Illinois’ picturesque landscape and abundant natural areas provide for the perfect setting for an autumn adventure, especially for outdoor enthusiasts. Williamson County, located in Southern Illinois’ Trails to Adventure region, is one of the area’s prominent locales for hunters, anglers and sportsmen. The region attracts visitors from all over the Midwest during the fall and winter hunting seasons. I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in the area and experience its highlights first-hand, as part of an excursion with outdoor and wildlife journalists from across the state. Day one of our adventure began with a private tour of Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, a prime spot for taking in the area’s wildlife.
Established in 1947, the refuge includes nearly 44,000 acres of federally protected land and is home to hundreds of diverse plant, bird, mammal, fish, reptile and amphibian species. The Western portion of the refuge provides an abundance of recreational opportunities for visitors, while the eastern portion is a protected wildlife sanctuary with limited public use. The refuge offers significant resting areas for migratory birds utilizing the Mississippi Flyway, making it a popular destination for bird watchers and water fowl hunters. Nearly 1 million people visit Crab Orchard each year to enjoy hunting, camping, hiking and fabulous fishing on Crab Orchard Lake. The next day, we took advantage of the beautiful fall weather by fishing for shad on Lake of Egypt, another popular hotspot in Williamson County for anglers. Lunch was served up at Mack’s, one of the lake’s local marinas.
But there’s a lot more to enjoy in Williamson County than just fishing and hunting. My visit also included a stop at the stunning Walker’s Bluff Winery, a growing complex sure to become Southern Illinois’ premier dining and entertainment venue. Opened in 2008, Walker’s Bluff is nestled in the rolling hills of Williamson County and originally included just a modest home and small vineyard for the winery’s owners. Today, the winery boasts a vineyard, a gazebo, outdoor areas for concerts and family events, a general store, a tasting room and first-class fine dining at The Legends restaurant. One of the most impressive new additions at Walker’s Bluff is the wine cave, used for private events and special tastings.
While I was only in Williamson County and the Trails to Adventure region for a few short days, I was struck by how friendly and welcome everyone I encountered was. The area is also culturally and geographically unique, leaving me excited to return and explore again. From outdoor adventures to fine dining in the idyllic setting of an Illinois winery, a trek through Williamson County isn’t to be missed while creating your own excursion in Trails to Adventure.
–Brian Rehme on behalf of the Illinois Office of Tourism