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A dark railroad tunnel and two dozen trestles crossing streams and rocky ravines welcome visitors to the scenic Tunnel Hill State Trail as it travels 55 miles through forests and farmland in sparsely populated southern Illinois.
This gem of Illinois rail-trails was built on the former Cairo and Vincennes Railroad, which was completed in 1874 and hauled coal from southern Illinois mines, as well as produce and timber. Over the years, the railroad went through a series of ownership changes, and the tracks last belonged to Norfolk Southern Railroad, which turned the corridor over to the state in 1991. The first sections of trail opened in 1998.
Beginning at the Barkhausen-Cache River Wetlands Center, you’ll encounter a gentle, uphill slope for 22.5 miles to the tunnel, where the trail crests and begins a downhill run toward Eldorado. Several small towns and ghost towns are on this route, but services aren’t always available. It’s a good idea to refill water bottles when you can.
The first 2.7 miles to Karnak run on a former spur line of the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad. It passes through the swampy Cache River State Natural Area, which is home to giant cypress trees, some 1,000 years old. In Karnak, where a trailside campground opened in 2016, the Tunnel Hill State Trail bears left and picks up the railroad corridor.
You’ll pass the Heron Pond–Little Black Slough and Cave Creek Glade Nature Preserves. About halfway to Vienna, look for the ghost town of Forman to your left. A trailside park in Vienna, 10.5 miles past Karnak, is a good stop, and cafés and groceries are available in town.
In 3 miles, you’ll probably notice the grade steepen just outside Bloomfield. The railroaders tried to keep these slopes as gentle as possible to save fuel and time. That’s why they dug a tunnel, originally 800 feet long, through the hill here, 6.7 miles past Bloomfield, instead of going over the top. A section of the tunnel collapsed in 1929. The remaining 543-foot tunnel is pitch-black inside, so be sure to carry a flashlight or bike light so you don’t scrape the wall or run into another visitor.
Back out into the light, you’ll find a fully stocked trailhead on your right in the town of Tunnel Hill, where the remaining 33-mile ride to Eldorado begins. Entering the Shawnee National Forest, you’ll find a stunning landscape, with a high tree canopy that shades a trickling brook on the right. You’re more likely to hear the birds here than you are to see them, but the local rabbit population is everywhere. Users often report seeing deer and turkeys along the length of the trail.
After 6 miles, you arrive in the town of New Burnside. Looming bluffs mark the terrain here, providing a dramatic contrast to the forest you traveled through earlier. Another 4.4 miles takes you along a flat section along US 45 to Stonefort, whose trailhead includes a well-restored railroad depot. The next 6.7-mile stretch remains within sight of US 45 most of the way to Carrier Mills. Keep an eye out for turtles and snakes, which also like to use this trail. The next 7.5 miles meander past farm fields and the outskirts of Harrisburg, the largest town on the trail. You’ll spot restaurants, grocery stores, and motels as you pass through.
From the trailhead on the north side of town, it’s another 8.2 miles to the endpoint in Eldorado. The trail crosses IL 13, spans a bridge over the Middle Fork of Saline River in Muddy, and continues alongside US 45. Near your destination, you cross the 2-mile crosstown Eldorado Bicycle and Walking Path, another rail-trail.
To reach the Barkhausen-Cache River Wetlands Center near Cypress: From I-57, take Exit 24 and go east on Cypress Road/Dongola Road. Go 8.3 miles and turn right onto IL 37, following signs to the Wetlands Center. Go 2.5 miles and turn left into the Barkhausen-Cache River Wetlands Center, traveling a short distance to trail parking.
To reach the trailhead at Tunnel Hill: From I-24, take Exit 14 to US 45 and head north for 5.8 miles. Turn left on Tunnel Hill Road, continue for 1.0 mile, and look for the trailhead on the right, just before Possum Rd./Main St.
To reach the Harrisburg trailhead: From I-57, take Exit 54. Continue on State Route 13 east for 24.2 miles. Turn right on US 45/N Commercial Street and head south for just 0.1 mile. Turn right on Walnut Street then right on Veterans Drive. The trailhead is on the right.
To reach the Eldorado High School trailhead: From I-64, take Exit 110 and head south on US 45 toward Norris City. Go 21.4 miles, and turn right to remain on US 45. In another 11.2 miles, turn right onto Alexander St. in Eldorado. Go 0.5 mile and turn left onto N. Main St. Go 0.4 mile and turn left into an unmarked drive that heads into the Eldorado High School sports complex. The Tunnel Hill State Trail begins 0.2 mile ahead.
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