With the beautiful backdrop of the Shawnee National Forest, all seasons lure outdoor enthusiasts to Southern Illinois for fishing, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, and more extreme sports such as zip lining and rock climbing.

“We’ve had folks from 8 to 80 years old come out to rock climb with us,” said Erik Oberg, program director at Touch of Nature Environmental Center, Southern Illinois University’s outdoor learning laboratory for experiential education. “Most people we provide programs for are new to climbing, so we provide a fun, safe introduction to this high-adventure activity.”

Because the staff at Touch of Nature works year-round, they have experienced climbs through the region’s scorching summers as well as snowy winters. However, it’s the fall that Oberg said is peak season for climbing because it’s most likely to be cool and dry.

On a recent tour through the region, Ariel Beverly, an experienced rock climber, was hoping to climb but didn’t have her gear with her. Prior to becoming Miss Illinois, she was an assistant manager of a rock climbing facility but enjoys the challenge of climbing outdoors.

“In 2015, a few friends and I met up and on our to-do list was rock climbing, so we went to a rock climbing gym and it was a blast,” Beverly said. “I planned on buying a membership, but when I saw a flyer that they were hiring, I applied and they hired me.”

Like others who have a little thrill-seeking adventure in them, Beverly is a true outdoor enthusiast who also enjoys skydiving and scuba diving. Southern Illinois is a natural draw because it has the highest density of quality stone making it the climbing capital of the state.

Ariel Beverly rock climbing in Southern Illinois

Miss Illinois Ariel Beverly positions her climbing rope preparing for a climb with Erik Oberg, of Touch of Nature. (Samantha McCann)

On the day Oberg climbed with Beverly, he set up some routes and they spent an afternoon scaling and rappelling. Although Beverly is an experienced climber, Oberg emphasizes that Touch of Nature has opportunities for all ability levels.

Along with recreational offerings, Touch of Nature has added a philanthropic program, Veteran Adventures. The program’s mission is, in part, to draw on the healing benefits of adventure and challenge in the outdoors; healing benefits that can help end veteran suicide.

“One of our staff just completed a canoe trek down the entire length of the Mississippi River [Paddle for Patriots] to promote awareness and raise funds for the program,” Oberg said. “The program is fueled by donations and community support. We are short about $3,000 of our $25,000 goal.”

Veteran Adventures provides military veteran participants with gear, food, shelter, transportation, and, when needed, professional instruction and leadership to successfully participate in expeditions and events.

Touch of Nature is comprised of Oberg’s program, Underway Adventures, for outdoor adventure, as well as Environmental Education, Therapeutic Recreation for people with disabilitie and Hospitality Services, which includes facilities and spaces for lodging and conferences.

To learn more about outdoor adventure programs, visit https://ton.siu.edu/. To learn more about Shawnee Forest Country in Southernmost IL, www.southernmostillinois.com and Veteran Adventures, visit https://salukifunder.siu.edu/project/15565.

Lead photo: Samantha McCann, (@SamanthaMcCann)