If you are worried about finding enough exciting things to do in Southern Illinois, stop worrying. There is so much to do and so much to see. And learn.
For example, did you know that Southern Illinois is known as Little Egypt? I tried to find out why and got different answers from different sources. That means nobody knows why.
It did not stop me from embarking on exploring this often overlooked part of Illinois.
First, it is very beautiful, with huge forests, large rivers, waterfalls and nature reserves. It is also very old and has one of the biggest archeological sites in the world. Whatever your interests are, you will find things to do in Southern Illinois.
Things To Do In Southern Illinois For Nature Lovers
Ferne Clyffe State Park
Located one mile south of Goreville and 12 miles from Marion, Ferne Clyffe State Park is the 2,430-acre oasis famous for its great diversity of plants and fantastic opportunities for relaxation and recreation.
There are 700 species of plants, dense shady mysterious woods full of ferns, and unique geological formations that make this park a great destination for a weekend outing or a longer vacation.
The best time to come to the park is in fall when the trees put on a spectacular colorful display.
This Park has a 16-acre crystal clear lake and a whole range of small and big waterfalls.
The incredible beauty and the diversity of ecosystems make this park a great hiking spot – there is something wonderful to see around every trail bend. The most popular trails are the Big Rocky Hollow, Happy Hollow, Cedar Bluff trail, and the mesmerizing Bork’s waterfall.
Ferne Clyffe is also a popular destination for picnicking, hunting, and fishing.
There are campgrounds of all kinds: primitive, modern, for youth groups, for backpackers, and equestrians. Some campgrounds offer showers only seasonally. You can reserve some campsites through ExploreMoreIL.
Learn more about the park from the official website.
Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge
Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge is established on 44,000 acres near Marion in Southwestern Williamson County in order to protect the local diverse flora and fauna, especially migratory birds.
You will also find an artificial lake where migratory water birds rest and feed. The lake offers a great opportunity for bird watching and photography so if that is what you like to do, time your visit to come with the birds. The refuge is also popular with sport fishermen, they come year-round.
The Refuge is also rich in wildlife and it is fairly common to spot white-tailed deer and wild turkey.
The most popular activities are hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, wildlife watching, and photography. On the lake, you can go paddling in a kayak or a canoe but motorboats are not allowed.
It also has a visitor center at 8588 Route 148 in Marion open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The visitor center has exhibits on local wildlife and habitats. The rangers often arrange interpretive programs, family outdoor programs, and environmental education programs.
Learn more about the Refuge from the official website
Lake of Egypt
Located just south of Marion, Lake of Egypt is a picturesque reservoir created in 1962 after the south fork of the Saline River was dammed. Lake has 90 miles of shoreline.
Lake of Egypt is located six miles south of Marion, Illinois, and covers 2,300 acres with 90 miles of shoreline. The lake is owned by the Southern Illinois Power Cooperative.
The lake is a popular destination for all-size boat motors as well as waterskiing and jet skiing. It has three marinas. Fishermen come for Bluegill, Channel Catfish, Largemouth Bass, Striped Bass, and Crappie.
Buck Ridge Campground, located near the lake, is part of the Shawnee National Forest.
Learn more about the lake from the official website.
The Garden of the Gods
Garden of the Gods is the name of the wilderness, recreational area, and one of the most popular hikes in Southern Illinois. It is a part of the Shawnee National Forest.
Garden of the Gods’ Trail will take you by some unique fascinating sandstone rock formations. It offers panoramic views of the surrounding Garden of the God Wilderness.
Interpretive signs along the trail tell the story of the geological history of the area. The most interesting formation is called the Camel Rock.
The short quarter-mile trail is built of natural sandstone. It has short, steep parts and steps.
The recreational area around the trail is great for picnics, nature watching, or camping. The campground is open year-round.
Opening hours are from from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Learn more about the trail and the wilderness from the official website.
The Tunnel Hill State Trail
The Tunnel Hill State Trail is a 45-mile long very popular bicycle trail between Eldorado and Karnak, Illinois. The trail follows the former bed of one part of the Cairo and Vincennes Railroad.
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Along this picturesque trail, bikers can enjoy dark tunnels, fast streams, and verdant wooded bluffs. At times, they might even encounter local wildlife.
