The Trails of Shawnee

The Shawnee National Forest, located in southern Illinois, is comprised of 284,000 acres of rolling hills, creeks, canyons, bluffs and rugged rock formations between the banks of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Despite the rumors and half-truths, the Shawnee Forest is open to equestrians.

“We’re in the process of constructing a top-notch, sustainable trail system that takes into account the wishes of equestrians, as well as hikers,” says Brian Bourne, trail specialist for the Shawnee National Forest Hidden Springs Ranger District.

Bourne and his wife, Candace, own and ride horses. As members of the American Endurance Ride Conference, they competed in and managed the War Eagle, an endurance ride in Alabama, for 10 years. Although neither competes today, they enjoy riding in the Shawnee Forest.

“It’s the [United States] Forest Service’s goal to develop a top-quality system of trails that are designed and constructed, using the best knowledge and methods that we have available,” says Bourne. “You can build the most technically correct trail, but if it’s not a trail that takes people where they want to go, they aren’t going to use it.

“I don’t want my crews to focus so much on the engineering side of building of the trails that we forget the aesthetics and user experience,” Bourne continues. “That’s where I have a unique opportunity as a horseback rider, hiker, and trail builder. As I walk the woods to determine the route, I can see and feel the trail I’m creating. I try to design something that feels like you want to be on it. Sometimes the trail itself is the experience, regardless of the destination.”

Having said that, he added, “I have to temper and work within the framework of the rules and regulations. There are some places that we just can’t go to or get as close as we want to. Often, that’s because of the constraints and limitations imposed by environmental laws.”

Phase 1 of the Trails Designation project encompasses 78,800 acres in Big Grand Pierre Creek, Eagle Creek, Lusk Creek and Upper Bay Creek Watersheds. Of that, 13,230 acres are wilderness. When completed, 224 miles of trails will be designated. That figure doesn’t count the trails outside of these four watershed areas, which are still “open riding” for the time being.

“There is redundancy in some of the current trails,” says Bourne. “There might be a trail alongside Lusk Creek and another one on the other side that’s going the exact same place. For resource concerns, one of those trails can be eliminated.”

Lusk Creek Wilderness
The Lusk Creek Wilderness Area, located in the Lusk Creek Watershed, covers 6,700 of the 78,800 acres. It has a high concentration of private and commercial equestrian campgrounds, such as Bear Branch, Little Lusk Creek, Circle B, and Hayes Canyon. This area is presently getting the majority of the work in Phase 1.

Why is the Shawnee National Forest now creating a designated trail system in a place that seemingly has an endless number of acres to play in? “As time goes on, more and more people are trying to fit into less and less space,” explains Bourne. “When we go out to recreate, we’re loving our land and places to death.

“It’s the Forest Service’s goal and vision to develop a system of trails that is designated by map and signage that takes people to places they want to go, gets them there and back safely and in an interesting and enjoyable manner,” continues Bourne. “We’ll be constructing trails that I’ll personally enjoy riding and hiking.”

Trail junctions are being signed and mileage posted to direct trail users to their various destinations. In the process, the place names adopted by the USFS for some locations might sound unfamiliar to local riders. According to Jeff Seefeldt, a USFS district ranger, the names are based on local historical references, and that many areas in the forest have been known by various names. Nevertheless, there won’t be any duplication of points-of-interest names, and trails will be numbered. This, along with the new maps, will greatly assist out-of-town equestrians in finding their way to these wonderful spots.

Secret Canyon in the Lusk Creek Wilderness has a new and improved trail. The new portion avoids most of the low, wet drainage areas but is still close to the canyon walls that draw trail users. The cable tie-up for horses remains in the scenic rock cove and is often used as a lunch stop by riders.

The Indian Kitchen area has some trails hardened using small river rock with a clay binder mixture. A new tie-up area is planned and will be relocated to a spur trail approximately 100 to 150 feet off the main trail, near the current tie-up location.

