About this Itinerary
If you enjoy riding over trestle bridges and through dark tunnels you must experience the Tunnel Hill State Trail (THST) in southern Illinois. This trail is 55.6 miles long and has 23 trestle bridges and a 543-foot tunnel. The trestles range in length from 34 to 450 feet long.
The rail-trail is part of a former railroad founded by Civil War General Ambrose Burnside, who is best remembered for his sideburns. General Burnside and others began the Vincennes and Cairo Railroad. Like so many other railroads, ownership changed hands over the years. The last owners, Norfolk Southern Railroad, gave the railroad between Harrisburg and Kamak to the State of Illinois in 1991. The first part of the trail opened in 1998 and was completed in 2001.
The trail can be completed in one day if you’re an experienced cyclist. If you want to do the trail but are concerned about riding the trail both ways in one day, make arrangements for someone to pick you up at the end of the trail. Another option is to split your trip over two days and take your time to stop and take pictures or have a picnic lunch. The trail runs from Karnak to Harrisburg and is simply magnificent.
Getting to THST takes a bit of planning but is well worth it. If you fly into Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and rent a car it will take you a little more than two-and-a-half hours to drive to Marion, Illinois. Alternatively, you can fly from St. Louis to Williamson County Regional Airport (MWA) in Marion, which has daily flights between the two destinations.
We recommend staying at the Comfort Inn Marion in Marion. The hotel is located in the heart of southern Illinois and close to restaurants, the Williamson Airport and a number of fabulous outdoor attractions.
Two Marion restaurants we recommend are Don Sol Mexican Restaurant, which is known for their pollo loco and pollo paya (a.k.a. chicken on the beach), and Asian Bistro, which offers Thai, Korean and Chinese options. We also recommend dinner at the Bald Knob Restaurant at Giant City Lodge, which is about 20 minutes from Marion. The lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and has maintained the rustic beauty of a mid-western lodge. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can order bison steak. If bison isn’t on your wish list, we suggest you try their famous family-style chicken dinner or any of the other delicious items on their menu.
This itinerary starts at the Barkhausen-Cache River Wetlands Center in Cypress on the western end of the trail. Before hitting the trail, we recommend you a stop at the center, which doubles as a nature center and natural history museum. Here you can watch a 12-minute video on the cultural and historical impact of the watershed and the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. The center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The trail continues through four counties and is surrounded by scenic views, ghost towns, forests, farmlands and neighborhoods. THST is extremely user friendly with privy toilets and drinking water; the surface is crushed limestone. At times, trees are towering over you and other times you are riding in the open landscape.
The wildlife along the trail is abundant on the ground, in the trees and in the water when crossing the trestles. You can see deer, raccoons, rabbits, bluebirds, snakes and turtles. Turkeys have been known to crowd the trail from time to time.
The trail is mostly flat and easy to ride. In the middle, you go through a 543 foot-tunnel, which is the trail’s namesake. The tunnel is dark and we recommended you bring a headlamp. Other than the tunnel, the highlights of the trail are the trestles. We recommend you stop to hear the water hit the rocks or simply take in the beauty of your surroundings. There are interpretive signs along the length of the trail that point out old coal mines and a sandstone quarry.
If you completed the trail in one day, there are many nearby attractions to explore on your second day in the area. Giant City State Park is about 30 minutes from Marion. The park is ideal for a day trip to hike, fish or horseback ride while enjoying the beauty that is around you. If you’re planning on rock climbing, you need to bring your own equipment and tackle the cliffs at your own risk. If you want to combine a hike with a picnic, stop by McAlister’s Deli in Marion for sandwiches.
If you like wine, food and entertainment while taking in amazing scenery, we recommend taking a trip to Walker’s Bluff. The winery is located in Carterville, less than 30 minutes from Marion and has something for everyone including a winery, a full-service bar, a restaurant and a general store, where you will find casual food, jewelry and fun gifts.