Are you planning a holiday in southern Illinois and looking for things to do while on vacation? Here we have a range of the best places to visit and things to do in southern Illinois
Southern Illinois can be a beautiful spot for a unique and interesting vacation.
With such a range of activities available, it can be a suitable destination for all holiday styles – from family vacations to romantic getaways or even solo travel.
Southern Illinois has beautiful natural features, unique historical and cultural sites, and a great variety of local food and drink.
Here we will explore some of the best places to go and things to do while in southern Illinois.
Southern Illinois attractions
Read on to discover the most fun things to do in southern Illinois.
Explore a State Park
Illinois is a wonderful location for nature lovers with hundreds of state parks in the state.
With over 33 in southern Illinois, visitors are spoilt for choice.
Some of these include the ever-popular Giant City State Park, Dixon Spring State Park, and Cave in Rock State Park.
The parks all have a range of activities available for visitors to enjoy. These range from hiking to horse-riding to picnicking.
Cave in Rock State Park is considered one of the best spots for picnics with a picnic site located right on the riverfront.
Dixon Springs State Park can be quite unique with a mix of historical sites and modern activities such as geocaching available.
Giant City State Park offers a variety of activities, including rock climbing and horse-riding. Wondering where to stay in Giant City State Park, click here.
To see the top State Parks of southern Illinois and get some more information, see our Top 7 list here.
Expanding further on the theme of exploring nature, hiking is a great activity to enjoy in southern Illinois.
Many of the state parks previously mentioned have extensive hiking trails and are full of picturesque scenery.
Giant City State Park has over 20 miles of hiking trails, most of which are at gentle elevations and beginner-friendly. Dogs are also allowed as long as they are on a leash.
Fort Massac State Park is one of the most southern state parks in Illinois and has many trails with beautiful views over the Ohio River and surrounding forest.
Many of the trails in this park are paved, which provides a great option for visitors who may have accessibility issues but still wish to enjoy the natural surroundings.
For a more extensive breakdown, see our list of best hiking trails in Illinois here. If you visit Illinois in winter, check out this post in which we share the best things to do and winter hikes in Illinois.
Southern Illinois is an area full of beautiful nature to explore.
Many of the scenic nature spots in the area feature breathtaking waterfalls and waterways.
Fern Clyffe State Park is known as one of the best spots for ‘waterfall chasing’ as it is sometimes called.
Most of the hiking trails in the state park pass by at least one waterfall, with the 100ft Fern Clyffe Waterfall as the main feature.
The clear waters of the waterfall make for an amazing view.
Dixon Springs State Park is also known for its waterfalls, although in this case, it is a series of waterfall cascades stretching along the trail.
This is great for a light hike as you can experience many different views of the waterfall along the trail.
For some more insight into Southern Illinois’ best waterfalls, check out our Top 16 here.
Stumble upon historic sites
Exploring historical sites is another great way to experience the area. Here are some of the best historical sites to enjoy:
Fort de Chartres
Fort de Chartres is a remnant of the 18th Century French colonization of the area of Illinois.
There were originally three wooden forts and one stone fort but today only the stone fort remains.
The fort was occupied for much of the 18th Century, first by France and later by Great Britain, but fell into disrepair after flooding in 1772. Now, it is home to Illinois’ oldest building – the powder magazine of the fort as well as many reconstructions of the original buildings and some exposed foundations of the original structure.
The fort is home to a range of clubs and organizations dedicated to preserving and celebrating its unique history. There are also regular events to display and celebrate history.
Visiting the Fort de Chartres is a great way to learn about the French Colonial aspect of Illinois’ past.
Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site
Fort Kaskaskia is part of the French Colonial Historical Area and is considered a key part of the French Colonial history of Illinois.
It was originally a small town of French settlers and Native Americans. The area was later ceded to Great Britain. Kaskaskia was the first state capital of Illinois.
The town also provided support during the American Revolution.
However, the site of the original town is no longer there, due to the floods and changing course of the Mississippi River.
The remnants consist of the earthworks of the fort, the cemetery, and the Menard house.
There are also pavilions, a picnic area, and a nearby campground. The historic site offers amazing views over the Mississippi River and a connection to history.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is a unique site of great archaeological interest.
It is the original site of an ancient Native American city dating from 1050-1350CE. This makes it the most complex prehistoric site north of Mexico.
The site covers 2,200 acres, or around 9km2, and contains around 80 manmade mounds, although the original city was much larger.
The earthen mounds show evidence of a complex and sophisticated society. There are a number of different tours available at the current site, both guided and self-guided are available.
