Heron Pond, located near Belnap, Illinois, is a beautiful Designated Illinois Nature Preserve. My favorite thing about this trail is that you get to see so many different landscapes in such a short hike. Before you start your hike even, you first drive through a typical Southern Illinois small town (read: tiny) and see how us “common folk” live. We have our gardens (fenced to keep the deer out!) our rural homesite, and we are just trying to get by. As you travel to the trail head, you see parts of the Tunnel Hill Trail running parallel to the country road that takes you to the Heron Pond/Little Black Slough Trailhead. If you are up for a long hike or love to ride “rails to trails” this trail is wonderful. Finally, you end up at the trail head, off of Heron Pond Road. This is one of the nicer that we have been at. There are restrooms (no running water) and ample parking. Cache River Nature Area pamphlets are also available.
The trail itself begins as a tree-lined path downhill, but it is graveled and terraced to keep from getting washed out. Then you come out at a beautiful trellis bridge and on the North side of the bridge you have a nice view of the confluence of two old drainage water ways, utilized at the turn of the 20th century to drain the wetlands for logging. These creeks merge to make a pretty view of rushing waters over some rocks as the drainage of the Cache River Basin meanders South. At the end of this bridge, there are 5-6 stairs down, then the trail flattens out substantially. Though the beginning of this trail is not handicap accessible, it is not so rough that we couldn’t use a normal umbrella stroller for our toddler who would have been unable to handle the 1 mile round trip hike. It is not a rough hike, however, because our 6 and 4 year olds handled it just fine, with minimal whining withheld until the last .25 miles of the hike.
While meandering along a fork of the creek, and with alternating views of the woods and the pretty waterway, there are several interesting and insightful interpretive signs along the path explaining wildlife, history, and geomorphology of the area. Eventually you come to an area where you can distinctly see wetlands to your left, and the drainage way to your right. You are now closing in on the highlight of the hike: the Boardwalk. The boardwalk is just that; a floating boardwalk that takes you out into the cypress/tupelo swamp so that you can see up close and personal this breathtaking, other-worldly feel of this beautiful wetland. I am so thankful that others have had the forethought to not only preserve this “swamp” but have an eye for exactly how one needs to go about experiencing what life is like in the middle of this type of landscape. Keep a lookout for all kinds of wildlife, from Herons, to snakes, to thousands of sets of tiny frog eyes peaking out at you from under the ubiquitous duckweed. It is truly a unique experience, and not one you ever thought you would be enjoying in Southern Illinois!
After backtracking off the boardwalk back to the trail you have several options. You can simply follow the trail back the way you came, travel just .25 miles farther along the trail to see the State Champion Cherry Bark Oak, or follow a linking trail to Little Black Slough. It is still an easy, graveled trail, though narrower, back to the State Champion Tree, so we took it, and I believe it was well worth it to behold the sheer size of the tree. I may have pushed it a little far for the little legs along, but after a few short piggyback rides, they were back in business! Overall, from the parking area, to the boardwalk, to the State Champion Tree, and back to the parking area, it was a clearly marked, 1.5 mile round-trip hike, on very easy terrain. Well worth it, and one of my favorite hikes in Southern Illinois.
- Take bug spray in summer months
- Go Early to see the most wildlife
- Kid and stroller friendly hike
From Karnak, Illinois, turn north on Karnak/Belnap Road and continue for 5 miles, then turn Left onto Heron Pond Road, travel 1 mile to trailhead. Fairly well marked on IDNR signs, watch for signs to Heron Pond/Little Black Slough.