Take a walk on the wild side

Tuesday, April 4, 2006
St. Joe State Park: A four-wheeler Mecca in Southeast Missouri (Photo by Diane Wilson)

Within just a few hours' drive, Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois offers plenty of awesome outdoor opportunities

Ever heard people invoke that familiar old refrain, "There's just nothing to do around here."

Well, they're wrong.

If you want to get up and get off the couch, there are plenty of things to do within a short drive of Cape Girardeau.

The untouched areas of Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois offer some opportunities for awesome weekend getaways. Rockclimbing, kayaking, canoeing, biking, backpacking and nature watching opportunities abound -- a good way to cut down on the gas budget.

This month OFF shows you some cool places to go this spring -- places you can get to quickly and easily. So get up and get out, it's spring.

Southeast Missouri

Ozark Trail: Backpacking, Off-road biking

We've all heard the name "Ozarks," those fabled old mountains of hillbilly lore. But how many have actual experienced this national treasure that sits in our own backyard?

If you want to get down and dirty with the old mountains, the Ozark Trail is the way to go. The mountains, knobs, streams, shut-ins, caves and waterfalls will be your guide. This trail winds through 140 miles of the Ozarks, running through large sections of the Mark Twain National Forest in Carter, Reynolds, Butler, Wayne, Washington and other counties in Missouri.

Hike or bike from Sam A. Baker State Park to the massive man-made Wappapello Lake, see the undisturbed serenity of the Eleven Point River or walk on Missouri's highest point, Taum Sauk Mountain and through Johnson Shut-Ins.

Trail sections range from 8 to 40 miles, so the option is available for short jaunts or long trips through the wilderness.

Hiking, biking and horseback riding are all allowed on the trail. But be prepared, this is real roughing it.

More information on the trail can be found at www.ozarktrail.com.

Cost: The price of this trip depends on what you want to make of it. A short day hike can be cheap, but if you want to make a full weekend of it, you'll need supplies.

* $30-40 for a day of fun, complete with lunch and gas, for two

* $70-200 for a weekend of wilderness, depending on what gear you need.

Eleven Point River: Canoeing, Kayaking

This river is known as one of the most pristine and scenic in the state, and has been looked at that way since the first settlers came on it back in the day.

The Eleven Point is known as a National Scenic River, and scenic it is. It's 44.4 miles of spring-fed glory is almost completely undeveloped. Unlike the nearby Current River, which has towns along its banks, no such thing exists on the Eleven Point. Just pure outdoors.

The river is an easy float, so don't expect huge rushing whitewater. But the Eleven Point is fun, scenic and super-relaxing. A great getaway less than three hours of driving to the southwest.

The floatable portion has several points of access, making a customized trip simple. Floats can go from a short 4.9 mile to the 19-mile Greer to Riverton float, an awesome and leisurely two day float with some fun chutes and small rapids.

Floating is good from spring through fall on many parts of the river. In the dead summer heat, the cool spring fed waters make for a great bath.

The fishing is good on the Eleven Point, making a familiar site of canoe-goers with poles, john boats and giggers. Bring along a fly-fishing rig, there's plenty of bass, trout and other fish.

Camping is available at several float camps along the side of the river.

Nothing like camping out of your canoe to feel like a real world traveler.

About half the land along the Eleven Point is private, so watch out when you dock for stumbling into trespassing territory.

You can find out more about the Eleven Point by calling the Mark Twain National Forest at (573) 364-4621.

Cost: $100-200, includes a supplies, gas and canoe rental for two, for two days.

Saint Francis River: Whitewater kayaking

Matt Grossman overlooks the Missouri Whitewater Association championship last month. (Photo by John Neibling/Missouri Whitewater Association)

The St., Francis River winds its way through the Mark Twain National Forest in Iron, Madison, Wayne, Stoddard, New Madrid and Dunklin Counties on it way to Arkansas, but the area we're concerned with is the northern end.

Where Wake Wappapello helps turn the lake into a meandering watering hole for farming, the headwaters in the St. Francois Mountains plunge through the Ozarks, creating well-known whitewater rapids.

Kayaks, canoes and rafts can all run this river pretty much year-round.

These rapids within two-hours drive are not for beginners in many places. Beginners can be safe in some areas, but some tough water runs through the St. Francis, and it requires some skill to navigate in other places. So good are the rapids that the Missouri Whitewater Association holds its championship tournament every year, so do your research before you go.

Campgrounds abound along the good stretches of the St. Francis, much of it in Forest Service lands, so take a few dollars for the box.

There's lots of stuff to see and do in this area riddled with state parks, so there are many ways to make a weekend of it.