The guided tours visit the most famous sites and last around one hour. Self-guided tours consist of various trails around the area, often exploring some of the more remote mounds.
The Cahokia Mounds Historic Site is a great way to experience both nature and a very unique part of history.
Lewis and Clark State Historic Site
The Lewis and Clark State Historic Site is a massive six-gallery exhibit space dedicated to the history of the momentous Lewis and Clark expedition.
It commemorates Camp Dubois, the winter camp where Lewis and Clark prepared for their expedition to the Pacific.
It is located on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail which follows the route of the historic expedition.
The large space features interactive exhibits, film, and educational displays.
There is also a reconstruction of the Camp River Dubois and Settlers’ Cabin, designed to the regulations of US Army military posts of the time.
There are also many guides on-site to provide further information on the expedition, the preparation, and the historical significance of the expedition.
Admire historic bridges
Mary’s River Covered Bridge
The Mary’s River Covered Bridge is a wonderful surviving part of Illinois’ history.
Constructed in 1854 from native white oak timber, the bridge provided an essential link in the transport of agricultural products, especially to the nearby port town of Chester.
It was a toll road and played a key part in the economic success of the late 1800s.
The bridge was in use until 1930 and taken into government ownership in 1936 in order to preserve it.
This means necessary measures for preservation have taken effect for many decades to keep it in the best condition possible.
Mary’s River Covered Bridge is the last remaining covered bridge in southern Illinois and so is an important part of state history.
There is a delightful park and picnic area located near the bridge, making it a suitable visit for the whole family.
The Old Chain of Rocks bridge
The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge is an interesting part of American history.
Its unique appearance signifies the innovation present in early 20th Century construction.
The bridge spans the Mississippi River and features an almost 30-degree bend halfway across.
The bridge was originally part of the famous Route 66 and its red color, towering piers, and of course, the bend made it one of the most visited bridges of the time.
The name came from a series of rocky rapids in that area of the Mississippi which are notoriously difficult to navigate.
These rapids are largely what contributed to the bend, as the bridge was initially intended to be straight.
However, boatmen complained that navigating the rocky area and the bridge piers would be too dangerous.
Through the mid-20th Century, the bridge fell into disrepair and was almost demolished many times. However, it has now experienced a revival as a bike and pedestrian bridge.
This allows the bridge to be both useful and convey a sense of history.
Visit a wildlife refuge
Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge
The Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge is a refuge aiming to promote conservation and work in synergy with agriculture and industry in order to foster a healthy economy while still protecting important wildlife.
This is a necessary purpose and important to create a sustainable future.
Much different wildlife can be seen at the refuge. It is largely seasonal, due to various migration and breeding patterns.
For example, fall is a great time to spot white-tailed deer on the refuge, while summer is more suited to birdwatching for songbirds, especially bluebirds.
Bobcats can also sometimes be seen on the refuge.
If just wildlife watching isn’t your thing, the area is also great for hiking, kayaking, and even fishing.
These are all activities to partake in while looking out for the native wildlife.
The Rocky Bluff trail is especially good for hiking with beautiful waterfall views. For more information on the Rocky Bluff trail, see here.
Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge
The Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge is also part of the National Wildlife Refuge system and so its goals are in line with those of other refuges.
The Cypress Creek refuge was set up to protect and restore the wetlands and native wildlife which rely on the wetlands.
The refuge is located between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and is at the intersection of four physiographic regions, making the biodiversity of the wetlands unique and very important to maintain.
Some of the common wildlife of the area include waterfowl, shorebirds, and various other wetland animals.
There are also many important trees in the area, including giant cane – the only bamboo native to North America, and bottomland hardwoods – one of the wettest types of hardwood forest.
This allows for a rich diversity of amphibians and reptiles along with the endangered Indiana bat.
TreeHouse Wildlife Center
They are dedicated to “the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of native wildlife while promoting environmental awareness through education”.
This is a great cause and very important in the modern world.
The educational aspect of their program takes place by inviting visitors into the wildlife center, allowing them to experience the outdoor facilities where wildlife recovery is taking place and the on-site education center.
There are also a number of ‘resident animals’ who have been injured in such a way that they can’t return to the wild.
These include owls, coyotes, bobcats, and groundhogs, along with a variety of turtles and snakes.
Have a beer
After doing some more strenuous activities it is understandable to want to take a break and have a relaxing beer.
This can be done by visiting the microbrewery, Scratch, located near the Shawnee National Forest.
