While studying the Shawnee National Forest maps looking for good places to see fall color, I came upon Max Creek near Vienna, Illinois. It looked like a peaceful hike through a canyon along the River-to-River Trail.
Or so I thought. When I googled "Max Creek Illinois", I soon realized this wasn't an ordinary hiking trail. It carries quite a reputation for spooky happenings: mystery lights, feelings of vertigo and disorientation, weird changes in air pressure, freak injuries and other mishaps.
The trail starts innocently enough through a flat area of pine trees. Old roads crisscross the woods, suggesting that the area was dotted with homes and farms before the Forest Service aquired the land.
Eventually the trail starts to zigzag as it approaches the Max Creek canyon. At first the water is a long distance below, but the trail twists and turns while quickly descending to the valley floor.
Soon the trail crosses the creek near a swimming hole filled with large boulders that have tumbled from the bluffs on either side.
This is the site where the spookiness appears to be focused. It's called the Max Creek Vortex.
Tall bluffs on the opposite side provide plenty of opportunities to explore.
Continuing past the vortex, the trail follows Max Creek to a confluence with a smaller creek, lined on both sides by crazy rock formations.
Continuing up the main hollow, and after making several creek crossings, the steep bluffs give way to more gentle hillsides.
Just when I figured that all of the interesting rock formations were done, I saw a ribbon tied to a tree marked with a single tantalizing word: "CAVE". It was getting late, but I had to investigate. Sure enough, a short side trail led to a rock shelter completely isolated from any other rock formations.
Back at the main trail, the route follows the creek, then veers left to begin climbing toward the trailhead. The climb isn't very strenuous and the trail soon reaches an old road that is flat and straight. It's also quite boring, except for one place where the trail intersects a small glade of exposed rock.
Did I see anything spooky at the Max Creek Vortex? Not really. I did have a vague feeling of deju vu near the end of the hike, as if I had seen this trail before. But that's impossible: I only recently discovered this place on the map.
With the fall foliage at its peak, Max Creek offered spectacular scenery, even if its paranormal reputation was a dud. Maybe it would be more interesting to hike to the vortex after dark, but I remain skeptical.
From Cape Girardeau, cross into Illinois and take Highway 146 through McClure, Ware, Jonesboro and Anna to Vienna. At the four-way stop in Vienna, turn left on US 45 North. Follow the highway for 5.5 miles and turn right on Taylor Ridge Road near the high-voltage power lines. If you reach Taylor Ridge Church, you've gone too far. Follow the gravel road for 1.5 miles. After zigzagging twice, the road will enter the woods and eventually come to an abrupt end, with room to park on the left. The last portion of this road is a decent, but not great, gravel lane with at least one rough patch.
Be sure to study the map below. I'd recommend hiking the trail in a counter-clockwise loop for a total distance of roughly 4 miles.
A. From the parking area, hike straight ahead on a trail marked No. 1738. The entire loop is marked with the blue "i" symbol for the River-to-River Trail.
B. Carefully follow the trail as it makes a couple switchbacks and descends to the creek.
C. Cross the creek at the Vortex. At the trail junction, bear left and cross the creek again.
D. The creek branches in two. A side trail veers right and follows the smaller branch. Continue on the main trail to the left and cross the creek again.
E. Just after another creek crossing, a side trail on the left leads to what is likely a wet-weather waterfall.
F. After crossing the creek two more times, the trail begins climbing a hill and comes to an intersection with a side trail to the "CAVE."
G. The main trail leaves the creek, climbs to the hilltop, and comes to a small glade with exposed bedrock. After the glade, bear right at the old road intersection to stay on the trail and continue straight ahead to return to the trailhead.