Union County was born the same year as Illinois – and just happens to have some spectacular spots for a 200th birthday party. A popular state park, a giant cross, a significant Lincoln site and an old school turned into a bed and breakfast await visitors to this scenic area deep in southern Illinois.
The county mixes the sophistication of wine sampling at numerous vineyards with such backcountry adventures as hiking and rock climbing. And while you may notice enough geographic changes as you drive the roughly 200 miles from Springfield to make you think you are in a different state, rest assured – Illinois license plates abound.
The western part of the Shawnee National Forest dominates the landscape, so you can expect plenty of hills, trees and rock formations. A good example is Giant City State Park, which straddles Union and Jackson counties. The name came from its massive sandstone structures, and visitors can climb or rappel on some of them.
The park offers hiking, horseback riding, camping, fishing, archery and limited hunting. At the Civilian Conservation Corps-built lodge, try the famous family-style fried chicken dinner or relax in front of the huge fireplace. Nearby are cabins and an outdoor pool.
Less developed is the Trail of Tears State Forest near Jonesboro, a reminder of the forced migration of Native Americans, who spent the winter of 1838-39 in the area in on their way west. The forest features hiking, camping, picnicking and wildlife-viewing.
For an even better view, make your way to Bald Knob, 1,034 feet above sea level. It is home to a 111-foot-high white cross and renowned for its Easter sunrise service. On a clear day, you can pick out landmarks in every direction.
Janice Corrington, a volunteer at the visitors’ center, points to pins on a map to demonstrate that the cross lures people from all over the world. She says the 26th annual “blessing of the bikes” in late April drew 4,000 motorcycles.
A draw for Lincoln buffs is the Jonesboro site where he and Stephen Douglas faced off in the third of their seven debates during the 1858 Senate campaign. Lincoln Memorial Park commemorates the debate with life-size statues of the two men and a split rail fence.
At the one-room Union County Museum in Cobden, you can see artifacts from local settlers, arrowheads, Civil War memorabilia, a display about John A. Logan’s role in founding Memorial Day, examples of Anna Pottery and information on area orchards.
Anna Pottery no longer operates, but the annual Shawnee Hills Pottery Trail highlights local pottery studios for a weekend in early May. Two are in Union County.
Several fruit growers call the county home, including Flamm Orchards and Rendleman Orchards and Farm Market. Visit during July and August to pick up peaches, or go for apples in September and October. Blueberry Hill Farm and Shawnee Hills Lavender Farm add more options.
Cobden’s Darn Hot Peppers farm celebrates with a festival in late summer but you can stop by its store to pick up all things hot at any time.
The wineries of Union County draw visitors from surrounding states, including those on the 40-mile Shawnee Hills Wine Trail. Hedman Vineyard in Alto Pass has a Scandinavian gift shop and a café with Swedish specialties. Other county wineries include Starview Vineyards and Owl Creek Vineyards in Cobden, Alto Vineyards in Alto Pass and Lincoln Heritage Winery north of Anna.
Anna, the largest city in Union County, makes a good headquarters for exploring the area. If you go June 8-9, you can help the city celebrate the Annabelle hydrangea at an annual festival. The Annabelle, discovered in the wild near Anna, often reaches four feet and sports large white flowers.
The Davie School Inn is a popular bed and breakfast in Anna. A grade school from 1910 to 1998, the building sat vacant until 2004 when it opened as an inn. The current owners, Lyle and Tammy Woodrum, bought it in 2017.
“We quit corporate America and decided to try our hand at it,” Lyle says. “Now we get to meet customers in person.” He delivers made-to-order breakfasts to each room.
Eight large guest rooms on the upper floors of the oldest section have chalkboards on the walls, marks on the floor where desks were anchored and huge windows. A newer addition has three suites, a gym where you can shoot baskets and a stage made into a lounge. That opens to an outdoor deck added by the Woodrums.
Other interesting overnight options include the cabins at Giant City and several other bed and breakfasts in the county. For a list, go to www.shawneewinetrailbb.com.
For more information about Union County, visit www.southernmostillinois.com/union-county/.
Mary Bohlen of Springfield has been a fan of southern Illinois since she was an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, earning her bachelor’s degree in news-editorial journalism. She stayed at the Davie School Inn on a recent visit but pays her own way on her travels celebrating Illinois’ bicentennial in 2018.