What's in southern Illinois besides the eclipse?
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There's a bit of irony in that a total eclipse of the sun will shine a spotlight on a region of Illinois many suburban residents never realized existed.
If you are traveling to southern Illinois for the first time to view the Aug. 21 astronomic spectacle, you'll likely be surprised by its lack of "Illinois-ess" -- the land isn't flat and lined with rows and rows of corn and soybeans. In fact, you're likely to find the rolling hills and lush landscape among the most beautiful in the country, if not the state.
If you're staying for a few days, here are some things worth checking out.
Take a hike
What makes the region a "go-to" destination is the Shawnee National Forest, which covers the bottom fifth of the state and provides some of the richest nature and most breathtaking views in Illinois. Lush forests and large sandstone outcroppings provide a range of activities, from hiking and horse riding to rock climbing and rappelling.
Giant City State Park, just south of Carbondale, likely will be full of campers on eclipse weekend, so you might want to avoid that (although the Giant City Lodge serves some of the best fried chicken you'll ever find and the climb to the top of the nearby water tower provides a stunning view of the region). Some alternatives are Little Grand Canyon near Murphysboro, where the 3.6-mile hiking trail takes you from scenic heights down through sharply carved sandstone cliffs into the canyon. There you'll find the Little Grand Canyon waterfall and rock formations.
Garden of the Gods, east of the eclipse area near Harrisburg, also offers stunning views from the outlooks atop sandstone sculptures carved from centuries of wind and rain.
The Observation Trail and Stone Staircase will take you among some magnificent towering natural formations, as well as some of the best views of the southern Illinois landscape.
Take a sip
Unknown to most northerners, southern Illinois' climate and rich soil have grown a hearty wine industry over the past couple of decades.
Of the 20 wineries that dot the American Viticultural Area designated region, established vineyards like Blue Sky Winery in Makanda and Alto Vineyards in Alto Pass have won awards in contests pitting the region's grapes against the likes of California's Napa Valley.
While Blue Sky is the most picturesque of the region's wineries -- you'll think you're sipping your Seyval among the hills of Tuscany -- it is also within yards of the eclipse's point of longest duration, so expect a crowd if you go there. A good bet would be to take the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail tour, a self-guided tour among 11 of the area's wineries. Go at your own pace, visit and taste some of the region's best wines, and enjoy the ambience that the nearby grape fields and rolling hills have to offer.
The town of Makanda is still worth checking out when it's not so crowded. There's a good reason it's made many publications' lists of "most hippie towns" in America.
The former coal mining town (and hometown for former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon) is a haven for those who hold onto the '60s do-your-own-thing lifestyle. Take a stroll on the town's boardwalk, which not only gives a wonderful view of the hilly terrain but also fronts a number of quaint crafts and antique stores. Stop by the Rainmaker Art Studio and ask to see the Rock and Water Garden in the backyard. And stop by the memorial for Boomer, a three-legged dog who legend says heroically saved his owner from a death by train in the 1800s.