Thursday, December 13, 2018

River to River Trail across southern Illinois Day 10: Bald Knob (Alto Pass) to Grand Tower

"In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks." John Muir

It was a gorgeous day for hiking today and a good example of why hiking in December in southern Illinois can be so awesome.  The sun was shining and it reached 50 degrees.  The perfect weather for completing my thru hike on the River to River Trail on the 10th day since starting in Elizabethtown.  Plus there is rain forecast for the next several days so the timing was good to finish today.

At the trailhead in the Bald Knob Wilderness
My wife and dog Ruby were able to join me on the final leg of the journey today and that was awesome.  However, several complications delayed our progress this morning.  We needed to drop off a car at McCann Springs Trailhead at LaRue Pine Hills Research Natural Area so we drove from our home in Makanda to Alto Pass and took a variety of backroads from there to get to Scatters Road that would lead us down along Grassy Knob to LaRue Pine Hills.  But shortly after turning on to Scatters Road, we encountered a large track hoe installing culverts and clearly we were not going to pass on this road today.  We were so close to the trailhead too!

Progress thwarted on Scatters Road
We had to backtrack all the way to Alto Pass because the closest bridge to get over the Big Muddy River to the north is on Sand Ridge Road and to the south are two wilderness areas (i.e., roadless areas).  Once getting back to Alto Pass, we drove south on Highway 127 and encountered a road crew placing rip rap along the road bank and waited some more.  Then we took State Forest Road through the Trail of Tears State Forest to Highway 3 and then north to the levee road on the south side of the Big Muddy River where we encountered more road crews.  They were laying fresh gravel on the levee road, but the rock was super coarse so we had to take it slow.  I am all for road repairs, but the lack of options in this remote area made for quite a hassle and quite a delay.

Finally we departed from the Godwin Trailhead and I put my frustrations behind me.  I felt so happy to be on my way toward accomplishing my goal.  Although I had gotten into the routine of hiking every day and figuring out the logistics of section hiking the trail, I was looking forward to returning to my normal daily life.  But the thought did cross my mind to keep going until I reached the Pacific Ocean!

At the Godwin Trailhead
The entire section from Godwin Trailhead to Pine Hills Road is splendid.  It is mostly singletrack through quality oak-hickory woodlands with very little mud or invasive species.  The trail work with switchbacks in the section in between Hutchins Creek Road and Pine Hills Road was especially well done in my opinion.  There were some downed trees, but I imagine it's tough to keep all the trails clear all the time.

Hiking through the beautiful oak-hickory woodlands at Clear Springs Wilderness

Walking across a downed tree
There are 21 species of oaks in Illinois and many hybrids as well.  But some are very common and those frequently encountered along the trail are named after colors:  black oak, red oak, and white oak.  Black oak has thick and dark bark, red oak has dark bark that is flattened in vertical strips, and white oak has lighter colored bark that is thinner and usually very flaky up above on the trunk.

Oak Woodland
Left to right: black oak, red oak, white oak
I was pretty excited to finish the trail and my trail companion made it easy to just talk and walk.  Before we knew it, we were at the Hutchins Creek crossing.  The creek was low so crossing was easy and we took a short break here.

Crossing Hutchins Creek
The trail is nice in this area in that it covers very steep terrain, but doesn't do a lot of up and down.  I don't mind hiking up and down hills to get to the next spot, but sometimes trails go up and down for no good reason.  The trail in this area starts at a fairly high elevation and follows a ridge, descends to the valley and follows it for awhile before crossing Hutchins Creek and climbing back up to a ridge.  Along the way, I spotted many plants like White Bear Sedge (Carex albursina).  It would be really cool if this sedge was named after the white variant populations of black bears that occur in British Columbia, but instead it's named so because it was first discovered and described in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.

White Bear Sedge (Carex albursina)
We hiked on and I started to notice some of the differences along this section of the trail.  Most of the trail up to this point goes through the Shawnee Hills Natural Division, but once the trail enters Union County, it enters the Illinois Ozarks Natural Division.  This area of Illinois is among the oldest rock in the state.  The substrate is a mixture of limestone, which is basic on the pH scale, and chert, which is acidic.  This diversity of soil directly translates into plant diversity, as plants, just like humans, can only tolerate a narrow pH range.

