I've stumbled across many unexpected finds in the woods, but one thing I never anticipated was a fully decorated Christmas tree.
This tree is the start of a series of holiday ornaments randomly placed along a trail, featuring everything from ribbons...
...to Christmas cookie cutters. Of course, this being the outdoors, it's no surprise that they were hung using fishing line.
These ornaments mark an unofficial shortcut for the River-to-River Trail along Cedar Creek northeast of Vienna, Illinois. Regardless of the story behind the decorations, this trail provides convenient access to several natural wonders that can be hard to find: a free-standing natural arch, two waterfalls, and numerous rock formations.
Although small, the natural arch is the centerpiece of the area. It looks like a miniature and flatter version of the famous Delicate Arch in Utah.
The arch doesn't have an official name, but hikers and geocachers typically call it Cedar Wonders Arch.
Upstream from the arch is a box canyon and waterfall.
The bluffs on both sides of the canyon have broken apart to create a labyrinth of nooks, crannies, crevices, and rooms.
One of the best days of the year for hiking is a warm day in winter following an extended cold snap: the ice formations can be spectacular.
To the northwest, another side canyon has its own waterfall and rock jumbles. The trick is to catch it following a big rain, but waiting just long enough so that the trail isn't a muddy quagmire. I haven't been able to quite pull that off yet.
With its natural wonders and man-made decorations, the Cedar Creek area is a choice hiking destination during the yuletide season.
Although the area can be reached from three different trailheads, the most straightforward (although not necessarily the shortest) is from a parking area on Gum Springs Road. From Cape Girardeau, following Highway 146 east through McClure, Ware, Anna, and Vienna. Just past Vienna, turn left on Highway 147. Go 6.4 miles and turn left on Gilead Church Road. After one mile, veer right on Gum Springs Road. Follow this paved road 1.6 miles to a bridge. Just past the bridge, find the parking area on the left.
From the parking area, walk across the bridge and look for the "River-to-River Trail" sign leading right (west). Follow the trail for a short distance. As the trail curves left, look for orange or pink ribbons on the right. Follow the ribbons across a (usually) dry creek to a small bluff line on the other side. Continue to follow the ribbons as they lead to a convenient opening in the bluff leading to the top and then on to the fully decked Christmas tree. From here, the ribbons give way to ornaments -- just keep following the trail.
Eventually the Christmas trail merges back with the River-to-River Trail, marked with blue "i" symbols. The trail comes to a primitive campsite along another dry creek where the trail makes a right turn. Instead, bear left, following orange ribbons, along another trail that leads to the natural arch and finally a waterfall.
Return to the campsite, cross the creek, and look for a trail branching off to the left. This trail, also marked with ribbons, leads to the second waterfall.
This trail map, based on Map 10 of the River-to-River Trail Guide, shows the trailhead ("TH"), the River-to-River Trail (in red), the Christmas trail shortcut (in purple), and both waterfall trails (in green). Land shaded in green is part of the Shawnee National Forest; white areas are private property.