Trail of Tears State Forest - Illinois

US National Parks and Monuments Travel Guide:

An Illinois State Forest

Trail of Tears, one of Illinois' state forests, is situated in western Union County, five miles northwest of Jonesboro and 20 miles south of Murphysboro. Just over 5,000 acres are within the State Forest.

The State Forest System in Illinois was established to set aside lands for the growing of timber needed in production of forest products, for watershed protection and to provide outdoor recreation. Trail of Tears State Forest is a multiple-use site managed for timber, wildlife, ecosystem preservation, watershed protection and recreation.

Natural Features

Trail of Tears State Forest lies within the southern section of the Ozark Hills, one of the most rugged landscapes in Illinois. The hills are composed of chert (a weathered limestone residue). Soils are shallow and susceptible to erosion. Ridge tops are narrow, rocky, and dry. Clear streams with gravel bottoms are in the narrow forested valleys, hemmed in by the steep terrain.

The variety in plant communities is influenced by the terrain. Dry ridgetops and south-facing slopes have black oaks, white oaks and hickories. Extremely dry sites contain prairie-like openings (barrens and hill prairies) with a mingling of gnarled open-grown trees and shrubs like wild azalea, farkleberry and low-bush blueberry. The shaded north-facing slopes and protected coves support stands of American beech, tuliptree and sugar maple, or red oak, tuliptree and sweetgum. A rich understory of shrubs (including pawpaw, buckeyes, bladdernut and hornbeam), exists in moister sites. In stream valleys, a canopy of American elm, sweetgum, tuliptree, sycamore and sugar maple over a shrub layer of redbud, deciduous holly and spicebush, and thickets of wild cane (bamboo) occur. The wildflower flora of the Forest's lower slopes and valleys is lush and diverse. On a walk in the spring, a visitor can see many of the woodland wildflowers native to southern Illinois. In all, 620 species of flowering plants, ferns and fern allies are reported to occur at the State Forest.

There are many species of songbirds, including those restricted to large woodland tracts. Two species of poisonous snakes, timber rattlesnakes and northern copperheads, occur here. They are no danger to cautious visitors and must be left as part of the Forest's natural environment; indiscriminate killing of snakes is prohibited. Woodland mammals such as fox and grey squirrels, chipmunks, flying squirrels, opossums, skunks and raccoons, are common. Larger mammals known to inhabit the Forest are whitetailed deer, red and grey foxes, coyotes and the wary bobcat.


The area was used extensively by prehistoric Native Americans. Individuals and small groups hunted game or gathered nuts within the Ozarks, but established their settlements closer to the Mississippi River or Clear Creek. Chert was mined (for making tools) at Iron Mountain, east of the Forest.

As settlers of European descent entered (around 1803), Native Americans were pushed south and west. In 1838-39 the Cherokee, Creek, and Chickasaw nations were forced by the U.S. Army to move from the southeast to reservations in Oklahoma Territory. They overwintered at makeshift camps 4 miles south of the Forest's southern boundary. Bitter cold and starvation claimed hundreds of lives. The cruel trek came to be known as the "Trail of Tears." The State Forest's name memorializes the tragic event.

In 1929, the State purchased 3000 acres as the Kohn-Jackson Forest, later named Union State Forest. During the 1930's the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp operated in the Forest. The CCC constructed many of the stonework stabilization walls and log stone shelters within the picnic area and along the Forest roads.

The Trail of Tears State Forest of today encompasses 5114 acres administered by the Division of Land Management. The nursery is operated by the Division of Forest Resources.

Natural Heritage

Some of the State Forest's natural ecosystems are permanently protected within the 222 acre Ozark Hills Nature Preserve. As part of the Illinois Nature Preserves System, Ozark Hills is a living remnant of our state's natural heritage.


One of Illinois' two plant propagation center, the Union State Nursery, occupies 120 acres of the Forest. Approximately 10 acres of the nursery are devoted annually to growing nursery stock. The Nursery produces up to 3 million seedlings a year! Certain tree plantations within the Forest are seed sources for producing genetically superior stock.

The Forest is divided into 27 management compartments where the relationships of different timber harvest techniques to production of forest materials and their effects upon ecosystem function are studied. Although proceeds from those sales help support related programs at this and other State sites, research and education use of timber sites on the State Forest have a value far beyond any monetary gain from timber sales.


Woodland openings are managed to provide food and cover for upland game species and those small mammals which are important food for predators. Some areas are planted in small grains; others are burned or mowed to maintain grassy habitat for nesting birds and the insects upon which they feed. Hollow trees are left for cavity-nesting wildlife.


Twolarge shelters in the main picnic area are ideal for reunions and group gatherings. Two smaller rustic log shelters are suitable for small groups. Each picnic spot contains a table and grill, with privies and drinking water nearby. A ball diamond and smaller playing areas are also present. Other picnic sites exist along the Forest's gravel roads.


The fire trails are open all year for hiking. There are hiking trails at the Forest, including one designed for cross country running. Other trails pass through hills and valleys where one can appreciate the lush vegetation and abundant wildlife.

Horseback Riding

Horseback riding is permitted along designated horse trails. Access and trailer parking are available at the equestrian trailhead along the county blacktop road. Horseback use and horse trailer parking is not permitted on or along roads or fire trails (except where those are part of a horse trail), on hiking trails or anywhere south of the blacktop road. The horseback trails are open for use from May 1 to October 31st. These trails may be closed temporarily in the event of heavy rains during the riding season; it is best to call the site for a current report on trail conditions (618-833-4910). A detailed map of the horseback trails is available upon request.

Motorized vehicles and bicycles are not allowed off paved or graveled roads. All terrain vehicles are prohibited. In winter and early spring, gravel roads are closed to vehicles.


Both Class C (tent camping with vehicle access) and Class D (backpack) camping sites are available at the State Forest. Some locations have log shelters with adjacent privies. Group camping is available at a few sites. The forest's gravel roads are closed to vehicles from December 24 through the end of the spring wild turkey hunting season (generally the second week in May). All camping access is by foot only during that period (Class D). Campsite Reservations are accepted.

Local Attractions

To extend your visit to Southern Illinois, there are a few local attractions you might want to see. These include the Southern Illinois Wine Trail, the Root Beer Saloon ( a unique restaurant) in Alto Pass, and the Bald Knob Cross in Alto Pass.


Access to the Forest is from Illinois Route 127 (on the east) and Route 3 (from the west).


3240 State Forest Road, Jonesboro, IL 62952 -- 618.833.4910

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