While not in the wilderness boundary, the Rockhouse, a natural rock shelter that lies in a bluff above the meandering Lusk Creek, is a popular riding destination. It offers a stopover on top of the bluff with cable-line tie-ups. However, the creek crossing is closed, because the trail down is just that – down – and unsustainable. But you can walk down to view the Rockhouse. Bourne has made the ride to the Rockhouse a loop trail, instead of riders having to double back the same trail. This new trail will be constructed in the future, as priorities shift to areas outside the wilderness.

Salt Peter Cave and Natural Bridge are less than a quarter-mile apart and are now “ride-thru” trails only. Natural Bridge is a beautiful spot with the large, arched rock on one side and Lusk Creek on the other side of the trail. Devil’s Backbone, above Natural Bridge, is still accessible by horseback, although part of the trail is relocated.

The relocation of the tie-up area, or “stock confinement” as the USFS calls it, which was at Salt Peter Cave, has been completed. Unfortunately, it’s not the best place from which to walk over to Natural Bridge or Salt Peter Cave for a close-up view. Bourne agrees, but says, “There’s no area closer that we can develop a sustainable stock confinement.”

As for crossing Lusk Creek in the Lusk Creek Wilderness, there are now five legal crossings: Blanchard, Salt Peter Cave, Natural Bridge, Old Guest Farm, and Bowed Tree. Several of these crossings have been improved greatly, and several are scheduled for reconstruction to allow riders to make loops to their various destinations.

Drawbacks for equestrians include the two-month closure of the Lusk Creek crossing at Salt Peter Cave, a four-month (December 1 to March 31) trail closure in all wilderness areas in the watersheds, and a 24-hour closure of the Lusk Creek Wilderness area following a one-inch rain during April, May, September, October, and November. A rain-monitoring gauge has been installed at the Forest Service Trail Depot in Eddyville, near the Lusk Creek Wilderness area. (For trail-closure information, call 618/658-1312)

The good news is that as the trails are brought up to “all-weather” standard, they’ll be opened to all-season use.

Sustainable Trails
“Water is the biggest enemy of our trails,” notes Bourne. “It’s not horses or hikers. Water is the enemy. We have to keep the trail system decoupled from the water system that’s in the forest. Thus, we’re building trails that go along the slope, not up and down the slopes. Old trails that went straight up and down hills are being brushed in and closed off. Some old trails are being reconstructed or rerouted in such a way they won’t become a big gulley in one or five or even 10 years from now.

“If a trail goes straight up and down, then you are on what is called the fall line,” Bourne continues. “The fall line is the path that water or rocks would naturally travel down the slope. If you have trails that follow that same path, then you’re always fighting erosion. I don’t care how many water bars or how much gravel is used, it’s always going to be a maintenance nightmare.

“The Forest Service doesn’t have the personnel or the budget to take care of these high-maintenance areas, nor are they environmentally sensible areas. Our job is to go in and reroute or reestablish trails in places that go from point A to point B. Instead of getting there by going straight up a hill, we’ll take the more sustainable route, one that travels along the contour of the land.

“If you need to get from the bottom to the top in a short distance, there are switchbacks and climbing turns, for instance, that will allow you to gain elevation in a more sustainable trail,” Bourne continues. “Switchbacks would need to be built and would need periodic maintenance, so we try not to use them. Besides, there will always be those who ‘shortcut’ these type of trails, which brings about a constant battle against nature.”

You can see plenty of examples of erosion brought about from old roadbeds constructed on the “fall line” from the early 1900s and, more recent years, trails that meander up and down hills and ridges. They’re often deeply rutted and difficult for horses and humans to negotiate. Bourne is working to make the trail system sustainable for users now and for future generations.

“The perfect trail is one that is designed in such a way that it has enough natural ebb and flow – the way it follows the contour of the ground – that it’s self-maintaining,” says Bourne. “The water never sits on the trail, so there aren’t any mud holes to slop through; there are enough diversions, dips, or grade reversals so that water can run off the trail, and leaves and debris never pile up. That doesn’t occur very often, and it certainly doesn’t happen by chance. You really have to design a trail with a lot of planning to make a sustainable trail happen.” TTR

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