The trail continues for 2.5 miles from Karnak to Cache River State Natural Area (Henry Barkhausen Wetlands Center) on the former Chicago and Eastern Illinois railroad bed.
The Tunnel Hill trail connects with many other official trails that run through Illinois.
For more information, check the official website
Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge
Cypress Creek Wildlife Refuge is an honest-to-god bayou in the heart of Illinois. This 15,000-acre refuge is home to huge cypress swamps and wetlands and some of the oldest trees found east of the Mississippi River.
The refuge is located about 22 miles north of Cairo, Illinois, and was established in 1990 to protect this unique habitat.
Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge is home to many species of waterfowl and migratory birds and some endangered species and wildlife such as Indiana bats and Prothonotary Warbler.
The refuge also includes Bottomland hardwood forests, Bald Cypress Water Tupelo Swamp, and canebrakes.
The refuge is a popular tourist destination. Visitors enjoy hunting, fishing, boating, bird watching, and photography. The best view of the entire refuge is from the Bellrose viewing platform.
Park rangers offer environmental educational programs, guided canoe tours, and many special events.
Learn more about this park and wetlands in general from the official website.
Places to visit in Southern Illinois for history buffs
Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site
A 200-acre Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site is a park located near Chester, Illinois, where the Kaskaskia and Mississippi rivers meet. It is built on top of a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.
Today, it commemorates the once-thriving frontier town of Old Kaskaskia and its role in the American Revolution.
Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site is a popular place for camping since it is located along the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.
Fort Kaskaskia was originally a French settlement built in the 1700s. In 1803, the Lewis and Clark expedition picked up eleven more men at this location to join them.
Tourists enjoy the view of the Mississippi River and can explore the earthwork sites of Fort Kaskaskia. They can also visit Garrison Hill Cemetery, which was established in 1891.
There are picnic tables and a covered pavilion at the Mississippi River overlook. There is also a large campground.
From the bottom of the bluff, a path leads to the historic beautifully restored 1815 Pierre Menard Home, a classic example of French Creole architecture style. The home features original antique furnishing.
Every September there is a traditional music festival at the Fort.
The park and the camp are open year-round.
For more information, check the official website
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is a 2200-acre pre-Colombian archeological site located between East St. Louis and Collinsville. Cahokia Mounds is the largest American archaeological site located north of Mexico.
It is believed that in AD 1250 this fascinating pre-Columbian Native American city was larger than today’s London.
Cahokia Mounds is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark.
What is left of the once-thriving ancient city are only 80 earthen mounds, covered in grass and wildflowers. The largest is Monks Mound, also the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the Americas.
To learn more about the history of Cahokia and its inhabitants, visit the museum and interpretive center open Thursday through Sunday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Cahokia Mounds is open Thursday through Sunday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Outdoor grounds are open daily from dawn until dusk. Admission is free.
To learn more, check the official website.
Lewis & Clark State Historic Site
Located in Hartford, Illinois, The Lewis and Clark State Historic Site commemorates Camp River Dubois, the winter camp where the Lewis and Clark Expedition stayed from December 1803 to May 1804.
From this camp Corps of Discovery, members went on their trip to the Pacific Ocean. The camp is also called The Point of Departure.
Lewis and Clark State Historic Site consists of a 14,000-square-foot Interpretive Center, reconstructed original Settlers’ Cabin, and faithfully reconstructed Camp River Dubois.
The Interpretative Center has an exhibit area with galleries that tell the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition and about its significance for today’s America.
The renovated winter camp, Camp Dubois, is located on the grounds near the visitor center. The on-site interpreters explain more of the history.
Interpretive Center is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 9 AM to 5 PM.
To learn more about the historic site, check their official website.
What to do in Southern Illinois if you are a foodie
Scratch Brewing Company
Whether you love beer or not, you have to stop by this place. Scratch Brewing Company is a brewery, farmhouse, and restaurant located about five miles from the Shawnee National Forest in Ava, Illinois.
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The rustic farm surrounded by so much natural beauty is breathtakingly beautiful and once you add beer to that, it is going to be the star of your trip.
Scratch Brewing Company makes farmhouse beers and other beers brewed with homegrown, locally farmed, and locally foraged ingredients.
