Spend a day traversing the winding roads and soaring bluffs two hours south of the metro-east and you'll be rewarded with: an icy cold one at the Root Beer Saloon in Alto Pass, eclectic storefronts in tiny "downtown" Makanda, a water tower with a view in Giant City State Park, kayaks on Little Grassy Lake and a tranquil forest hike.
If you have time to stay and watch the sunset, choose from among the many vineyards that dot the Southern Illinois landscape and relax with a glass of wine.
This day getaway covers about 220 miles round-trip. While there are a variety of ways to get from Belleville to Alto Pass, your first stop, we chose the Illinois 13/127 route because it travels almost exclusively on two-lane roads -- the better to enjoy the changing topography as you head south.
If you are interested in visiting a few wineries, go to shawneeshuttle.com. The site offers plenty of free information about points of interest along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail and the Southern Illinois Wine trail. In addition, it sets up private tours for small groups and can offer suggestions on overnight accommodations.
Stop 1: Alto Pass
Distance: Belleville to Alto Pass is about 90 miles and just under two hours via Illinois 13/127.
About Alto Pass: The village in Union County is just 2 square miles with about 400 residents. Settlers traveling between Anna and Carbondale got their covered wagons hung up in many springs throughout the Shawnee National Forest and decided to found Alto Pass there.
What to see and do:
The Root Beer Saloon (rootbeersaloon.com) -- Good place for lunch in a funky atmosphere. Watch the hours because they can change seasonally: currently 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Cash only. 618-893-1634.
Alto Vineyards & Winery (altovineyards.net) -- Just north of town. The oldest vineyard in Southern Illinois. Tasting room, outdoor covered decks, gift shop. 618-893-4898
Hedman Vineyards/Peach Barn Cafe (peachbarn.com) -- In town. A Swedish vineyard and winery, bed and breakfast, Scandinavian gift shop and a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating serving Swedish cuisine. 618-893-4923 or 618-521-2506.
If you plan it right, you can have a microbrew root beer float and lunch at the The Root Beer Saloon at 4 Main St. Mike and Cindy Blank run the joint, and what a joint it's been since they started up in 2000. On tap are Sprecher (Milwaukee), Point (Wisconsin), Fitz (St. Louis) and Goose Island (Chicago) root beers, all served in frosty mugs. As of this writing, no alcohol is served, though that likely will change before the year is out, Mike says.
It's an everybody's-welcome saloon, where the kids can ogle the python snakeskin stretched out behind the 14-foot bar and the 18-pound lobster. Dad can eyeball the stuffed waterfowl soaring in suspended animation overhead -- Mike's hunting skills on display. Mom will likely stay clear of the stuffed wolverine that keeps an eye on the old-fashioned gilded cash register. But she can shop for more than 100 kinds of bulk coffee beans, plus a vast selection of tea, herbs, spices and hot sauce.
Don't be suckered by the back-country ambience. The menu covers a lot of ground, and varies from day to day, according to Mike's culinary whims.
"No burgers and fries here," he said.
You'll always find gourmet deli sandwiches and Alaska smoked salmon, the specialty of the house. You also can order soft-shell crab, then get a hot fudge sundae for dessert. The hot fudge, by the way, is homemade.
Mike likes to arrange specialty food weekends, so check his website for updates. For instance, May 25-27 is Spring Fest Cajun Weekend, with crawfish, shrimp and crab on the menu.
If you ask Mike about the guitars he makes by hand, he may tell you a rock 'n' roll story and show you one of his eye-popping beauties. He is one of the top 100 custom guitar builders in the world -- and one of just seven in the United States.
Stop 2: Makanda
Distance: Alto Pass to Makanda is 10 miles, but about 25 minutes on back roads. As you leave Alto Pass, look for a pull-off on Skyline Drive that has a small picnic area. You can sit on an outcropping of rocks on the bluff and enjoy the view. Look for Bald Knob Cross in the distance.
About Makanda: In Jackson County, Makanda has about 560 residents. It is the home of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, and his daughter, current Illinois Lt. Governor Sheila Simon. The town sits on the doorstep to Giant City State Park and is surrounded by the Shawnee National Forest. Makanda got its start in 1845, when a boarding house and construction camp were built there to house workers laying the Illinois Central Railroad.
What to see and do:
The town's main tourist draw is its boardwalk, a short string of Western-style storefronts located in a valley surrounded by forest and bluffs.
Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour (shawneezip.com). Soar along the treetops through 83 wooded acres in Makanda, surrounded by the Shawnee National Forest. Eight zip lines; 11 platforms; three aerial suspension bridges; two short hikes. $85 for three-hour tour; discount for groups. 855-386-9477
Unique shopping is a bit of an understatement along Makanda's boardwalk. You can go home with a tie-dye T-shirt, a bent-willow chair and much more.
Pat Swartzbaugh, of Effingham, walked out of Visions Art Gallery (open weekends only) with a beaded bracelet. She was spending the weekend with her twin granddaughters, Lauren and Liz Worthey, 20, who attend Southern Illinois University Carbondale. They left with jewelry as well.
"They have some lovely things -- all made by local artists. It was hard to make up my mind," Pat said.
Step into PB&J Second-Hand Store and you may find yourself the owner of a gourd birdhouse for $7.
Next door is the Makanda Trading Co., which holds an astounding array of minerals, as well as strange-looking old-men masks made of bamboo root for $35.
Out front, near the tiny Country Store (ice cream and very limited sandwich choices), you'll find bent willow chairs. Sometimes the maker, known as the Willow Man, is there. Sometimes not. Prices are about $150.
Mostly Fibers opened in March and owner Liz Bech sells her tie-dye wares there. She also works in fiber art, so you might find her creating wall hangings when you stop by.
