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We had a fun partial week down in Southern IL. Much of the very southern part of the state is part of the Shawnee national forest. There are some really cool geologic features.

Monday we took a leisurely drive from St. Louis to Mt. Vernon. We stopped in at GenKota Winery for a while and picked up some brochures about wineries further south. Then we checked in to our B&B, Sidwell Friends. It was a lovely house beautifully decorated. A great place to base our adventures for the following days. Dinner was unremarkable as the choices in Mt. Vernon are slim.

Tuesday we went exploring, with the intention of visiting some of the more southern wineries. We got distracted by the natural sights instead though, so we didn't make it to any of them. Our first stop was the Little Grassy Fish Hatchery. They hatch and grow catfish there to get them to 8" long so they can stock them in ponds all over Illinois. Apparently they are suffering greatly from the IL state budget cuts. The visit was interesting though, and we got to feed some little catfish. The lady who showed us around told us about Garden of the Gods state park, and that destination shaped the rest of the day's exploring.

Next, we stopped in at Giant City state park. The visitor center was closed (boo!), and we didn't see any giants or their city, but we did hike up a hill to see what's called a Stone Fort. It was really interesting, and the hike was lovely because it followed a rocky stream bed. The views were also really cool from the top, because you are right up at the edge of some steep cliffs. Anyway, although it's called a fort, there's no evidence that it was actually used as one. In any case, it's still quite interesting and lovely to visit.

From there, we headed east across the state. The next stop was Burden Falls. Right off the highway you can park and there's a very cute little set of falls; in a rocky creekbed. I would have been happy to see that and leave, but Brent said he heard another set of falls, so along the stream bed we went. There wasn't much water so we were able to walk very easily along the dry rocks. Brent was a little ahead of me and as we came to the cliff he looked over and the look on his face was great. The next set of falls was at least a 40 foot drop. There were huge boulders at the bottom where parts of the cliff had sheared off in the past. I only found one good photo of the lower falls, but it did not convey the size properly, so I modified it by drawing in a stick figure for scale. After our visit, Brent was googling to find out more about the site, and he found there had been a fairly recent accident there. I hope they don't try to block off access or put in some kind of railing. It really is such a lovely spot, it should continue to be at one's own risk.

Our next stop was Bell Smith Springs. We just walked around a bit and I played around barefoot in a very cold spring. Since my butt and feet were already wet from falling in the creek at Burden Falls, we didn't want to do any lengthy walks. This is a place we'd like to go back and explore in more detail in the future.

After that, I set set my shoes out under the floor vent so they'd dry before our next stops. We tried to find Lusk Creek Canyon, but the roads and our map failed me, so we continued on to Garden of the Gods State Park. It was awesome. A short interpretive trail leads you out to these huge sandstone boulder cliffs. The trail spurs lead right up to the rocks, clearly inviting one and all to climb up all over them. It was great fun! There were steep drop offs, but if you were sensible about it, it was quite safe. It was definitely worth the drive. I give it an A+ in state park scores.

We then headed back to Mt. Vernon for a lovely dinner at 9th Street Grill. I gather that it must be the nicest place in town, and the food was great.

Wednesday was our boat day. Yay! We puttered around Rend Lake for about 4 hours in a pontoon boat. We had a cooler full of sodas and sandwiches, and we had a lovely lunch on the water. We didn't swim a ton because the water was surprisingly cool, but it was fun to get in for a dip now and then. The lake was nearly deserted and we hardly saw any other boats the whole time we were out there. It was a really cool experience since I'm used to much more crowded and noisy lakes. After the fact I found out that a kid drowned in that lake, while swimming from one of the beaches around the same time we were there. Sad. After that, we stopped by the Art and Artisans center where we saw some cool old and new quilts, and lots of crafts for sale. Some of them were really nice and good values. Some were not. Dinner was back alongside the lake at the resort where the food was ok but the service was very poor.

Thursday we decided to do more National Forest/State Park explorations. We first went back to Giant City State Park, where I was determined to find that Giant City. After much wandering around, we finally found the shelter area where the trail started. Things are hard to find at that park when the visitor center is closed. The trail was a mile long hike that was pretty rigorous. It was up and down hills a lot, but it was worth it. There were very cool rock formations caused by erosion. The graffiti on some of them was awesome too, as people had chiseled their names and the dates into some of the rocks in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This guy has some good pictures of what it looks like. There are also a bunch of natural overhanging cliffs that were used as shelter by some Indian tribes.

From there we headed toward the Mississippi river to see some more sites marked on my map. We saw the Tower Rock out in the Mississippi, but it was considerably less dramatic since the river was very high and only the top-most part of the rock remained.

We tried really, really hard to get into the Larue Pine Hills natural area, but flood waters would not let us in. We were thwarted at every path. We did see the famous road that gets closed every year to allow snake migrations (though apparently it's closed permanently right now due to flood damage). We also saw a mystery mammal that I have not been able to identify. We did a lot of backing up and turning around as many of the roads we took were met with water over the road.

Finally, we did manage to find a way to cross the Big Muddy river so we could get to the Little Grand Canyon. The full hike can take 4 hours, and from some signs at the top, we saw that it was probably not possible to do some parts of the trail due to flooding. So we did the reasonable thing and hiked toward the observation platform marked on the map. It was a pretty easy downhill hike, and we eventually got to a switchback where the path turned to dirt instead of asphalt/gravel. After careful inspection, we determined that the observation point should have been right before the switchback, but some tree falls and/or other issues had wiped out the former bench and railing that denoted the observation point. We could kinda tell there was a canyon there to see, but the trees and brush were really thick, so honestly it wasn't too impressive. If we go again, I'd like to go in a non-floody season and do the whole hike. The hike back up to the parking lot nearly killed me. What was a straightforward downhill to the canyon felt like a nearly vertical hike back up. ouchie. I was pretty wiped out by the top. Half a mile of steep incline kills. However, it was a good exertion and I still enjoyed it despite not getting any amazing views. People hurt themselves and/or get lost and need rescued at this site pretty regularly. Nature is dangerous, people!

From there we headed home, stopping in Waterloo for dinner. The kitties were mostly happy to see us when we got home. Lola wouldn't leave me alone, and the others seemed eager to be petted. Or maybe they just wanted their bowls shaken. I had to work from about 10pm til 1am, for a deployment, but that all went very smoothly.

Now the holiday weekend is ahead. Brent's off doing things today, so I'm going to do some woodturning. Tomorrow is dinner with Dad and Dannye. Sunday is fireworks at my sister's place in Jefferson County. Monday is a low key 4th of July with some rooftop fireworks watching.


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