There’s no shortage of outdoor highlights to explore at Rend Lake in southern Illinois. Over 40,000 acres of water and land provide diverse habitat for wildlife. The area is perfect for boating and fishing, with five campgrounds (over 750 individual sites), rental cabins, beaches, playgrounds and picnic areas, a disc golf course, a traditional golf resort, and a visitor center showcasing live animals, educational exhibits, a pollinator garden, and more — all just two hours from downtown St. Louis.
But Breanna Whitley, natural resources specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rend Lake Project Office, wants people to know about the destination’s many multipurpose trails. “In my opinion, Rend Lake is a recreational oasis,” she said. “We have a diversity of trails that offers a little bit of everything for lots of outdoor users.”
Shall we count the ways? Whitley describes five different types of trails:
The Rend Lake Bike Trail, designated a National Recreational Trail, meanders through grasslands, upland forest, and wetlands. Fourteen of the 20+ miles are paved; six are finely packed gravel. “We see folks biking, roller skating, running, walking,” said Whitley. “We host marathons and 5ks on the trail. There are so many ways to enjoy it and connect with nature in a safe way.” Ten more miles will be added starting in 2026, continuing around the lake and linking to other communities.
The Rend Lake Mountain Bike Trail opened in 2020 and currently offers 5 miles of the 12 miles planned for the area. The four completed loops wind through the North Marcum Recreation Area, passing the old campsites, through woods, by prairies, and along the shoreline. “The terrain down here is easy to intermediate [cross-country style] with different sections featuring more challenges,” said Whitley.
The Rend Lake Archery Complex, also opened in 2020, is notable in that it has a range, elevated stand, and walking trail that “offers a realistic shooting experience for archers as it winds through the woods and features 20 stations with 3D animal targets,” said Whitley. “It’s suitable for archers of all skill levels and is universally accessible.” Different animal targets, distances, and vegetation are designed to help users hone their skills.
Rend Lake’s six water trails — two beginner, two intermediate, and two advanced — range from 3 to 5 miles each and feature boat launches, rest areas, and comfort stations with potable water and bathrooms. The 19 total miles of water trails are located around the lake, often along coves. “There’s lots of opportunity for fishing and wildlife viewing in those areas,” said Whitley. “And then we have some seasonal routes in addition to the designated trails for fall and spring outings.” Whitley encourages everyone to make safety a top priority when recreating, especially on the water. Life jackets are available to borrow for free at the visitor center.
Last but not least, Rend Lake has two nature trails that are “short and easy terrain, suitable for beginner hikers,” said Whitley. The Blackberry Nature Trail is a 0.75-mile, wood-chipped path through an oak-hickory forest, featuring an old farmstead and “lots of blackberries, of course.” The Catfish Cove Nature Trail is a 1,200-foot paved path that encircles a fishing pond and has a spur that cuts through the woods and connects to the aforementioned pollinator garden.
Clearly, there are a lot of miles to cover. Whitley encourages outdoor recreationalists to stop in and pick up maps and brochures at the Rend Lake Visitor Center/Project Office, then prepare for a day of diverse experiences along the shoreline of this Prairie State paradise.
Author: Brad Kovach is the editor/publisher of Terrain Magazine.