The Rainmaker's Garden is a bit of a secret in Makanda because it's tucked away up on a hillside behind the storefronts. Look for a set of stairs outside, at the far end of the boardwalk (nearest the church) and follow them up and around. The garden is multi-level and filled with copper tree sculptures and other metalwork by artist Dave Daris, who owns the Rainmaker Studio on the boardwalk. If you're lucky, you'll be there on a Saturday and get to hear some local musicians, like the Fiddlerick Band. You'll find lots of places to sit and listen.
Mick the Stick, a drummer who prefers to use only that moniker, was setting up his kit in the garden on a recent Saturday. In good weather, he and other musicians play from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturdays. They're a tight-knit group who prefer "living off the grid." Mick's little cottage is steps from the garden.
"Down here in the bottom, we all know each other," he said.
Stop 3: Giant City State Park and Lodge
Distance: Makanda to the lodge is 2 miles; less than 10 minutes, as long as you follow the signs inside the park correctly.
About the park: Nestled in the Shawnee National Forest and stretching more than 4,000 acres between Union and Jackson counties, the park was created in 1927 and is named for the deep impressions (as if giants walked there) made by its massive sandstone structures. There are eight trails to hike.
Trivia: During the Civil War, many of the cliffs and canyons were used as havens by soldiers of both the Union and Confederate armies.
Information: 618-457-4921 or giantcitylodge.com
What to see and do: Wander through the lodge (don't miss the balcony), eat in the Bald Knob Dining Room, climb the water tower, take a hike, have a picnic.
While the sandstone bluffs, a vast array of ferns and flowers, and massive oak and hickory trees are the natural beauties of Giant City State Park, its lodge is a manmade wonder that holds its own.
Step through the massive white oak front doors, and see the outdoors inside. Enormous hand-hewn logs support the beamed cathedral ceiling. Walls are blocks of sandstone cut on site. A fireplace with a massive stone chimney is a focal point in cooler weather, and tall windows and French doors let in light.
Giant City Lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps -- any army of young men put to work on outdoor state and federal projects during the Depression. The lodge opened in 1936, after three years of work. The oak and maple furniture you can sit on is original, made by the hands of the hundreds of CCC workers who completed not only the lodge, but also the roads, cabins and foot trails in the park. (The furniture was so well-made and attractive that 80 pieces were commissioned for Pere Marquette Lodge near Grafton, another CCC project that opened in 1939.)
If you're hungry, head to the dining room for "the area's best fried chicken," boasts a waitress. But there is a lot more on the menu, and the restaurant serves three meals a day, including family-style lunch and dinner.
From the dining room, visitors can see a bronze statue of a young CCC worker in the courtyard.
One aside: There are no lodgings in the lodge. The only ways to stay overnight in the park are by either renting a cabin ($75 to $150 per night) or camping (more than 85 spots, reserved through reserveamerica.com.)
Back outside, it's hard to miss the 82-foot, 100,000-gallon water tower near the parking lot. It was constructed in 1970 and the winding climb is worth the time to stand on the observation deck. On a clear day, you can see forever.
Steven Wake, of Belleville, and Astrid Burkart and her son Cameron, 7, of Collinsville, paused on the deck. This was one stop along the way to a day in Southern Illinois.
"Cameron had a wrestling tournament in Herrin, so we decided to come here," said Steven. "We ate in Herrin, but thought we'd hike a little bit here."
Once you're back on the ground, it's time for a hike. You get to pick from eight trails in Giant City Park, with exertion from mild to breathtaking. The Stonefort trail, for example, is uphill briefly, then an easy circle around some bluffs and ridges, following along the way part of a reconstructed stone wall that may have been part of an enclosure possibly built around 800 A.D.
Have extra time? The park has a fine visitors center with displays, a film on the park and tourist information. Plus, there is the Giant City Stables, which offers horseback riding and guided daily trail rides. For the more vertically inclined, rock climbing and rappelling are allowed at two areas in the park. See the website for specifics on both activities.
Stop 4: Little Grassy Lake
Distance: Giant City State Park to Little Grassy Lake Campground and Marina, 4 miles; about 10 minutes.
About the lake: Little Grassy is on the east end of Giant City State Park and is owned by Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. It has 27 miles of undeveloped shoreline and is a fisherman's paradise with largemouth bass, bluegill and crappie. It allows canoes, kayaks and boats with a 10-horsepower motor limit. There are about 100 campsites, plus a beach, marina with boat/slip rentals and store, picnic areas and five youth camps.
Information: littlegrassylakecampground.com/618-457-6655 or U.S. Fish & Wildlife, 618-987-3344.
Teresa Vaughn, of Anna, spends her time at Little Grassy Lake as a way to help others. She is the director of the Land of Learning Institute in Jonesboro, which has run the campground and marina concession at the lake for the past four years. That income supports the nonprofit group, which brings people of all ages together to experience the outdoors.
It's all part of a bigger mission," said Teresa, 37. "We work with all kinds of schools and educational institutions, even ones in Belleville and O'Fallon. And we host elderhostel groups as well. We do intergenerational activities and have classes here."
If you visit the marina, you're likely to run into Teresa, as well as Claude Baugh, 65, of Belleville. He spends the season at Little Grassy Lake as a volunteer steward who helps with the upkeep of the campground and marina.
"This is a very family-friendly lake," she said. Campsites range from a full hookup for your RV (you can rent one) to primitive tent sites.
Just want to spend the day? Rent a kayak for $25; $15 for a half-day. Or, check out a canoe, jon boat or pontoon boat. For weekends, it's best to call ahead for reservations, Teresa said.
And you just might want to reserve a camping spot now so you can enjoy the activities planned for May 26: a scavenger hunt and a live raptor presentation by Free Again Wildlife Rehabilitation Center from Carterville.