Cost: $75-125, full weekend, kayaking and camping

Sam A. Baker: Canoeing, Cycling, Hiking

Yet another entry from those beautiful St. Francois Mountains of Southeast Missouri!

Nestled in the mountains lies one of the best, most beautiful state parks in the region -- Sam A. Baker State Park. The park offers just about any activity you'd want to get in on -- hiking, biking, fishing, backpacking, canoeing, camping, cabining.

The St. Francis River here provides for leisurely canoe floats and makes a good swimming hole for those dog days of summer. Either take a quick 4 mile float in a day or stretch out a 14 to 18-mile float over two days. The choice is yours.

Or hike the 12-mile Mudlick Trail, a strenuous little piece that will turn your calves into solid rock on the way to the top of Mudlick Mountain.

And when your done, you can dowse your hunger in the park's on-site restaurant. Now that's convenience.

Cost: $100-150 for a good weekend of canoeing and camping for two, less if you don't have to rent canoes or just want to hike or bike. Add another $50-75 to stay in a cabin.

Southern Illinois

Cache River State Natural Area: Swamp canoeing, Nature watching

Swamps are one of the under-appreciated natural beauties of this area, and the Cache River State Natural houses some great swamp.

This area in Southern Illinois is home to three distinct ecological regions -- a meeting of the points of the compass right here at home.

Full of gigantic cypress and tupelo trees, some over 1,000 years old, the natural area allows biking, canoeing through the large swamp, short hikes and a chunk of the Tunnel Hill State Trail. With 14,314 acres total, there's plenty to do.

Great nature watching, too -- over 100 species of endangered or threatened animals.

Canoeing through the deep reaches of swamp is one of the unique experiences Cache River area offers, transporting visitors back to the time when wetlands covered much of the local terrain.

Guided tours through the swamp on canoe are available for fairly low rates, but if you have your own then you can just do it yourself.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources Web site has more information, but you can call (618) 634-9678 to speak to a human.

Cost: A good day trip for two at $50.

Camp nearby and make it a weekend for $80.

Tunnel Hill State Trail: Biking, Hiking

The Tunnel Hill State Trail is famous to cyclists in our area, winding its way through Southern Illinois along the trail of an old rail bed.

Riders and hikers can go over wooden trestles and bridges over bluffs and creeks on their way through this 45-mile trail from Harrisburg to Karnak.

As recently as 1991, the trail still held rails from its time as a Norfolk Southern railway, but it was given over to the state, which furnished a nice bed of gravel that's easy on the legs. The trail offers an array of scenic vistas, with hardwood forests, bluffs and wetlands.

Some cool landmarks sit along the trail, like the tunnel that gives Tunnel Hill its name. Located at roughly the trail's midpoint, it's one-quarter mile north of Vienna.

If you want to take a multi-day bike ride on the trail, multiple communities along the way offer amenities and supplies. Several campgrounds are also within 10 miles of the trail for hikers and bikers.

Get more info on the trail by logging on to IDNR's site or calling (618) 658-2168.

Cost: A day trip is super-cheap, but staying overnight could make a $90 trip for two if staying in a hotel, about half that if camping.

Draper's Bluff, Jackson Falls: Rockclimbing

Rock climbing: So easy even a kid can do it. (Photo by Don Frazier)

Rock climbers know, but you may not -- Southern Illinois is great for rockclimbing.

Several spots within just a short distance of Cape and each other offer opportunities for experienced climbers, intermediate climbers and instruction for beginners.

Draper's Bluff offers the areas tallest, high-quality stone at about 110-feet tall from its base, according to local climbing expert Eric Ulner.

Much of the bluff is now off-limits to climbers, except for a 36-acre portion on the south face Ulner owns. He allows people to climb there for free and offers private instruction for beginners and competent climbers.

A short distance away lies a little hollow carved out of the Shawnee National Forest known around the area for its climbs -- Jackson Falls. Located near the small town of Ozark, Jackson Falls sports a myriad of climbs to keep climbers going all weekend. The canyon wall ranges from 30 to 70 feet tall, creating room for a diverse array of climbing routes. Undeveloped areas allow for primitive camping and a beautiful spring feeds a pool in times of high water.

Ulner can tell you all you need to know about Southern Illinois climbing if you call his school, Vertical Heartland, at (618) 995-1427.

Cost: $280 for a day-long session with Ulner to learn how to climb. It's a steep price, but you'll definitely learn a few things.

If you already know how to climb, a weekend with free camping at Jackson Falls just includes the cost of gas and supplies, about $50.

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