There’s a little pocket of Illinois paradise you probably haven’t slotted into your Midwest itinerary….just yet. But, if you’re one to brake for inspiring scenery, a soft dose of adventure, and maybe a little magic; this is one to pin on your digital map!
To embark on this Southern Illinois road trip, start by orienting yourself from the nearby St. Louis metropolis on the other side of the Mississippi River. From here, you’ll head straight east for the shorelines of Carlyle Lake. After a mere hour on the road, prepare to be impressed by Illinois’ largest lake (other than Lake Michigan), measuring in at a whopping 25,000 acres! The beaut is prized for its epic sailing, camping, fishing, hiking, and biking, too.
Carlyle Lake is a great place to base yourself, so hook up your rig or pop up your tent and stay for a while. Just don’t forget to book ahead, the prized campsites fill up well in advance from spring through fall. Arguably, the prettiest sites sit along the marina within the COE-managed Dam West Campground. But, if it’s the beach and dam bike trail you’re after, plot yourself a spot on the Dam East Campground instead.
Whether you’re an avid roadie or a casual cruiser, don’t leave your bicycle behind on this Illinois road trip. All in all, the best-kept secret of this corner of the Midwest is definitely the biking trails. And Carlyle Lake certainly offers the cream of the crop! There’s a unique friendship here between the lake managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers (COE) and the city of Carlyle, who’ve come together to deliver 65 miles of paved, looping bike trails.
So, whether it’s soft adventure or something more strenuous, explorers of all types can easily wile away the weekend around Carlyle Lake. Just take your pick of beach paths, historic bridges, a pedestrian-only dam trail, jaw-dropping cropland routes, or even forest views.
If you’re lucky enough to land in South Central Illinois in mid-August, you’ll want to save the date for the annual Centralia Balloon Fest. Simply set the next leg of your Illinois road trip for a special place called Foundation Park in Centralia, about 30 miles southeast of Carlyle Lake.
Foundation Park is a 300-acre urban conservation project proudly established in the Centralia township. Truthfully, the inspiring tale of its fruition, nearly 80 years ago, makes this slice of nature worth visiting on its own. It all began with a few locals and a simple dream to keep their community tied to nature. Today, it’s the convergence of 3 scenic, city parks reimagined from forgotten pieces of farmlands, orchards, and thickets.
It’s an icon of the region, to say the least! Even so, if you’re looking for a little extra dose of magic, plan to arrive alongside several dozen hot air balloons that call this park their perch during the Centralia Balloon Fest.
The Centralia Balloon Fest is a magical, family event now stretching over 30 years since its inception. It’s a literal branch off the efforts of the creators of Centralia’s Foundation Park, a hot air balloon festival planted smack dab in the middle of the park. Its pilot event began in 1990 when a new generation of park caretakers saw an ever-growing need to draw families back to Centralia and its legacy green space.
But, the Centralia Balloon Fest isn’t your average hot air balloon event. It’s a pride sake of the local community, full of nostalgia and charm borrowed from the fair and festival culture of generations past. The 3-day event includes at least 100 vendor tents, a street lined with classic fair grub, live music presentations, and even a radio host! And it’s all the backdrop for in-your-face hot air balloon experiences like dozens of balloons lifting off and another dozen tethered to the ground for an after-dark balloon glow.
Following such a grand gesture in the wide open spaces might have you intrigued by the lands surrounding Carlyle and Centralia. And yes indeed, the expanses between St. Louis and Carlyle Lake are indeed still quite rural. There’s no better way to see them, than on two wheels coasting through more of the Southern Illinois bike trails.
To hop on the bike trail known as The Orchard Loop, catch it on your way back to St. Louis (or on your way to Carlyle Lake if you plan to keep going east). It’s hidden within Eckert’s Farms, a u-pick orchard in Belleville just 20 minutes outside of St. Louis.
The paved, pedestrian-only pathway has 2 different sections totaling 4 miles of scenic bike trails that pass through croplands and orchards. Depending on the time of the year, the bike ride can be combined with a u-pick experience collecting seasonal fruits or flowers for purchase at the Eckert’s Country Store.
Aside from the rather modern addition of The Orchard Loop bike path, Eckert’s Farms is a notable stop for exploring the Illinois countryside. Eckert’s is a fruit farm started by German immigrants in 1837 and remains in the family, currently operated by 7th generation heirs.
And it all started with a roadside fruit stand! Today, it’s rumored to be the largest apple and peach orchard in America. The current owners say their greatest challenge is continuing to farm despite pressing urban sprawl. But, while St.Louis is only a 20-minute drive away, this farm clings to the past life charms of hayrack rides and fruit picking, plus a sustainable farming concept that’s been in place -yet evolving- since day one.
Eckert’s Farm is a must-stop to see how old-world farmers are thriving in a modern era and to take a bite out of local produce that’s surely purer than one can find it elsewhere.