The brewery focuses on farmhouse beers and uses a range of farm-grown, home-grown, and foraged ingredients. In fact, it was named one of the top four breweries for foraged beers by Outside Magazine.
The foraged style allows for the introduction of a range of interesting and unique flavors, such as dandelion, nettle, chanterelle mushrooms, juniper, and elderberry.
Visiting Scratch is a great way to experience something new while still relaxing and enjoying a beer.
It is also surrounded by beautiful forestation, making it a wonderful place to have a drink.
Go wine tasting
Wine-tasting is another way to relax while still enjoying the local sights and cuisine.
There are many vineyards in the region that can offer an amazing experience and great-tasting wines.
Some of these include Blue Sky Vineyards, which offers the romance of Italy while in southern Illinois, and Alto Vineyards, a family-owned and run business. Aerie’s resort in Grafton combines wine tasting with a zipline and a skytour.
Here you can find more info about Aeries and other wineries in Grafton.
There is also Hogg Hollow Winery, the first winery of Pope County which is surrounded by the beautiful Shawnee Forest.
Cache River Basin Vineyard and Winery is also popular for both its beautiful location and delicious wines.
There are a number of wine trail maps available which provide a recommended wine-tasting route.
These are great as you can take the route at your own pace, and even take detours to other sightseeing areas along the way. Here is an overview of the best southern Illinois wineries. Wondering where to stay? Check out these amazing cabins near the southern Illinois wine trail.
Golf is a popular hobby for many and there’s no reason you should have to give that up while on holiday.
Even for casual golfers or beginners, playing a round on southern Illinois’ best courses is a great experience.
Surrounded by the beautiful nature of southern Illinois, a round of golf is a great way to view nature while taking part in a fun activity.
There is a range of golf courses available, including Crab Orchard Golf Course – a semi-private course with lush fairways and beautiful oak trees, Gambit Golf Club – with 6546 yards of golf, and more.
Keller’s Crossing is popular with its range of package options. As it is also a resort, there is a variety of day passes, weekend, and longer stay options available.
These golf courses are a great way to enjoy southern Illinois.
Fishing is another great outdoor activity to take part in while visiting southern Illinois.
There are a number of lakes that are perfect for fishing with a range of different fish available.
The previously mentioned Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge allows fishing, both on the river banks or from a small boat, in the main lake areas.
Various fish are available to catch throughout the year including bluegill, crappie, and bass.
The nearby Ferne Clyffe State Park has bank fishing for largemouth bass, bluegill, catfish, and redear and is impressive in its variety of high-quality fish.
Crab Orchard Lake is located in the Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge and has many largemouths, crappies, catfish, and panfish able to be caught.
There are also many different bass varieties available.
These are all great options for relaxing holiday fishing.
Go swimming in the lake of Egypt
Lake of Egypt is one of Illinois’ best-kept secrets.
Secluded and serene, the privately-owned but public accessible reservoir is popular among locals.
The lake is owned by the Southern Illinois Power Cooperative which created the reservoir from the Saline River in order to provide cooling water for the electric power plant.
However, the lake has become much more than that.
With over 90 miles of shoreline, the lake is popular as a spot for all sorts of water activities.
This includes boating, as well as waterskiing, jet skis, and of course, swimming.
For the average traveler, swimming is perhaps the best choice to enjoy the serenity of the Lake of Egypt without needing any equipment or additional costs.
Go horseback riding
The previously mentioned Giant City State Park has a great range of hiking trails but is also available for horseback riding.
With on-site stables, visitors can take part in a trail ride guided by experienced wranglers.
There are also lessons and pony rides available for younger and less confident riders.
The guided trail rides usually take around one hour and trek through private trails of the state park.
Exploring the park via horseback is a great way to experience the trails in a new and interesting way.
This also allows you to access the private trails of the stables and see parts of the park that might not be accessible otherwise.
Go rock climbing
With the many state parks and abundant rock bluffs in the area, it is no surprise that southern Illinois can offer great rock-climbing experiences.
Whether you are an experienced climber or new to the activity, rock climbing is interesting to explore and experience a new area.
Giant City State Park has a number of designated climbing areas and is very popular.
However, Jackson Falls of Shawnee National Forest is the favorite of the area.
There are 60 different climbing areas along the sandstone bluffs and boulders, each with varying levels of difficulty.
These climbing areas usually have a range of named routes on them, adding up to over 500 routes in total.
This includes 50-foot technical climbs, along with standard sport routes and some traditional routes.
Ziplining is a unique and interesting way to experience picturesque natural surroundings while doing a fun and exciting activity.
