A locked gate along a trail with no good place to park? This must be the Shawnee National Forest.
Southern Illinois is filled with many scenic places and historic sites, and yet the region seems to be squandering its many tourist opportunities. With terrible roads that make it extremely easy to get lost, National Forest policies that don't make any sense, and state parks that are closed due to the Budget Crisis of the Week, it's a wonder Southern Illinois enjoys any tourism at all.
The state might as well put up road signs at the border that say "WELCOME TO ILLINOIS. NOW GO AWAY!" (Except, of course, that posting road signs is something Illinois has never mastered.)
It's time that the leaders in Illinois get their acts together. Here are some cheap and easy suggestions for increasing tourism in Illinois. Let's call this the "Pavement Ends" Official Economic Stimulus Plan, which I'm presenting free of charge. (Hey, a consultant would charge big bucks for this service.)
Suggestion #1. Post some darn road signs!
Say what you will about Missouri, but at least our state and county highway departments are capable of posting accurate and useful road signs. Missouri roads are usually given one -- and only one -- name or number following a standard plan. State highways, county roads, and private lanes are usually easy to distinguish.
That's not the case in Illinois. Assuming you can find a sign at an intersection, it may or may not actually match any of your maps or GPS navigator. Take, for example, one road in Union County with three labels: "Cypress Road" (what road signs show), "County Road 14" (what my GPS shows) and "FAS 926" (what one printed map shows as the official designation). Oh, the insanity!
Pope County is even worse. They've devised a numbering system that allows for roads to change numbers at every major curve. This doesn't really matter, however, since the roads are rarely marked anyway. I've heard rumors that road signs exist in Pope County, but I've yet to observe any of these creatures in the wild.
It's hard to attract tourists when they can't find anything. If Illinois were to design a new state flag, I would recommend incorporating a symbol for a "Lost Tourist Stopping To Ask For Directions", one of the most common sights in the state.
You think I'm kidding? When I recently visited Pomona Natural Bridge, I talked to a fellow visitor who was upset about the difficulty finding the place. She figured she had taken the wrong turn when the access road entered an open field with a "NO TRESPASSING" sign. She turned around and chose another route, only to come to a dead-end at a farm surrounded by barking dogs.
It turns out she had taken the correct route the first time, despite the misleading private property warning. I doubt that she's the only one who has ever gotten lost along this road; a few simple "Natural Bridge Straight Ahead" signs could solve this problem.
To put a stop to this navigational madness, here are my specific recommendations:
1a. Adopt a unified system for naming roads statewide. Give each road one and only one name. Take a look at Missouri; we're not perfect, but at least we have a system.
1b. Post the names of these roads at every intersection or fork in the road. No exceptions. I'm looking at you, Pope County.
1c. The route to all tourist destinations should be clearly marked at every intersection or ambiguous fork in the road. No exceptions. In the scheme of things, road signs are dirt cheap compared with the economic activity created by tourism. I don't want to hear any excuses.
1d. Private lanes and dead-end roads should be clearly marked so that tourists don't waste time trying to drive down them.
Suggestion #2. Build some darn parking lots
The management of the Shawnee National Forest has a habit of erecting gates across old roads and banning motorized vehicles. Their reasoning is sometimes sketchy. For example, consider this notice posted along a now-abandoned road through Cave Creek Valley near Pomona:
Despite the stern warning of $5,000 to $10,000 fines, I saw lots of fresh ATV tracks along the road. So it seems law-abiding visitors are inconvenienced with nothing to show for it.
Of course, arguing over Forest Service policies is about as effective as herding cats. So, if they insist on restricting motorized vehicles, then fine. At the very least, however, they should provide parking areas where people can legally -- and safely -- park their cars while exploring these places on foot.
It doesn't make sense to have a trail if you must hike for several miles just to reach the trailhead. In the case of the Cave Creek trail, I was able to park in front of the gate, but only by carefully driving around a large mudhole.
Meanwhile, in Missouri, our Conservation Department typically provides numerous well-maintained parking areas for their trails and gated roads. (Indeed, sometimes they get a little carried away and build too many of them.)
Simple gravel parking lots are cheap, don't take up much room, and make it much easier for tourists to take advantage of "their" National Forest lands. It's not necessary to provide bathrooms or other facities, just a safe place to park off the road. Cars are a fact of life; deal with it.
Suggestion #3. Publish some decent websites, maps, brochures
Given the choice between looking through a haystack for a needle, or looking through the Internet for quality Illinois tourism information, I think the needle/haystack challenge might be easier.
Despite spending lots of quality time with Google, it's very difficult to find useful information and driving directions for many of the scenic destinations in Illinois. I've had to comb through random websites and blogs to find many of these places.
It's clear that tourism officials in Illinois need to do a better job promoting these destinations. And by "promotion", I'm not talking about some half-baked marketing program where megabucks are spent hiring a consultant to develop a lame slogan and print a bunch of glossy brochures with no useful information.
Put together some decent websites, maps, and brochures, and the tourists will come -- assuming you can provide excellent driving directions.
These suggestions should not be that hard to implement. But, hey, as a Missourian, I hope these things never happen. Thank you, Illinois, for making Missouri look so good.