Day Trip,  Hikes,  Illinois,  Kids

Explore an Illinois Bayou at Cache River Natural Area

You may feel transported to a Louisiana bayou when you first visit Cache River State Natural Area. This unique landscape in southern Illinois preserves a rare remainder of the cypress swamps and bottomland hardwood forests that once existed in the Ohio River floodplain. Settlers attempted in the past to drain the wetlands and convert the land to farmland. Today, the Cache River Wetlands is one of the few remaining wetlands in the area and provides habitat for a diverse variety of plants and animals.

The Cache River Natural Area offers extensive recreation including hiking, kayaking, birding, fishing, biking, and photography. A good place to start your visit is at the impressive Cache River Wetlands Center. This visitor’s center offers a variety of interpretive exhibits along with restrooms, maps, and information. The galleries offer a background on the history of the area as well as the plants and animals that can be found here. Kids will enjoy seeing a few of those native specimens on display.

Behind the center you can find several trails. One of the trails is an easy and handicap accessible loop around a small pond. Beautiful wildflowers are located along the trail as well as interpretive panels. This makes a great walk for all ages.

The paved trail connects to a spur of the Tunnel Hill bike trail. This 45 mile long trail travels on a former railroad bed over trestles and through a tunnel.

When you finish exploring the center and trails, head on down the road a short distance to the Section 8 Woods. It may be hard to see this spot, but look for a wide pull off on the side of the road and a small brown sign.

Section 8 Woods

  • Distance: 0.10 miles each way, out and back
  • Difficulty: 1/5 Flat boardwalk
  • Scenic Value: 4/5

You don’t have to go on a long hike to explore this place. The boardwalk starts right at the parking area and visitors are immediately enveloped by the towering trees. You can see cypress and tupelo trees. Unfortunately the state record water tupelo tree was toppled by a storm in 2020. Even without the champion tree, this is still an enchanting place.

Listen and look carefully to spot birds and other wildlife. (This is always hard to do with kids as they are never quiet!)

Heron Pond

  • Distance: 1.50 mile round trip
  • Difficulty: 2/5 Trail is mostly wide and flat. Two small water crossings with stepping stones.
  • Scenic Value: 5/5. The trees are amazing and the landscape is so unique.

Heron Pond is about a 10 minute drive away from Section 8. This is probably the most popular trail in the Cache River Area. A scenic 1.5 mile loop passes over a floating boardwalk that winds past towering cypress trees. The loop also leads past the state champion Cherrybark Oak Tree.

The traihead was recently updated with newer vault restrooms and parking spaces. (Bring your own hand sanitizer as the restrooms do not have them.)

The trail first crosses a large bridge over the Cache River. Look to the right to see the confluence of the Cache River and Dutchman Creek. These two waterways were once used to try and drain the wetland.

The trail is wide and flat and starts off running parallel to the river.

There are two crossings over small streams. Concrete stepping stones have been installed to aid in keeping your feet dry.

We actually saw a beaver at the second crossing. He quickly dove under the water.

The trail passes more ponds and wetlands before coming to a fork. You can go left to see Heron Pond first or right to head to the tree. We chose to explore the pond boardwalk first.

The floating boardwalk over Heron Pond is amazing. You will definitely forget you are in Illinois as you view the huge and old trees. The boardwalk allows you to get up close to these giant trees.

Keep an eye out for herons, frogs, and snakes who flourish in this preserved habitat.

The boardwalk portion is an out and back. After taking in the view from the boardwalk, it is worth the extra short hike to see the champion Cherrybark Oak Tree. The tree is huge and beautiful. It has a 22 foot circumfrence and climbs over 100 feet tall.

From here you can continue the hike further if you wish to keep exploring the area or return to the trailhead to complete a 1.5 mile hike.

Additional Things to Know

  • You can find a map and brochure of the area here.
  • You can also find a suggested itinerary and trail descriptions here.
  • The Cache River Wetlands Center is open Wed.-Sun. 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
  • While we had no issue with insects, bug spray is recommended especially in the summer months.
  • Keep an eye out for snakes and keep to the trail especially with kids.
  • Other nearby areas to explore include Ferne Clyffe State Park and Dixon Springs State Park.
  • Remember to always leave no trace.

Happy Hiking!


  • John O'Connell

    Great feature, as always! If you get a chance to go back, definitely consider doing the Lower Cache River Canoe Trail. It features some amazing Cypress trees and is great for getting close to nature. It’s even better at night 😉 Bring your own paddlecraft or rent from Cache Bayou Outfitters.

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