The rugged Trail of Tears State Forest in the southern Ozark Hills of Illinois has everything you need to stay busy whether you are going to spend just the day or a whole week. Whether you are into hiking, picnicking, hunting, or horseback riding, the Trail of Tears State Forest has all that and more.
And no matter how big your RV or trailer, the campsite pad sizes go all the way up to 130 feet so you should be able to find one that’s perfect for you. The campground is spread over the 5,000 acres of forest and although they are basic campsites, there are picnic tables and fire rings for your convenience and several of the picnic shelters have toilets and drinking water.
The area where the forest sits was first used by prehistoric Indians who would hunt game and collect nuts while settling by the Mississippi River or Clear Creek. In 1929, the park was bought by the State of Illinois and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built many shelters and walls in the picnic areas. If you like water sports, there are some streams in the forest area where you can fish or hunt for crawfish or just spend the day splashing in the clear water.
Right off Highway 146 in Jonesboro, Illinois you can find the Trail of Tears State Forest just a couple of hours northwest of St. Louis and only a half an hour from Carbondale to the northeast. While the highways are easily navigated and well cared for by the state, once you get closer to the park, you will run into some more narrow and winding roads.
If you are driving a large RV or pulling a camper or trailer, it is best to take it slow and easy. It is a good idea to go slow here anyway because sometimes the wild critters like deer and foxes tend to wander onto the road. Keep your camera or phone handy so you can get some shots of the beautiful countryside in the Ozark Hills.
In the park, you will notice that the roads are rugged and rough, so it is important for you to slow down no matter what you are driving. Since you are in the forest, you will probably run into some low-hanging branches and ruts or potholes. Keep your eyes open for animals and other campers and once you park your RV, you are better off walking or bike riding wherever you need to go.
There are 14 standard campsites open all year at the Trail of Tears State Forest. These are basic sites with pad lengths ranging from 25 to 130 feet in length, so you are in luck no matter how massive your RV is. However, since there are only 14 campsites and the park is very popular, it is recommended that you reserve your site before coming to the park. There are no water or electric hookups at these sites but there are restrooms and potable water at several of the shelters and picnic areas around the campground. In addition, each site includes a fire ring and picnic table in the clearing and plenty of shade among the mature pines and oaks. Pets are welcome here, but you must keep them on a leash or otherwise restrained at all times.
Some of the sites may be available at the campground on a first-come, first-served basis. However, this is on a day-to-day basis and if one is reserved while you are there, you will have to leave.
Pack your whole family in the camper and head to the Trail of Tears State Forest for a picnic or BBQ. There are two large shelters at the main picnic section. One of these holds up to 500 people and has a restroom, electric, drinking water, eight picnic tables, and two BBQ pits. The other large shelter holds up to 100 people, has 12 picnic tables, a restroom, drinking water, and a BBQ pit. There are three other shelters at various spots in the campground that hold 50, 30, and 25 people with restrooms, water, picnic tables, and a BBQ pit. Four of these shelters are ADA-accessible and dogs are allowed if on a leash.
Although there are no official lakes or rivers in the Trail of Tears State Forest, there are plenty of streams and ponds in many areas so pack your poles in the RV. You won’t be needing a boat but you can wear a swimsuit so you can cool off in the water if you get hot. Some visitors say there are plenty of small panfish and crawdads in the streams and ponds as well as frogs and turtles. You will need an Illinois fishing license though.
Along with all the miles of hiking trails, the Trail of Tears State Forest also boasts some fantastic equestrian trails. Some of these include the Long Line Loop by Lyerla Farm, the Lost Trail West, and Hickory Hill. These trails are open from May until November and there is a trailhead on the main road by the park office. Equestrian use and trailer parking are not allowed on or along fire trails or roads, anywhere below the blacktop road, or on the hiking trails.
Be sure to pack your hunting gear in the rig before you head out to the Trail of Tears State Forest because there are plenty of game in these rugged areas. Although you cannot hunt near the nature preserve, by the picnic area, or within 300 yards of any building or road, the rest of the thousands of acres is a plethora of great hunting sites. You will find white-tailed deer, raccoons, turkeys, squirrels and more but make sure you have your Illinois hunting permit before you go.
Don’t forget your camera because you are going to find plenty of amazing sights to remember and share with others. Leave the rig at the campsite and go for a walk with your camera to find some of the 620 species of flowering ferns and plants in the forest. You will also see hundreds of different wild critters if you are quiet and look hard enough. Just standing still in the woods for a few minutes, you can probably see foxes, deer, chipmunks and all kinds of other creatures.
Leave the RV at the campsite and go explore the forest. That is why you are here, right? There are over a dozen fire trails throughout the 5,000 acres of forest with one that is specifically for cross-country running, if you are into that. Other trails are short and easy and most take you through the valley and hills of the lush forest where you can see lots of different types of critters. The lengths vary so you can take a short quarter-mile walk or do a 12-mile hike if you want.