three whitetails bounding through the
At points farther on, the rail embank-
ment rose 25 feet above the forest floor. In
other places, the path cuts right through
small hills, revealing striated sandstone on
either side. Rust-colored rocks along the
way contrasted nicely with the cobalt sky.
I came to the trail’s namesake tunnel
miles past New Burnside. To maintain
a railroad-friendly grade here, the planners
burrowed through a massive hill instead of
building over it. Originally 800 feet long,
the passage was shortened by more than
feet when part of it collapsed in 1929.
Although pedaling through the dark tun-
nel was a little eerie, with my headlight on
I enjoyed the long, solitary passage.
A mile past the tunnel is Sanburn
Junction, a greenhouse/nursery with a
trailside snack shop. Since the owners are
usually out tending their plants, the store
operates on the honor system: Help your-
self to chips, sandwiches and ice cream,
check the price list and leave cash in the
money can. “If somebody steals some-
thing I figure they need it more than me,”
explained owner Brian Aldrich.
I’d crossed several other railroad bridges
along the way, but by far the most memo-
rable was the Breeden Trestle, just south
of Sandburn. Raised 90 feet above the
forest floor on X-shaped girders, it’s an
impressive bit of engineering. Riding over
it provides breathtaking views of the valley
below. The setting sun cast a golden glow
on the diagonal wooden bridge planks as I
crossed and, even though I’m normally not
afraid of heights, riding across the bridge
was a little unsettling, in a fun way.
I passed through the most surreal scen-
ery of the trip as I pedaled into the forest
beyond the bridge. Mighty oaks towered
above me. A tiny stream gurgled to my
left; moss-covered bluffs rose to my right.
A big, freestanding boulder beckoned, and
I almost parked my bike to go rock climb-
ing. A crescent moon hung in the sky.
Local Color
About 9.3 miles south of the tunnel I
reached Vienna, where I’d spend the night.
Incorporated in 1834, this town of 1,234
is the seat of Johnson County. I grabbed
dinner at the Jumbo Restaurant, a truck
stop near Interstate 24 that features a
hearty Southern-style buffet, with fried
chicken, catfish, and corn bread.
In the morning I checked out the trail’s
headquarters at the intersection with State
Route 146 East. Rail fan Phillip Morris
donated much of the railroad memorabilia
on display here, including lanterns, keys,
locks, documents, photos, rail spikes and
signaling equipment. The building is located
across from a pleasant park that would make
a good picnic stop, especially for families
with kids. A totem pole stands in the park
as a memorial to the hundreds of Native
Americans who died on the Trail of Tears,
the forced march of the Cherokee people in
the winter of 1838–39 from their homeland
in the Smokey Mountains to Oklahoma.
A few miles south of Vienna is Forman,
once home to a large lumber company and
now a ghost town. After the surrounding
timber supply became depleted in the early
s, the population dwindled, and in 1957
a tornado drove out the remaining residents.
From there I rode 2.8 miles to Karnak,
population 619. Like Cairo and Thebes,
Ill. (as well as Memphis, Tenn.), it’s named
for an ancient Egyptian city. The Main
Brothers Box & Lumber Company moved
here in 1905 and for decades made cypress
lumber, egg crates and other containers that
were sent to businesses around the country
by railroad.
Outside Karnak I took the 2.5-mile spur
of the Tunnel Hill State Trail northwest to
visit the Cache River Wetlands Center, the
endpoint of the trail. The center features
dioramas and aquariums depicting the
surrounding wetlands environment, as
well as taxidermied specimens of local
birds and animals, such as the wild geese
suspended from the ceiling. Bright green
algae forms a layer on the river beneath a
short railroad trestle. Elsewhere ancient
cypress and tupelo trees grow out of the
water, forming an atmospheric scene
reminiscent of a Louisiana bayou.
At the center I chatted with Molie
Oliver, site superintendent for the trail
from 1994 to 2005 and now an IDNR
natural resource coordinator. “I really
enjoyed getting out and maintaining the
Tunnel Hill Trail,” she said, “learning the
history of the communities and the leg-
ends of the railroad.” Enjoying the natu-
ral beauty of the area was another benefit
of working on the trail. “This time of
year,” she said, “with most of the foliage
gone, you can really see the river valleys
and the bluffs. You can see the forest floor
and realize how high up you are.” But
after my spectacular journey, I’m con-
vinced any season is a great time to visit
the Tunnel Hill State Trail.
John Greenfield edits the transportation news
Streetsblog Chicago
and writes a weekly
column about walking, biking and transit issues
in Chicago’s
magazine. He has pedaled
the entire perimeter of the state of Illinois.
The Cache River Wetlands Center offers an
extra dimension to a visit to the Tunnel Hill State
The wetlands center has become a popular
attraction for locals and visitors alike, including
Ryan O'Neal and his son Matthew. This raccoon
skull is part of the many displays interpreting the
unique natural and cultural history of the area.