Finding the forest in the trees Shawnee National Forest, Harrisburg, Ill. By Jean Clough :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

photo courtesy of Jean Clough The author's nephew, Dan Vonau, 22, demonstrates the tight fit of Fat Man's Squeeze on the Giant City Nature Trail at Giant State Park.

The start of the school year means fall can't be far off, which also means it's time to look for autumn's blazing yellows and reds. Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois offers 277,000 acres of trees-along with sandstone cliffs, ancient cypress swamps and a variety of trails for every level of hiker-with the fall colors due to arrive sometime in mid-October.

Shawnee spans the entire lower tip of the state from the Ohio River on the east to the Mississippi River on the west. You could lose yourself for months here, hiking, riding, canoeing and visiting the little towns that dot the rural routes. But in a long weekend, you can sample the biodiversity of this area and feel far away from Chicago's flatlands and urban congestion.

Giant City State Park, 12 miles south of Carbondale and within the Shawnee lands, makes a great head-quarters. The Giant City Lodge, completed in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is built from hand-chiseled logs with hand-turned bolts that provide a glimpse of rustic construction. I was disappointed there were no rooms available in the lodge. Instead, I stayed in one of the 34 modern cabins that sleep up to six people. The cabins are nestled in the same lovely setting, but look like any moderately priced motel room.

One of the shorter hikes at Giant State Park, the Giant City Nature Trail, offers a diversity of nature in one short walk-including balancing-rock and stacked-stone walls with inscriptions from as far back as the Civil War. It includes the infamous Fat Man's Squeeze, a 100-yard crevice between sandstone bluffs that includes a skinny 90-degree turn. In the past, chubby hikers have had to be slathered in cooking oil to allow them to slip out of the crevice with nothing damaged but their ego. A warning to parents: The path leads to the top of a high bluff, so if your children insist on squiggling through the crevice, send one adult around the long to way to meet them on the other side.

Other short hikes include the handicapped accessible (and stroller-friendly) Post Oak Trail and the lovely two-mile Trillium Trail loop in the north of the park.

At nearby Lake Kinkaid, families with the proper permits can fish for muskie and walleye pike while dangling their feet in the cool water of the spillway overflow from the man-made lake.

In nearby Alto Pass is the Bald Knob Cross. This 111-foot steel monument to peace gleams in the late afternoon sun as it stands protectively over the beautiful rolling hills and orchards. The Root Beer Saloon on the main drag allows you to mosey up to the bar and buy a frosty mug during the kid-friendly hours of 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday and 1-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Back at the Giant City Lodge, the all-you-can-eat fried chicken dinner is just $8.95 for adults, with an assortment of kid-friendly dishes complete with two sides for a reasonable $3.95.

After a sound sleep in a quiet woodland cabin, I rose early with plans to visit Garden of the Gods, a dramatic sandstone-cliff outcropping about an hour's drive east. However, I ran into to Curt Carter, a staffer at the Southern Illinois University's Touch of Nature Center. He dismissed the Garden of the Gods: “It's overrated. Being in the out of doors isn't about looking at a rock. There's so much more to discover.”

Like the Cache River Basin, for example. This a wetland habitat on a par with Florida's famous Everglades. Its 60,000 wetland acres stretch along 50 miles of the Cache River. Your children may not be thrilled with gigantic wildflowers and the call of a wood duck, but cypress trees and woodpeckers are cool to see and this part of Illinois makes it possible for youngsters to get close without even getting their feet wet.

And then there is Heron Pond, where new meets ancient. There, the cyprus trees, some 1,200 years old, contrast eerily with the modern recycled plastic boardwalk that zigzags through the swamp providing a close-up look at the old beauties.

The Heron Pond Wildcat Bluff Nature Preserve lies just northwest of the cypress wetlands. If it weren't for the civilized walkway, I would have expected to see some sort of now-extinct animal life slogging through the swamp.

No dinosaurs roam here, but it is home to some great trees.

Swamps are the feature of this area and birds are its pride. Pileated woodpeckers, black vultures, turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, wood ducks, great horned owls, great blue herons, green herons, mallards, great egrets, quail and redheaded woodpeckers all wait for you to spot them. It is also habitat for the endangered bird-voiced tree frog, Swainson's warbler and the river otter.

If, however, your children are more interested in endangered cartoon characters, take side trips to visit the homes of Popeye or Superman. Popeye, his statue and museum are in Chester, 1½ hours west of Giant City Lodge at highways 3 and 150. Elzie C. Segar, creator of the spinach-loving sailor hero, lived here. The Spinach Can Collectible store in town sells, well, spinach souvenirs.

Superman is in the opposite direction, an hour east of Giant City on Highway 45 off of Highway 24 in, of course, Metropolis. Here, you'll find a 15-foot statue on the town square and a museum and gift shop with a $3 entry fee (5 and under free).

Resources • Giant City State Park (618) 457-4836

• Cache River State Natural Area (618) 634-9678

• Touch of Nature Center of Southern Illinois University (618) 453-1121

• The Spinach Can Collectible Store (618) 826-4567

• The Superman Superstore (618)-524-5518




Jean Clough is a photojournalist and a mom of two based in Evanston.


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