The Gem in Little Egypt:
Illinois' Tunnel Hill State Trail
by John Greenfield
It feels a bit spooky as I straddle my touring bike, gazing at the entrance to the namesake passageway of the Tunnel Hill State Trail, a hidden gem in southern Illinois.
On this mild, sunny afternoon in late November, roots dangle from the shale outside the opening on either side of the path, which is carpeted with russet leaves. Birds cry in the distance and water trickles musically off the rocks. I see the light at the other end of the 543-foot tunnel, but I've been warned that if you're not careful you can get mesmerized when you're pedaling through the darkness within, and crash into the walls.
Most people think of the Land of Lincoln as Chicago skyscrapers plus pancake-flat prairie, but the southern end of the state is completely diff erent. The region, nicknamed "Little Egypt" because it's located at the delta of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, is blanketed by the lush Shawnee National Forest and roller-coaster hills, which makes it a beautiful destination for bicycle travel. Down here the culture seems more Southern than Midwestern. Fried chicken and grits show up on breakfast menus, and the lilting speech of the friendly locals makes me feel like I'm in Kentucky, which is just across the Ohio, instead of in the same state as the Windy City.
Read the rest of John Greenfield's feature from the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of Rails to Trails magazine:
Gem in Little Egypt: Illinois' Tunnel Hill State Trail (PDF 924KB)
Feel like checking out the Tunnel Hill State Trail yourself? Here's the scoop on where to stay, eat and play in Illinois.
Amtrak is a great option for travel to Southern Illinois. The Saluki, Illini and City of New Orleans trains each stop once a day in Carbondale, 40 miles west of Harrisburg. Amtrak's lines in Illinois offer "rollon" service, meaning you can bring an unboxed bicycle onboard for an additional $10. I bicycled from Carbondale to Harrisburg on State Road 13, which has wide, paved shoulders. From the wetlands center I stair-stepped 40 miles northwest on country roads to Carbondale and caught the train home.
Another car-free option from Carbondale is Greyhound, which offers daily bus service to Vienna. Bicycles may be stowed in the baggage area under the bus; bikes must be boxed and there may be an additional charge.
Harrisburg is a 90-minute drive west of Evansville Regional Airport in Indiana, and a 2.5-hour drive southeast of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. The wetlands center is an hour drive northwest of the Barkley Regional Airport in Paducah, Ky., 3 hours northeast of Memphis International Airport, and 3 hours northwest of Nashville's John C. Tune Airport.
To reach the Harrisburg trailhead from I-57, take State Route 13 east about 24 miles. Turn left on US 45 and head north for 0.15 mile. Turn left on Walnut Street, then right on Industrial Drive. The trailhead is on the right.
To reach the trailhead at Tunnel Hill (the midpoint), take I-24 to US 45 and head north. Turn left on Tunnel Hill Road and look for the trailhead on the right, just before Possum Rd.
To access the wetlands center, take Interstate 57 to State Route 146 and proceed east for about 9.5 miles. Turn right on State Route 37 and continue for 9 miles. Pass through the town of Cypress and look for the center on the left.
Bike Rentals And Outfitters
In Harrisburg, You're So Vane (618.294.8623) sells handcraftedweather vanes and rents 3-speed, shaft-driven (chainless) cruiser bikes for $15 a day. All rentals come with helmet and lock. Store visits and rentals are available by appointment only. The store also offers bike shuttle service along the trail at the rate of $2/mile for one or two passengers.
Sandburn Junction (618.771.2825), a mile south of the tunnel, offers a variety of rental bikes, mostly by Specialized, for $20 a day, helmets included. The store also does simple bike repairs at no charge.
Where to Stay
There are several hotels in Harrisburg. Vienna has a hotel and a nearby B & B: Country Schemes B & B. Contact the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau (800.248.4373) for recommendations.
Hiking, jogging, bicycling and cross-country skiing are permitted on the trail. Motorized vehicles, horses and hunting are not allowed. Camping is not permitted on the trail but Shawnee National Forest has three campgrounds within 10 miles of the trail: Lake of Egypt, north of Tunnel Hill; and Teal Pond and Bell Smith Springs, both southeast of New Burnside. Sandburn Junction plans to open a trailside campground in 2013.
Download a trail map and other trail information at the IDNR website. An interactive GIS map is available at traillink.com, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's free trail-finder website.
For More Information
The trail headquarters is located in Vienna at 302 East Vine Street, or State Route 146 East (618.658.2168). Information about the Cache River Wetlands Center is available on their website or at 618.657.2064.
You can also explore an interactive map, user reviews and photos, and loads of other trip-planning information for the Tunnel Hill Rail Trail at TrailLink.com, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's free trail-finder website.