The River-to-River Trail

Hiking in Illinois from the Ohio to the Mississippi
By the River-to-River Trail Society
  |  Gorp.com
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Horses and riders along the River-to-River Trail
River-to-River Trail was originally used and maintained by horseback riders.

Inspiration for the River-to-River Trail came with the establishment of the Shawnee National Forest. What could be better than a scenic hiking trail through this flora-rich park that bridged the land dividing two great waterways: the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers? Unfortunately, until recently, despite several attempts over the past decades to establish a permanent route extending the full 160-mile proposed distance, the trail ran only 80 miles from Cave-In-Rock to the crossing of Route 45.

It wasn't until Delyte Morris, former president of Southern Illinois University, and Egon Kamarasy, a faculty member and a horseman, called public attention to the value of such a trail that things really got going. Even more energy was pumped into the process when the"Hike a Nation" effort scouted out the proposed trail across the state, followed soon after by the American Discovery Trail exploring team of Eric Seaborg and Ellen Dudley as they studied the feasibility of an east-to-west coast-to-coast trail.

Today, the American Discovery Trail (ADT), which overlays all 160 miles of the full River-to-River Trail, is a designated "Discovery Trail" in the National Trail System. The ADT enters Illinois from Indiana at New Haven, then turns south until its intersection with the River-to-River Trail in Hardin County. On the west side of Illinois, the ADT travels north from Grand Tower up roads and Mississippi River levees to Eads Bridge at St. Louis.

One of the most interesting features of this area is its ecological richness. North and South and even East and West overlap here, bringing together a wealth of natural diversity. Just the western edge of the Shawnee National Forest has been found to have a greater number of plant species than all of the Appalachian national forests combined. It is possible to see eastern and western bluebirds, northern and southern garter snakes, and blue herons. There are also poisonous snakes both copperheads and rattlesnakes although we have never seen one on the trail, nor have there been any reports of hikers seeing any or being bothered by them. There are reports of bobcats and unsubstantiated reports of cougars, but you will probably never be bothered by these either.

Most trails are passable year-round, except for the coldest days in January or February. Average winter temperatures are in the 40s, which is good hiking or riding weather. Summer brings the usual midwestern insects, especially in August when cobwebs in the woods combine with the heat to make it uncomfortable for the less seasoned hiker. August can have some cool days when a front moves in.

The terrain is moderate to difficult. Although this trail does not have the long, sustained climbs that might be found in mountainous areas, some of the grades are pretty rugged. Most hikers find they can only cover about 1 mile per hour. Thru-hikers find that it takes at least fourteen days (or several weekend trips) to cover the full distance.

You should never attempt to use the trail without a compass and adequate water. Hikers frequently miss trail signs if they are looking down or away. If you become confused, it is better to walk back to the last marker you saw and start again from that point. There will be times when side trails go off and it look as though you should turn. If there are no signs, the rule of thumb is to follow the main tread.

The trail is marked with a blue"i" painted on a white diamond-shaped background. This "i" has been the symbol of the trail from the beginning. Some "i"s may be painted on trees. Generally, when a trail turns, the diamond will be pointed in the direction of the turn. Interesting side trails may be marked with only the white diamond.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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