Monday, December 10, 2018

River to River Trail across southern Illinois Day 8: Panther Den Wilderness to Giant City State Park

It's been fun blogging about my thru hike of the River to River Trail and I have only 2 days of hiking left.  I have to admit, the hard part about sleeping in my own bed is motivating myself to get out on the trail each morning.  I sure was tired this morning and it was cold outside, however I have been having a great time hiking across the beautiful landscape of the place I call home.  And today was the hike that would end in Makanda, my hometown, which I thought was cool.  The trail passes by just 4 miles south of my house.

My wife dropped me off where the trail enters the woods off of Wayside Lane.  As I got out of the car, a UTV pulled up on the adjacent land and a man struck up a conversation with me.  I told him I was hiking all the way to Makanda that day and he joked with me about how I needed the see a therapist or shrink.  I told him nature was my therapy.  Oh and by the way, I decided to let Ruby rest at home another day.

At the start of the trail on Wayside Lane
The trail heads straight north along an old roadbed that wasn't a great path to walk, but I was grateful for the access to the woods and at the end of this section I entered the Panther Den Wilderness, as signified by the wooden trail markers.  Also, the signs in wilderness area are 5-sided.

Entering Panther Den Wilderness Area
Wooden trail marker denoting the River to River trail through wilderness
The intersection with the trail leading to the rock formations was not marked, but there was a hand written marker there to help people.  I know this area well so I knew where to go, but last month when I was in this area I met some people in the parking lot who hiked a loop, but never saw the rock formations because they aren't marked on the map at the trailhead.  A short way down the trail from here and the bluffs appear on the right (east) side.  This bluff line is extraordinary in this area and it leads to the Panther Den area.

Trail intersection with marker showing the way to the rock formations

Cliffs at Panther Den
The sandstone cliffs here are sheer and look like the "streets" at Giant City State Park.  The currently accepted theory is that the sandstone blocks slid apart along fracture lines, creating the gaps between the cliffs.  There are also some small overhangs where French's Shooting Star (Dodecatheon frenchii) prefers to grow.

The "streets" of Panther Den
Crayfish burrow
French's Shooting Star is a very special plant in southern Illinois.  It was once thought to be endemic to the region, not known to occur in any other state at the time.  That was a big deal because no other endemic plants are known from this region.  However, since then it has been located in a few adjacent states and Alabama.  Either way, southern Illinois has the mother lode of this plant and it was discovered in southern Illinois at Giant City State Park in 1874 by Dr. George Hazen French, the first professor in the botany department at Southern Illinois University.  It blooms in April so it was not seen this time of year.

Exploring around Panther Den
There are many small gaps, overhangs, boulders, and cliffs this area and it is super fun to scramble around on the rocks.  There is one spot though, that is a rock face that is blocked by other cliffs so it is cool, moist, and shaded, that has some really neat species on it.  This is one of just a few places where one can see Forbe's Saxifrage (Saxifraga forbesii), which is a plant species discovered by Stephen A. Forbes on his botanical forays with Dr. French at Giant City State Park.  There are just a few places where one can observe this species in southern Illinois.  Also on the rock wall is Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum), which likes these cool, moist, and shaded habitats, as well as related species called Maidenhair Spleenwort Fern (Asplenium trichomanes).  This area should really be a designated natural area.

Rock face with cool plants
Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum)
Forbe's Saxifrage (Saxifraga fobesii)
The trail continues north along a creek toward Devil's Kitchen Lake.  The bluffs are neat in this area as well.  Always looking at plants, I noticed some Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifoliata) starting to leaf out, which I thought was weird.  As they say, the plants don't always read the books!  This one can be easily identified in winter by the opposite leaf scars and lack of a terminal bud.

Bladdernut (Staphylea trifoliata)
Creek leading into Devil's Kitchen Lake
The trail left the valley and climbed up a bluff, then down again and back up another bluff.  It was mostly really fine woods in this area and I started to realize that I had fallen a bit behind schedule from all my explorations and photo taking.  One can see so much this time of year!

Panther Den area
I decided to pick up the pace and that was easy to do once I was on the ridgetop.  However, the vegetation was less interesting.  Basically all the flat areas (the hilltops and valley bottoms) were cleared and farmed at one point in the past.  Some have recovered into decent secondary forests, but others are a degraded mess, infested with invasive plants and undesirable tree species.  The sections in the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge before and after the crossing with Rocky Comfort Road were the worst invasive species infestations I have seen on the entire trail.  But it still beats road walking and a friend of mine conducted a survey of the vegetation of this refuge and over 1000 species have been recorded on the site.  That's tremendous diversity and we should all be thankful that this area is in public ownership.

Trail sign at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge
I kept marching on and kept my eye out for the spur trail leading south to the Hidatsa Earth Lodge, a wooden hut-like structure constructed years ago on Touch of Nature property, which is an Environmental Education Center run by Southern Illinois University.  I have only seen pictures of this site so it was awesome to see in person and I took a break here.

Hidatsa Earth Lodge
I was still behind schedule and had many miles before I reached Makanda so I pressed on.  Soon I was at Antioch Cemetery and walked down the gravel road to where the trail enters the woods.  I had to make some miles so I didn't take any photos, but there were some nice areas of hardwood forest here and there in this section.  I headed towards the lodge and started to dream about their fried chicken dinner.  I thought maybe I could spare some time for a detour, then I remembered they aren't open this time of year.  The lodge is really cool, the stone was carved and placed by hand, the hinges and hardware were made on site, all by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.   Also on the way to the lodge I spotted a huge Red Oak (Quercus rubra) and this shelf mushroom as white as snow, yet to be identified.

River to River trail sign
Huge Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

Shelf mushroom
Somewhere in this section I dropped my hat, which is a bummer because I liked that beanie.  I think I might have an idea where it happened so I hope I can go back and look one of these days soon.  I have been to Giant City State Park a hundred times or more, but I have never been on this section of trail.  It went up and down a few times and there were sandstone bluffs most of the way, but the day was getting late so I tried to go as fast as I could.  However, as you may well know by now, I can't stop looking at plants!  I found a stem of a plant that was covered in a white waxy coating.  The term for this is glaucous and just this characteristic allowed me to identify it as Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis).

Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)
Sandstone Bluffs at Giant City State Park
Perhaps the most common plant seen along the trail so far has been Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrosticoides).  This fern stays green all year long so it was popular for making Christmas wreaths and it's easy to identify because the leaves are shaped like Santa's boots.

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)

I also came across some of the best Liesegang banding I have ever seen.  This is where iron deposits in the sandstone become exposed through weathering and the metal bands can be quite colorful and artistic.  Nature makes the best art.

Liesegang Banding

When I came out on Lower Cobden Road, I went down to Makanda Inn and Cottages, where I arranged to be picked up by my wife.  If I didn't live so close to here, this would have been a nice place to stay for the night.  We visited with the nice folks that run the place and talked about ways to promote tourism in southern Illinois.

A tasty beverage at the end of a long hike is a nice reward
Illinois Botanizer with Malcolm and Loraine Leigh at Makanda Inn & Cottages
I made this really cool tracks file today showing all the places I explored and about 2 miles from my finish point the app crashed and I lost the file.  Dang!  I estimate that I hiked 17 miles in 7 hours.

1 comment:

  1. It was a pleasure to meet you both last evening! We looking forward to talking with you again and hope you got a good nights rest. Happy trails! :-)