I spent some time at the pointy end of Illinois recently, and this presented an opportunity to explore the Tunnel Hill State Trail.
Tunnel Hill is a rail-trail that runs more or less north and south for about 45 miles from Harrisburg to Karnak, much of it running through the Shawnee National Forest. For my part, 45 miles was a little ambitious (not to mention that I would have needed to get back to the car, so it would have been 90 miles...), so I started at Vienna and rode south to Karnak (and back), coming in at just over 21 miles.
I don’t think that I was aware before this that there was a "Vienna" in Illinois, but I should not have been surprised. This same broad area also hosts a Cairo (pronounced "Kay-Ro", thank you very much) and a Metropolis, and further north, near Springfield, there’s Athens (say "Ay-Thens").
I was aware of this trail because the recumbent trike groups on Facebook feature a member or two living in the area who ride it regularly, and make it look very cool. I am not generally an advocate of Zuckerberg’s monster, but specialty interest groups like this are the thing that proves the rule - if you are a cyclist with a FB account who is not in cycling groups, you are missing a bet.
Vienna was a convenient place to pick up the trail from where I was at, and I chose the route southward because the map suggested this would be a fairly remote and wooded route. Fair warning here - it does not feature the tunnel for which the trail is named. But it does feature a wooded ride with a variety of natural views along the way.
As you start out southward from the site office at Vienna you get a view of rolling fields through the trees:
The rolling grassland appears to be hay in the making - you’ll see more of along route 146.
The trail itself is crushed stone, more or less, for the entirety of the route. It’s a softer surface, so the resistance slows you down a bit despite the largely flat presentation (or, at least, that’s what I’m telling myself).
Early into the ride the first of many bridges presents itself. Some are traditional wooden spans:
But others appear to be the original rail bridges, supplemented with wooden guide rails on either end:
Every bridge that I crossed was well maintained.
The state DNR site says the only tunnel is at Tunnel Hill, but this is not strictly true - there is a brief tunnel as the trail passes under highway 45.
Not the sort of tunnel you might name a trail after, but it’s there nonetheless.
As the trail moves past 45, the landscape turns to wetlands. The trail itself is elevated, and so up and out of the way, but the views are close by.
I was riding the trail in springtime, of course, so it offered up flowers along the way.
There are also mile markers along the trail.
Given that the trail itself is about 45 miles long, it’s not clear what specific distance these are meant to denote, and websites on the trail appear to be silent on this point. But they still give sense of your progress along the route.
Heron Pond Lane crosses the trail, and the map indicates that that this leads up into Heron Pond Preserve.
My ride didn’t take me up that course, but I think I’d follow it next time. Or perhaps...
...I’d take the road to the left to visit the winery.
The map shows this as Cache River Basin Restaurant and Winery, and places it just a half-mile down the road. Google showed it as closing at 5 PM, which put me well past closing time as I rode past this point, but the restaurant is apparently open later. Illinois wine tends towards sweeter than I prefer in general, but I find it surpassingly cool that this feature is such a short distance off the trail.
A little further on the trail crosses into the village of Belknap.
Belknap is tiny, even by rural Illinois standards. Wikipedia (which is never wrong) places the census in 2010 at 104 people, and you’ll see cattle and other livestock as you ride thru to the next clearing.
From there the trail remains pretty remote. Google maps shows this as a dotted line on its bike-mapping service, which would suggest a rough surface, but it wasn’t clearly distinguishable from the rest of the trail. However, you are accompanied by streams or wetland on either side. Including, at one point, a tiny bit of whitewater.
You can hear this bit of rapids before you see it when approaching from each direction.
As you approach the end of the trail near Karnak, you’ll see the trail offshoot to the west.
I didn’t have time to explore the offshoot, and it doesn’t appear to be an official part of the Tunnel Trail, but I’d like to do so if the future presents the opportunity.
Also at this intersection are some facilities for people and their pedal-powered transport.
Shortly after this point you hit the town of Karnak.
I did not realize until doing my research for this post that Karnak also has its own Mediterranean/Little Egypt connection, sharing a name with a temple complex in Luxor, Egypt. I should not have been surprised.
The ride back was a delightful reverse of the ride down, with one exception offered up by Belknap. As I came out of the trees to the brief opening it offered, I was joined by a bit of company.
These escapees were presumptively from the fenced pen the calf was in front of, though I couldn't see a break in the wire. They were unperturbed by my presence, though the entire tableau gave the impression that momma was enjoying some particularly fresh grass while junior was worrying that they’d be caught, standing back by the fence as he was.
Aside from the occasional car on roadways that paralled the trail, I saw exactly two hikers on the entire 10 miles of the trail. I was otherwise alone for my ride. Solitude was the name of game.
Overall, this was a lovely ride with some very enjoyable scenery. I’d suspect that spring or fall would be the ideal times for this section of the trail - though it’s predominantly tree covered, which would help with the heat, I’d have to imagine mosquitoes would be prevalent along the wetlands as summer rolls in.
If the opportunity presents, maybe next time I’ll take that side trip and have a glass or two of wine...