Located in the heart of southern Illinois, Carbondale is home to just a little more than 25,000 people but offers a big population of leisure activities and opportunities. Part of the reason for its eclectic culture and diversity is Southern Illinois University (SIU), which boasts 8,200 full- and part-time students, but Carbondale also has amazing natural resources and a thriving outdoor scene — it was even named by Outdoor Magazine as one of the Top 200 towns for sportsmen.
Here’s a look at what this small city in Jackson and Williamson counties has in store for the adventure traveler.
Parks, Preserves, and Eats
Taking a hike at one of the many parks or preserves scattered around Carbondale makes a perfect, family-friendly introduction to town. Green Earth Inc., a nonprofit land conservation organization that protects local natural areas, maintains six preserves here, totaling more than 220 acres. Each site is open to the public for hiking during daylight hours; most trails are roughly 1 mile in length and easy to moderate in difficulty.
While getting around to the preserves, be sure to stop and check out the great independent restaurants, breweries, and wineries in the area. The drinking and dining scene in Carbondale is wide-open and far-reaching, from Indian to Asian, Middle Eastern to American, Vegan to familiar comfort food. Carbondale is also the gateway to the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, which is composed of 11 wineries dotting a well-marked, 40-mile route.
Tour Carbondale by Bike
For those who relish pedal-power, Carbondale is an awesome spot for road biking. Most of the main streets sport bike lanes, and there are also dedicated paths for cyclists, runners, and walkers throughout town. You can even ride through historic SIU, built as one of the first state-supported normal universities in Illinois during the 1800s. To maximize your time on two wheels, map out and visit the many museums, art galleries, and events that SIU has to offer. You’ll enjoy bike racks at almost every stop, but make sure to bring a helmet and lock for proper bicycle safety.
Mountain Biking to Fried Chicken
Just outside the main city limits of Carbondale lies SIU’s Touch of Nature Environmental Center. This experiential learning facility and laboratory recently opened 10+ miles of single-track mountain bike trails for all skill levels — beginner to advanced — and also includes a terrain park with a pump track, push-bike track, and fun kids’ loop. Be sure to check the calendar of events for hosted mountain bike races for all types of riders throughout the year.
Not really into mountain biking? Try out some awesome hiking right next to Touch of Nature. Giant City State Park has a variety of trails catering to all types of hikers, from small children and families to moderate day hikes and even overnight backpacking trips. Depending on which trail you choose, you could encounter waterfalls, bluffs, overlooks — even popular rock-climbing areas. Stop by the visitor center for information, cool park products, and to check out the calendar of events.
Local tip: No matter if you love biking, hiking, or climbing, you absolutely must visit the Giant City Lodge for the best fried chicken in southern Illinois. The lodge is also worth seeing for the pure awe of its construction. Built in the 1940s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, it’s considered one of the best-looking lodges in the Midwest.
While you’re in the area, head over to Makanda for unique boutiques and gifts, treats, and the feel of stepping back in time in Illinois’ most “Hippie town”.
National Forest and Natural Bridges
Carbondale is home to Cedar Lake, which provides the city with its drinking water. But the 1,750-acre reservoir also provides the city with outdoor recreation opportunities from hiking to fishing, hunting to kayaking, and more.
Right on Cedar Lake sits Shawnee National Forest, with miles upon miles of hiking trails (see fs.usda.gov/Shawnee). You should definitely check out Cove Hollow for its inspiring views of the lake, interesting natural shelters, amazing rock formations, and large waterfalls during the wetter times of the year. The trailhead for Cove Hollow is easy to find from your source of maps or app.
If you want a cool side trip, trek over to nearby Pomona, Illinois, and check out the Natural Bridge. A short (0.3-mile) loop trail offers you a look at one of the most scenic natural arches in Shawnee Forest Country. It’s definitely worth the excursion.
Need New Gear? No Problem
Another great thing about Carbondale and its university culture is the abundance of shops with all different kinds of products and gifts. Since you’re in outdoor recreation mode, zero in on the many outdoor retailers the city has to offer. You can buy your hiking, climbing, and canoeing gear from Shawnee Trails Wilderness Outfitters, and while you’re over that way, check out Quatro’s Deep Pan Pizza, a Carbondale favorite for many years. If you need cycling equipment or even want to buy a brand-new bike, head over to Bike Surgeon, Phoenix Cycling, or Carbondale Cycle Shop on the strip. Illinois Avenue has a varied collection of stores, restaurants, clubs, and treat shops.
In short, if you’re looking for a good starting point to enjoy what the southern Illinois outdoors has to offer, starting at Carbondale is probably one of your best choices. It’s a small city that’s a big deal when it comes to being outside.
Want to explore beyond the confines of Carbondale, Illinois? Why not enjoy the comforts of one of the many lodging options in the city while you explore the surrounding area? Here are a few ideas for driving out from Carbondale.
- The biannual Snake Migration in LaRue-Pine Hills/Otter Pond Research Natural Area sees thousands of reptiles and amphibians cross LaRue Road during their migration between summer and winter habitats every spring and fall. It’s a 40-minute drive from Carbondale.
- In under 30 minutes, you can drive to the Little Grand Canyon. This a box canyon located in Shawnee National Forest in Jackson County, Illinois, south of Murphysboro, is designated a National Natural Landmark.
- In a little more than 15 minutes, you can get to Shawnee Cave Amphitheater for concerts and events. See shawneecave.fun/ events for a calendar of live entertainment and more.
Author: Shawn Gossman is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: Carbondale caters to cyclists with bike lanes and dedicated paths.