We were keeping up such a good pace we decided to take a quick break.  It's good to take breaks often, but to keep them short.  Naturally, I looked at the surrounding vegetation.  I spotted a couple shrubs and looked at their twigs

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
I ran into a very common shrub called PawPaw (Asimina triloba).  Most people have heard of the delicious Pawpaw fruits that have the consistency of bananas, in fact, some joke and call them hipster bananas, referring to their trending status with young people in urban areas.  Either way, fruits can be hard to find, even though this species is so common.

One reason for this is that they cannot self-fertilize and are clonal.  So that Pawpaw patch referred to in the song is a population that is genetically identical.  To ensure proper gene flow, Pawpaw flowers need cross-pollination, which is performed by carrion insects like flies and beetles.  This is why the flowers are maroon; they resemble rotting meat and sometimes even smell bad, in order to lure in pollinators.  This explains the folklore that a Pawpaw tree will only produce fruit when an animal dies at the base of it.

Pawpaw has distinct buds as well.  At the tip of each twig is a brown feathery naked bud.  Naked in this sense means lack of bud scales.  Bud scales protect the tender tissue within the bud from harsh winters, think of it like a parka.  But Pawpaw is the Annonaceae, the Custard Apple family, which is a largely tropical family.  No need for bud scales when you live in the tropics!  Also, this feathery bud resembles a fine tipped paintbrush and reportedly John James Audubon would use Pawpaw twigs as paintbrushes to make his bird paintings as he traveled across Illinois.  Ok enough about Pawpaw.

Clear Springs Wilderness Area
After 3 hours we reached Pine Hills road and walked downhill to the trail for Inspiration Point.  The official trail follows the road down the hill instead and I can't figure out why that was done for one cannot bypass Inspiration Point!  It lives up to its name.  Although it appears on the new signage that walking out on the rocky ledge that juts out from bluff is discouraged, people still go out there and there was a couple there on our visit.  I snapped a quick selfie, then went to more stable ground to make a video.

Selfie on top of Inspiration Point

Old Juniper clinging to the limestone cliff

View north from Inspiration Point
The trail from Inspiration Point continues downhill to the McCann Springs trailhead.  This is a short, but great path, especially in the spring.  The wildflowers change as one proceeds uphill, from mesic woodland to dry woodland.  We arrived at our car at the McCann Springs trailhead and drove slowly down the extremely rough levee road.

McCann Springs Trailhead
LaRue Pine Hills is an ecological gem.  It gets its name from the former town of LaRue, which was located nearby, and the fact that pine trees grow here.  Earlier in the blog I explained that while pine trees are common in southern Illinois, almost all of them have been planted (or spread from planted populations).  The only native pine species in southern Illinois is Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata).  It is an Illinois endangered species and the limestone hills of LaRue Pine Hills RNA is one of only two places where it grows naturally in Illinois.

Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata) at LaRue Pine Hills

LaRue Pine Hills Research Natural Area
I considered walking from the bridge at Highway 3 to the Mississippi River at Grand Tower, but it was getting late in the day and when I realized the gravel road connected to Grand Tower, it seemed pointless to walk it so we drove to the end.  It's really unfortunate that the trail ends with a 10-mile roadwalk to the Mississippi River, but there is not much for public land to connect to in this area.  I felt like Inspiration Point made a pretty good unofficial end to the trail, but it can't be the River to River trail without ending at the river!

Illinois Botanizer on the banks of the Mississippi River

Jar of Ohio River water

End of hike ceremony
I carried a little ketchup jar of Ohio River water in my backpack the entire trail, at the suggestion of a friend who had hiked this trail years ago.  It was a good way to ceremoniously end the thru-hike.  I also made sure my feet touched the water, as I did when I started at the Ohio River.  Plus a selfie by the new trail sign was in order.

My boots touching the Mississippi River 
New signage at the western terminus of the trail

Some final thoughts.  Overall, my body took a moderate beating and in hindsight I think I went too far too fast on the first day.  I think that led to knee pain for the rest of the trail, but I don't feel any pain now that I'm done hiking.  And Ruby is all healed up too.

