportunity as well.  The walk through Elizabethtown is short and after a short jaunt down Watson Lane I was into the woods for the rest of the day.

Entering the woods of the Shawnee National Forest.
The trail in this area was alright and follows mostly old forest service roads that have become impassable to most vehicles.  I am spoiled in the sense that my first thru hike was on the Superior Hiking Trail in northern Minnesota (I am a native of Minnesota) in 2004 and that trail is mostly singletrack with very little road walking.  The R2R is a trail that mostly links existing trails and forest service roads so it has a different appeal than other long distance trails.  But on a winter Monday, the woods were quiet and beautiful.  I hiked briskly to the first landmark, Whoopie Cat Lake, which also includes a natural area.

Whoopie Cat Lake

Whoopie Cat Mountain contains several high quality Limestone Glade openings and there are several rare plant species that inhabit them.  I am well familiar with this site so I had to deviate from the trail and walk along Whoopie Cat Lake and then up through the glade and back to the trail.  It only took me an hour to walk the 3 miles here and this was a nice place for my 2nd breakfast.

Whoopie Cat Mountain Natural Area
The next feature I encountered was the remains of a 1958 Pontiac, which is marked on the map.

Downfall in this area meant I had to walk downslope to the west and then the car was easy to see, plus the leafless forest made it apparent.  After taking a photo, I continued on and I was only about 5 miles in when I entered the quail management area, which was an open field, when I encountered a dog.  He was friendly and had no collar, but looked well cared for, and decided to follow us the rest of the day.  My dog Ruby welcomed his company and the dogs played like dogs while I continued my hike.

The first leg of my hike was pleasant and the road walking was minimal, but there were some challenges.  Some of the trail was impassable due to downfall.  The brittle pine trees in the plantations had succumbed to recent wind storms and laid across the trail in several places.  Going around these areas meant having to refind the trail and with all the tree leaves on the ground, the trail was not as evident as it would be other times of the year.  

Downfall along the trail.
Many creek crossings also made for challenges.  The creeks were up from recent rain and the direct path from one side of the creek to the other along the trail was too deep to cross.  However, only minimal route finding was necessary to find an appropriate place to cross.  Waterproof boots and high gaiters aided in this effort and I managed to keep my feet dry.

I ended up hiking 18.2 miles according to my phone app from the Ohio River terminus to Rim Rock's Dogwood Cabins on Karber's Ridge Road.  


  1. Looking forward to following this adventure!

  2. It will be great to follow your journey; thanks for sharing! I have just returned to southern Illinois after living in Duluth...we are definitely spoiled here!!!

    1. Minnesota and southern Illinois, my two favorite places!

  3. I love southern Illinois and Shawnee! Looking forward to reading about your travels!

  4. Enjoyed reading this and looking forward to hearing your presentation at Darien Garden Club's Spring Gardening Inspiration this Saturday.