If you like mazes, you'll love the Panther Den in Illinois. A tall sandstone bluff has partially broken apart, creating a series of twisty passages and narrow rooms.
Unlike a true labyrinth, however, the Panther Den doesn't have many dead ends. Most of the passages interconnect, so there's little danger of getting lost for long.
I can't say the same for the trailhead. While trying to find driving directions for this place, I found several different websites that each gave different routes to the trailhead.
After hiking much longer than necessary, and conferring with other lost hikers, I was finally able to reach the destination. The first step: Throw away the outdated driving directions from the other websites. (See complete directions below.)
Once you find the correct trailhead, the hike is easy. The trail follows a creek, reaching the boundaries of the Panther Den Wilderness Area after one-half mile. Part of the Shawnee National Forest, this is the smallest designated wilderness area in Illinois.
Before long, the trail rounds a corner to meet an imposing rock face.
A wide opening reveals a passage with walls that are completely vertical.
The passage opens into a "room" with three walls that are almost perfectly rectangular.
From a distance, the far wall -- about 20 feet tall -- looks like a dead end. However, a crack in the left corner provides access to another room.
That room opens into another room, which provides a passage to yet another room. Or something like that.
Looking up, the rocks almost-but-not-quite touch above the room.
Back outside of the Panther Den, a trail leads to a jumble of rocks.
Climbing to the top of the rock pile, it's possible to scoot past a wet-weather waterfall and reach the top of the bluff line. The rectangular room is even crazier when viewed from above:
I spotted many wildflowers growing on top of the rocks, but they are out of reach (unless you can leap tall bluffs in a single bound).
The bluffs, although not as impressive, continue in both directions away from the main Panther Den. Vague trails lead along the north (left) side:
...and the south (right) side. These rocks finally end at a horseshoe-shaped canyon with a small rock shelter.
The main hiking trail leads north, crossing the creek multiple times, before reaching a fantastic camp site in front of yet another rock shelter.
Beyond here, however, the trail deteriorates and becomes much less interesting. Other trails, including the statewide River-to-River Trail, pass through the Panther Den Wilderness Area, but the main hiking trail is the best.
Panther Den is located at the far northeastern corner of Union County, south of Devils Kitchen Lake. [Google map]
From Cape Girardeau, cross the Emerson Bridge and follow Highway 146 east through McClure, Ware, Jonesboro and Anna. At the eastern outskirts of Anna, just beyond the last stoplight, turn left on Lick Creek Road. After 8 miles, veer left on Grandview Road then bear left on Hall Church Road. Turn right on Rocky Comfort Road and go north for almost 3 miles. (All of these roads are paved and marked with signs. While shorter routes are available, those roads aren't as good.)
Make a right turn on Panther Den Road, a good gravel road, and go east for 1.5 miles. Look for the turnoff for Panther Den Lane on the left. Take this rough, one-lane gravel road north for half a mile to the parking area, located on the right at the far end of the road.
Rough road ahead
When I visited, Panther Den Lane had a washed-out culvert that would be difficult to cross in a low-clearance vehicle. If you don't want to drive on this road, you can park at Point A on the map below and then walk up the road, adding an extra mile roundtrip to the hike.
The washed out culvert is at Point B. At Point C, the road enters private property. In the past, this portion of the road was blocked by a landowner. That unpleasant situation has thankfully been resolved and the road is now open to the public.
At Point D, the road passes a gated private driveway on the left. Continue straight to reach the trailhead, just ahead on the right, at Point E.
The trail fords the creek at Point F. It can be a little hard to pick up the other side of the trail (Hint: Go downstream a short distance). At Point G, the trail enters the wilderness area and meets the River-to-River trail. Bear left on Trail 371 and continue a short distance to the Panther Den at Point H. You may want to explore a trail that leads along the bluffs to the right, ending at a small horseshoe-shaped canyon at Point I.