The Shawnee National Forest is full of surprises. This rock shelter, featuring two natural arches, is located only 13 miles from Cape Girardeau -- as the crow flies.
One arch is formed by a buttress of rock that appears to support the roof of the rock shelter.
Water spilling over the top of the shelter has eroded a second arch.
According to geological maps of the area, the shelter and arches are composed of chert rock, instead of the usual sandstone that forms most of the interesting rock formations in the Shawnee National Forest.
The shelter is part of broken line of bluffs that tower above the Mississippi River floodplain. To the north and sound, I found small canyons leading into the hills. Choked with boulders, these canyons would probably be called shut-ins in Missouri.
This lone rock presides over one of the canyons.
To reach these features, it's necessary to hike along an old road that follows a narrow strip of land between the bluffs on the east side and impenetrable swampland on the west side.
Union County Conservation Area is located a short distance to the west, but you would need a boat to get there.
The old road is still shown on some maps, but it has been abandoned for many years. The National Forest designated this area as Atwood Ridge Research Natural Area in 1990 and has allowed nature to reclaim the road. Portions of the roadbed are now inundated by swamp water, while other sections are blocked by downed trees from recent wind and ice storms.
Uncle Bob, a blogger for the Sierra Club in Southern Illinois, posted an update about this area, saying, "Forget this trail. Recently I checked both ends and can no longer find the trail. It has been overtaken by vegetation in the last 2 years."
That's awfully harsh. The road is still perfectly hike-able, with some patience, a good GPS device, and a spirit of adventure. The rock shelter, natural arches, bluffs, shut-in canyons, and swamps are worth the effort to visit.
Disclaimer: This hike is particularly challenging, even by Pavement Ends standards. We cannot be held responsible if anything bad happens while following these directions, including, but not limited to, the following calamities: you fall down a rabbit hole; you make a wrong turn and find yourself in East St. Louis; a swarm of mosquitoes carries you away; you slip and fall destroying the expensive camera you bought yesterday; an earthquake triggered by terrorists causes injuries; a pack of angry birds assaults you; you suffer a heart attack after stepping on a snake; you stumble on to private property protected by a large dog with ridiculously sharp teeth. You have been warned.
From Cape Girardeau, cross the Emerson Bridge and turn left on Highway 3. Drive north 6 miles and turn right on Old Cape Road at the village of Reynoldsville. Continue on Old Cape Road (blacktop) for 3.8 miles. Look for a gravel driveway on the left leading to a parking lot with the sign "Bluff Lake Parking." (Coordinates are 37.38676, -89.34839)
Park here and look for the faint trail leading toward a creek. Bear right and cross the creek. This is where it gets tricky: there is very little trace of the road here. Make your way north-northeast, and then hike due north when you come to an old fence line (private property is on the other side of the fence). The road is easier to follow as it continues north and reaches a big hill on the right. From here on, keep the hills and bluffs to your right, and the swampland to your left.
Continue on the old road for 2.1 miles from the trailhead to the coordinates 37.41757, -89.34629. Look to your right for a small creek that leads to the rock shelter above. A faint trail climbs the hill to the shelter.
You can explore several canyons/shut-ins in the surrounding hillsides. Two of these can be found at 37.42097, -89.34594 and 37.41635, -89.34702.
I recommend downloading and printing the Jonesboro quadrangle map from the Forest Service website.