They brew their beers in a traditional style. They enhance them by adding innovative local ingredients, including nettle, ginger, elderberry, dandelion, maple, and a variety of other additions.
Outside Magazine named Scratch Brewery one of the best four breweries that make or foraged beer. All About Beer Magazine called Scratch Brewing “one of the most beautiful places to drink beer in the world.”
They are open Friday and Saturday from 1 pm to 8 pm and on Sunday from 1 pm to 6 pm. Their address is 264 Thompson Rd, Ava, IL 62907, and their phone number 618-426-1415. For more information, check their Website and Facebook.
Southern Illinois Wine Trails
Southern Illinois has more than 50 wineries and you can visit them by following one of the two official trails.
Shawnee Hills Wine trail of Southern Illinois is the oldest Illinois wine trail established in 1995. They started with just three wineries that wanted to share their wonderful wines with the visitors. Today, the Shawnee trail includes 11 wineries and they expect the number to grow.
The trail will take you through the magnificent countryside of southern Illinois. Each of the wineries, charming small towns along the trail and unique local restaurants have their own story to tell and unique flavors to share.
The Shawnee Wine trail is about 40 miles long and there are plenty of local hotels, inns, and B&Bs if you want to extend your trip. Especially if you are driving. Wining and driving do not go together.
While you are visiting, check the local bakeries, gift shops, antique stores, and jewelry shops.
Call each winery before visiting for their operating hours, the pandemic made them pretty unpredictable.
For more details and operating hours, check their official website.
Fast Eddies Bon Air
Fast Eddies Bon Air is the place to visit to get the feel of Southern Illinois local dives, learn about their history and taste some good beer.
The restaurant is located in Alton Illinois and is one of the most historic restaurants to visit. Built by Anheuser-Busch in 1921, originally as a brewery. A lot has changed since then, especially since Fast Eddie took over, and the old yellow brick building grew to sit today more than 400 guests.
The vibe is still vintage, the beer is still the focus of Fast Eddie’s but the bar has just about anything you might want. There is also bar grub and regular live music. they are located at 1530 E 4th St, Alton, IL 62002, United States, and their phone number is +1 618-462-5532.
Check their Website for more information.
Southern Illinois things to do – museums
Science Center in Carbondale
The Science Center in Carbondale is an absolute must if you are traveling through Southern Illinois with the kids. It is a fun, hands-on children’s museum with plenty for the kids to do and many exhibits to explore.
They also have programs like Grown Up’s Night Out, birthday parties, field trips, camps, and more.
Their latest additions are “Kinetic Jim”, a 12-foot tall real-time topographical sandbox, and a kinetic chain sculpture. They also have a new 130-square foot enclosure for their resident red iguana Reptar.
The museum is open from Thursday to Sunday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm.
For more information, check their official website.
African American Museum
The African American Museum, established in 1977, is located in University Mall in Carbondale. The Museum’s permanent exhibits include the collections of African art and the collection of slave artifacts.
Rotating displays include Underground Railroad Message Quilts and other local artwork. The museum’s temporary exhibits showcase the outstanding achievements of African American artists.
The museum host events and programs that showcase African American culture and history.
The museum is open Monday to Friday from 1 pm to 5 pm and on Saturday when available.
To learn more about the museum’s programs and events, check their official website.
The Superman Museum
Supermen fans come from all over the place to visit this museum, so if you are in Southern Illinois, do not miss it. It is located in Metropolis and has some of the most fascinating Superman memorabilia in existence.
The museum, which has been open since 1993, has Supermen-everything: toys, movie props, comics, costumes, and much more.
The museum has more than 70,000 items collected by the lifelong Superman collector Jim Hambrick. This collection is considered one of the world’s best collections of Superman memorabilia
The best time to come is during their annual Superman Celebration when they have special events and exhibits.
The museum is listed as one of the best small-town attractions in America. And you thought there are no things to do in Southern Illinois!
It is open every day from 8 am to 7 pm. The admission is $8.
For more information, check their official website.
If you didn’t know this part of the world before, I hope my list of 15 things to do in Southern Illinois gets you sufficiently interested to start your own exploration. As you go out and visit these amazing sites you no doubt will discover many other places worth visiting in this overlooked but fascinating part of the big old America.