Ruby is a black lab/boxer mix
I estimate I actually only walked 122 miles, which includes all the trail miles and some of the road walking.  However, I did a lot of other walking each day getting to and from the trailheads.

My path on Day 10 in red, drove path in pink to Mississippi River
A few suggestions regarding the trail route.  I realize there are many factors that govern the decisions about where to route the trail and I am not privy to these limitations.  But there are two obvious places where I suggest the trail should go through.  The first is at the Garden of the Gods Wilderness.  Leaving the observation area I suggest going north to see Anvil Rock and down through the natural area to H-Rock, instead of going around to the south because that way skips this remarkable canyon.  Also, as I mentioned above, taking the trail to Inspiration Point down to McCann Springs is a better option than hiking down the hill on Pine Hills Road.

I am thinking of devising an alternative River to River trail route that covers more terrain with less road walking (likely meaning off-trail hiking will be required).  This route would explore more of the hollows of southern Gallatin County, connect to One Horse Gap via Gibbons Creek Barrens, Williams Hill (the highest point in southern Illinois), and Gyp Williams Barrens, thus skipping that road walking section, and go north after Crow Knob to Sand Cave, Bell Smith Springs, Jackson Falls, Jackson Hollow, and Fink Sandstone Barrens.  I realize that the trail intentionally skips going by natural areas, as it's an equestrian trail and horses are not allowed in natural areas.  But for hikers, I propose these alternative options and maybe one day a trail can skirt the edge of these places like it does at Crow Knob.  Anyway, here is an image of my path in red and the road walking I skipped in black (the western section in black is the former official route from Battery Rock).

My overall path on the River to River Trail
I hope my trip inspires other people to hike this awesome trail and for those who can't hike I hope this blog gives them an idea of what it's like.  I wonder if anyone else has attempted a thru-hike the way I did, hiking the trail contiguously, but not backpacking and instead day hiking it in sections and staying at offsite locations and returning in the morning.  Doing it this way helps make a thru-hike possible for many more people and I hope reading this blog gives folks an alternative idea of how to hike the River to River Trail.

I hope someday soon I can adapt this blog into a book that can be taken along on the trail, for hikers to read to learn more about the ecology and natural history of the region or for anyone interested in learning more about southern Illinois.  It's rich in its biological diversity, in its landscapes and in its people.

The Stats
Start: Elizabethtown
End: Grand Tower
Miles: 122 (estimated out of 157 total)
Days: 10
Average: 12.2 miles a day
People encountered on the trail: 2 on day 6, 4 on day 8 (6 total)
Wilderness Areas: 5 - Garden of the Gods, Lusk Creek, Panther Den, Bald Knob, Clear Springs
Public Lands: 5 - Shawnee National Forest, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, Touch of Nature Environmental Center, Devil's Backbone Park (City of Grand Tower)
Natural Areas: Whoopie Cat Mountain, Garden of the Gods, Lusk Creek Canyon, Double Branch Hole, Odum Tract, LaRue Pine Hills
Useful links: River to River Trail Society and


  1. Interesting that they've changed the signage so that they discourage people from going out on Inspiration Point. I mean, it's not exactly the safest spot, but there's not that much of a lookout without going out on it most of the year.

    1. The sign said to safely view the cliffs from that spot, which was just uphill from Inspiration Point, but I agree with you, if that is the location favored by the Shawnee NF they should try to clear some trees from that spot.

  2. Thanks so much for your blog. I'm planning a thru hike east bound starting in mid January, weather permitting. I got a good feel of what to expect every day. And I'm a horticulturist, so I'll keep an eye out for some of those plants. :) Thanks!

    1. Good luck on your hike and let me know if you need anything!

  3. Thanks for this blog. Pretty informative. Was wondering what app did you use to track your hike and what kind of gators did you use?

  4. Thank you! I use the app called Topo Maps and my gaiters are Outdoor Research.

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  6. Great blogging for your journey. I'm setting out for a thru-hike at the end of April. Would you say the trail is able to be hammock'd or just tent?