1. Shawnee Hills on the Ohio Scenic Byway
Far from the hustle and bustle of Chicago, along the powerful Ohio River, The Shawnee Hills is a hidden treasure tucked away in the southern tip of Illinois. You will have to exit the Interstate to drive among its giant elms, maples, oaks and hickories, to explore its sandstone sculptures and quiet lakes, and to idle in its charming, forgotten towns.

Begin the journey with a Byway map available at Forest Service headquarters on the south edge of Harrisburg, and head south on Route 34. Flat farmlands will begin to buckle as you wind through ridges of hills in the 270,000-acre Shawnee National Forest, also known as the Illinois Ozarks. Miles of roads and trails take you through canopies of leafy hardwoods and rocky bluffs where white-tailed deer and wild turkeys run free. If you tire of hiking, saddle up and go on horseback or paddle down one of the many creeks by canoe. While every season is beautiful in the forest, locals say the changing foliage in fall is especially spectacular.

Take a Walk on the Wild Side.

Garden of the Gods
A few miles past Herod, turn east on Karbers Ridge Road toward Garden of the Gods, probably the most visually dramatic part of the trip. Mushroom Rock, Anvil Rock, and Devil’s Smokestack are just a few of the strange sandstone formations to explore. A half-mile trail overlooks a 3,300-acre wilderness tract, where one can continue a longer eight-mile hike. Stay in a treehouse nestled in the branches of a 200-year-old white oak at Timber Ridge Outpost and Cabins—at only three miles away, it is the closest lodging to the Garden of the Gods. Owner Elizabeth Canfarelli recommends going to the site in early evening for stunning views of the sunset reflecting on the sandstone.

Rim Rock National Recreation Trail is another highlight of the Byway. This circular path curves beside an ancient Indian wall and then winds through a cedar plantation along the edge of an escarpment: a massive sheet of rock thrust up by a fracture in the Earth’s crust. Right across the road is Rim Rock’s Dogwood Cabins, five cabins thematically decorated with southwestern furniture, handmade quilts, and custom woodwork created by a local artist. Each offers a screened in porch, private picnic area and fire pit—and firewood is complimentary. On 77 acres, the grounds are pet-friendly; animals are encouraged and can mingle with the owners’ horses and chickens.

The hike at Rim Rock leads to Pounds Hollow Lake. With no boats allowed, the recreational area there is a nice, serene spot for picnicking, swimming, camping, and fishing.

Travel 12 miles south down Highway 1 to Cave in Rock State Park, named for a 55-foot wide, 160-foot deep cave in a high limestone bluff. A footpath leads to the cavern, which has a rocky history. In the early 1800s the cave was notorious for housing unsavory characters; bandits, pirates and villains preyed on early pioneers passing through. Today, the locals are altogether more hospitable. The Cave In Rock State Park Lodge and Restaurant is famous for its all-you-can-eat catfish Sundays, popular with locals and tourists alike.

Continuing west on Route 146 toward Elizabethtown, stop at Tower Rock, which rises 160 feet above water level and offers unobstructed views of the Ohio River.

Towns of Another Time

Downtown Elizabethtown (Photo: J. Conn)
Historic Elizabethtown was once a destination for crews of steam-powered vessels and makeshift rafts restocking their barges. Now the sleepy town, population 300, is a charming place to stroll the streets or relax while watching more modern barges and paddle-wheelers pass by. Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses: The Rose Hotel and The River Rose Inn are two historic bed and breakfasts, both right on the river—offering equally good views—and equally good reviews.

The Rose Hotel, owned by the Illinois Historic Preservation Society, opened as a boarding house in 1812 and is the longest operating hotel in the state. In 2000 the Georgian-style estate was restored using all-original materials and refurbished with authentic 19th-century furnishings. The gift shop, with its crafts, photos and antiques, is an attraction in itself and worth a visit. A glorious breakfast is prepared by the innkeeper, who serves it dressed in period costume.

The nearby River Rose Inn is an elegant 5-room bed and breakfast in a southern mansion featuring a huge mosaic tile porch and private balconies, a pool and a jacuzzi. Innkeeper Sue Hemphill is applauded for her hot and hearty homemade breakfasts. The oldest magnolia tree in Illinois lies on the property, so take time to rest under its branches.

Have dinner at the E-Town River Restaurant, a small floating diner on a rickety barge that serves the best catfish in the area. The town seems to shut down at sunset, so city folks should dine early and then enjoy the tranquility of another era.

Head southwest to Golconda to continue the trip back through time; its downtown is a National Historic District with 19th-century architecture lining the streets. Visit the museum and pick up a guide for the walking tour, which meanders through “silk stocking row” along the bluffs of the river where the affluence of the town’s glory days becomes apparent.

To enjoy a part of this opulence at an affordable price, stay at the Riverview Mansion Hotel. Built in 1894 as a private residence for riverboat Captain John Gilbert, it was recently renovated and reopened in April by new owners Anthony and Elizabeth Eckert. The mansion boasts original stained glass windows, century old millwork, six exquisite fireplace mantels and a grand staircase. A Wine Cave is located in the basement with over 40 wines from renowned local wineries as well as selections from around the world.

An Oasis on the Ohio

Golconda Marina
From town, walk across the foot bridge to The Golconda Marina, an oasis for fishermen and boaters. 204 open and covered slips are available to boaters—and pontoons can be rented as well. There are fishing tournaments almost every weekend throughout the summer along with an annual shrimp festival.

A more sobering part of our history is remembered by an historical marker just outside town. The Trail of Tears passed through this area when in 1838 thousands of Cherokees were forced to leave their homes and marched to reservation lands in Oklahoma. At least 4,000 Cherokee died along the way from malnutrition, cholera and brutal cold.

Wrap up your road trip at Smithland Lock and Dam where you can picnic while watching the workings of the locks and tour the visitor center to learn more about the interesting process. This is the perfect 70 mile-long Byway drive to experience nature at its finest and discover some delightful old towns—while learning a little along the way.

by Christie Grotheim
Route Details
Harrisburg, IL
Golconda, IL
About 70 miles
About 1-2 hours
Recommended Stopovers
  • 1. Shawnee National Forest
  • 2. Garden of the Gods
  • 3. Timber Ridge Outpost and Cabins
  • 4. Rim Rock's Dogwood Cabins
  • 5. Pounds Hollow Lake Recreational Area
  • 6. Cave in Rock State Park
  • 7. Cave in Rock State Park Lodge and Restaurant
  • 8. Tower Rock
  • 9. Elizabethtown
  • 10. The Rose Hotel
  • 11. River Rose Inn
  • 12. E-Town River Restaurant
  • 13. Golconda
  • 14. Riverview Mansion Hotel
  • 15. Golconda Marina
  • 16. Smithland Lock and Dam