Rather than standard hiking trails, a canopy tour allows you to view the beautiful nature, wildlife, and terrain from above.
A canopy generally consists of various zip lines and aerial bridges, connected to create an extended route. This can be a fun activity, especially for the more adventure-seeking travelers.
In Shawnee National Forest there is a fully natural – entirely tree-based, with no manmade poles or structures – canopy tour.
There are 8 zip lines, 3 aerial bridges, and 3 small ground hikes.
There are two different tour packages available, with the main one costing $90 per person, covering all the area of the canopy tour and taking around 3 hours.
Southern Illinois is home to some amazing rivers and lakes that are perfect for kayaking.
Go paddling on Cedar Lake, enjoy the diverse vegetation at Shawnee National Forest, or discover the Cache River System.
Here you can find more info on kayaking in southern Illinois.
Go shopping at the Makanda Boardwalk
While visiting southern Illinois, you may want to take some time out to go shopping and browse the area.
Makanda Boardwalk is the ideal place for this.
The boardwalk has many local attractions and consists of several local shops.
Many of these are artisan shops and even galleries. This includes the Visions Art Gallery which features local artists and shows a range of art styles, such as painting, stained glass, ceramics, and more.
There is a range of other artisan shops also, including Rain Maker Studio, with unique metalwork in the form of jewelry, sculptures, and fountains, and Allan Stuck Studio, a world-renowned sculptor and jewelry designer.
He also offers custom work upon request.
Shopping along Makanda Boardwalk is a great way to see a range of local art and support local designers and shops.
Makanda is also the start point of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trails. Here you can find more info about this scenic route in Illinois.
Bike the Tunnel Hill State Trail
For biking enthusiasts, exploring a bike trail in a new area is a great way to explore.
The Tunnel Hill State Trail is a 45mile former rail line. It crosses various streams, ravines and passes through beautiful forest.
There is also an interesting and somewhat spooky 543-foot rail tunnel to pass through.
It is advisable to have a light for this part of the trail.
Along the trail, you can see several small towns and ghost towns.
This is a great way to explore parts of the area that are usually unseen.
Most of the slopes along the trail are gentle, as that was better for the train, the trail’s original purpose.
Services are inconsistent, so it is best to stock up on water, etc when it is available.
Cycling the Tunnel Hill Bike Trail is a unique way to explore southern Illinois, for both experienced cyclists and beginners.
Visit a museum
Visiting museums is a popular holiday activity and for good reason; being in a new area with new culture, history, cuisine and the like, learning about the history of certain parts of the area is a great way to spend time.
There are many great museums in southern Illinois, including the Super Museum, the world’s largest collection of Superman items.
The Super Museum
Located in the ‘home of Superman’, Metropolis, the Super Museum is perfectly placed to house the enormous collection of Superman toys, media, promotional materials, costumes, and more.
The museum celebrates the different eras and portrayals of Superman through the items and materials associated with it.
The African American Museum
A more serious museum to visit is the African American Museum of southern Illinois.
The African American Museum is a non-profit organization aiming to preserve and celebrate African American history and achievements.
They display exhibits of everything from African American art to slave artifacts.
This museum is a great way to engage in culture and support African American organizations.
Grab a bite
Of course, while traveling it is necessary to eat as well.
However, this can also be turned into an interesting experience by dining at unique, historical, or well-renowned establishments.
There are many such places in southern Illinois. Some of these include the Ariston Café, one of the oldest American cafes on the famous Route 66.
Having opened in 1924, the Ariston Café is nearing 100 years of continually being open. Another interesting option is the Vault Café in Marion, Illinois.
The Vault Café is a café located in a 100-year-old historic bank building with the vault still intact (hence the name). There is even seating for four available inside the original vault.
Finally, for some traditional, top-quality American barbeque, there is nowhere better than 17th Street BBQ. This isn’t an exaggeration as 17th Street BBQ has been named “Best Ribs in America” by Bon Appetit magazine.
The restaurant is committed to traditional family-style ribs and sauces. It is the perfect location to end a busy day of exploring southern Illinois.
Visit a water park in southern Illinois
Southern Illinois is also home to some amazing water parks.
If you are looking for more waterparks in Illinois, click here.
Southern Illinois is an amazing destination for a unique and varied holiday. With a huge range of nature, historical sites, and cuisine, it is a great location for all ages and holiday styles.
Deciding where to go and what to do while in a new place can be a daunting task, so we have brought together this compilation of the best places to go and things to do while visiting southern Illinois.
See the web story that accompanies this post.