Colorado is famous for its "fourteeners", mountains with summits above 14,000 feet. Here in Missouri we have to be content with a different kind of fourteener, mountains with elevations above 1,400 feet.
It could be worse: the highest point in Illinois is only 1,235 feet above sea level. However, this doesn't mean the Land of Lincoln is completely flat. Just try hiking the entire length of Bald Knob to the top. The summit is a mere 1,030 feet, but it definitely feels like a real mountain.
Starting at an elevation of 400 feet near the foot of the mountain, the Bald Knob Trail gains 600 feet of elevation within 1.5 miles. By Colorado standards, this would barely qualify as a hiking trail, but it's a challenging hike for Illinois.
Not far from the trailhead, the trail forks in two. The east route takes a more direct approach to the summit. It's deceptively easy at first, gently climbing along the top of a ridge for over a mile.
Then the trail suddenly arrives at the final ordeal: a rocky ascent that would be steep enough to require stairs in most places. But you won't find any stairs here.
Soon after the final climb, the trail emerges from the woods and provides the first view of the cross, towering over the "bald" clearing at the summit.
When I visited on Oct. 3, I was surprised to find that the restoration of Bald Knob Cross was well underway, with most of the white paneling already in place.
Returning back to the woods, I found the trailhead for the western route of the trail, hidden behind some trees at the edge of the mowed field. A sign for the Bald Knob Wilderness, a designated area within the Shawnee National Forest, marks the beginning of the trail.
Of course, you realize what this means. The National Forest is using taxpayer money to maintain a trail whose sole purpose is providing hiking access to a religious monument. I'm shocked, shocked to find this going on here!
After re-entering the wilderness, the trail passes through a dark plantation of pine trees.
Soon, however, it's time to begin descending again. Like the east route, the west route is deceptive, gradually losing elevation at first. Then it plummets through two knee-buckling drops that make you reconsider the idea of hiking instead of just driving to the top like everybody else.
Thankfully the rest of the trail is fairly easy and offers plenty of sights, including a wide variety of mushrooms.
I also spotted the first color of autumn, a tree that was already turning red.
Despite the challenging hike, the Bald Knob Trail promises to offer a bonanza of fall color during the next few weeks. Sure, you could always take the paved road to the summit, but that wouldn't be much fun for a blog called Pavement Ends, would it?
From Cape Girardeau, cross the bridge into Illinois and follow Highway 146 east through McClure and Ware. Turn left on Highway 127. After 4.4 miles, turn left on Brown Section Road while ignoring the sign stating that Bald Knob Cross is straight ahead. Go 1.6 miles to a T-junction with Rhine Road and turn left. The parking area and trailhead is located on the right, 1.3 miles down the road.
Be sure to print a copy of the trail map (PDF).