Southeast Illinois is a wonderful, and sometimes overlooked, place to go on vacation. Follow the road and discover wide-open spaces, gorgeous forest and many small towns where community is strong and local traditions are preserved. Fish or swim in sparkling lakes, camp beneath the stars and stop at plenty of wineries during your trip.
One of the area’s major attractions is Shawnee National Forest, a gorgeous protected natural area covering a vast 280,000 acres (110,000 hectares). This scenic place is ideal for outdoorsy travelers. Bring a tent and find a good spot to camp overnight. Swim in the bodies of water sprinkled around the forest and hike trails leading past hidden waterfalls and along rocky peaks.
Southwest of the forest find Mermet Springs, another unmissable open-air attraction. Go diving in this truly unique pool in a quarry to find a weird and wonderful array of objects deep beneath the water. Look for sunken airplanes and a fire truck, along with water-dwelling animals.
The area around Shawnee National Forest is also a great place to pick up outstanding local wine from picturesque wineries. Follow the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, which includes many welcoming independent wineries, such as Owl Creek Vineyard, Blue Sky Vineyard and Hickory Ridge Vineyard.
Taste local produce at the thriving farmers markets held regularly in towns such as Albion, Mount Carmel, Fairfield and many others. Good food and local gatherings are important here. Specifically “chowders” offer another chance to enjoy these crucial ingredients of Southeast Illinois life. In this part of the world, chowders are not just thick soups, but community events at which the soup is prepared in a large cauldron and served to the masses. Chowder season runs through the warmer months.
Follow a ribbon of highway south from Chicago toward Southeast Illinois, switching onto smaller roads to reach the most easterly parts. Driving here is a pleasure, with big skies overhead and beautiful farmland and countryside all around.