Five years ago, I wrote about the difficulty in reaching the Panther Den Wilderness in the Shawnee National Forest.
The situation has improved since then. The gravel access road isn't as rough, the damaged culvert has been replaced, the trail has been reconstructed in places, and new trail markers have been posted.
A street sign -- which has become encapsulated by a tree -- marks the turnoff for Panther Den Lane, the access road.
This narrow gravel road ends at a small parking lot and trailhead. A sign at the beginning of the trail includes this pithy quote: "There is no higher service that the forests can supply to individuals and community than the healing of mind and spirit which comes from hours spent where there is great solitude."
The trail leading into the wilderness area has been improved, although it follows a somewhat more circuitous route, presumably to alleviate erosion problems. Since the Panther Den trail merges with the River-to-River Trail, it's important to follow the markers for Trail #371 to avoid taking an unwanted detour.
Eventually the trail approaches a sandstone bluff on the right which leads into the Panther Den. The name tends to downplay the sheer size and complexity of the area: it's not just a single den, but an entire labyrinth of rooms, passages, crevices, and overhangs.
Cracks in the sandstone have been enlarged over geologic time, creating walls with surprisingly sharp corners.
In other places, the bluffs have only split apart a short distance, leaving narrow crevices that are barely wide enough to shimmy along.
Some sections of the Panther Den are not nearly as orderly, as massive slabs of rocks lean or dangle at precarious angles. These boulders can be hazardous obstacles to climb around.
Another challenge is the mud. Since the passages spend much of the day in deep shadow, the ground can remain in a perpetual state of muck just waiting to swallow your shoes or boots.
Nevertheless, the Panther Den offers some of the best rock formations in Southern Illinois. It may not be quite as easy as falling off a log, but the improved access road and trail have made reaching this wilderness area more convenient.
From Cape Girardeau, cross the Emerson Bridge and follow Highway 146 east through McClure, Ware, Jonesboro and Anna. At the eastern outskirts of Anna, just beyond the last stoplight, turn left on Lick Creek Road. After 8 miles, veer left on Grandview Road then bear left on Hall Church Road. Turn right on Rocky Comfort Road and go north for almost 3 miles.
Make a right turn on Panther Den Road and go east for 1.5 miles. Look for the turnoff for Panther Den Lane on the left. Take this road north for one-half mile to the parking area, located on the right at the far end of the road.