Regional road trips are all the rage right now. Many folks feel most comfortable hopping in the car with their loved ones and exploring sights that are off the beaten path. Some of those sights may even be in your own backyard! For plenty of regional travel ideas, check-in every Wednesday for a Downstate Illinois Road Trip Roundup on themed topics showcasing several destinations across the southern portion of the state. This week’s topic is all about learning while you explore - so let’s take a field trip!
While visiting Carbondale, there are plenty of ways to blend history and educational opportunities with leisure time and adventure. The Old Illinois Passenger Depot Railroad Museum symbolizes Carbondale’s rich history as a mining and transportation center. The old train passenger depot, built in 1903, serves as the museum’s current home. Visitors can view the museum’s collection of artifacts, ring the bell of an original train car and even take home a souvenir. Guided tours can be arranged in advance for large groups. The Buckminster Fuller Dome, commonly referred to as “The Bucky Dome” by locals, this geodesic dome is Buckminster Fuller’s most enduring legacy. Buckminster Fuller is considered by many to be the father of the modern sustainability movement. He favored a systems approach to problem solving, and coined the term "synergy" to capture the principle that when one is engaged in cooperative action, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The geodesic dome, based on a natural pattern of interlocking triangles, is a structure that is considered one of the strongest and most efficient known to humankind. The dome was used as a prototype for all other dome homes that followed and is open for tours. The Science Center is a hands-on children’s museum with an array of exhibits to explore and a great place to spend the day with your curious toddler or school-aged child. With more that 50 interactive exhibits throughout the year, kids can learn about paleontology, weather, aircraft and more! There are several programs, educational events, camps, field trips and more! The African American Museum, founded in 1997, is located in Carbondale’s University Mall. Founded by The Southern Illinois Achievers who have aspired to educate the community in African American cultures, enlightening and enhancing the community’s knowledge of who, what, when and why their ancestors dedicated their lives in preserving their heritage. The museum is dedicated to identifying, preserving, and portraying the outstanding achievements of African American citizens. On Southern Illinois University’s campus, visitors can take a Green Tour to explore the sustainability projects of the school, including the Agricultural Building, or stop at the Plant Biology Greenhouse to witness the cultivation of several different plant species. Visitors can also stop in Faner Hall where they will find the nationally accredited University Museum full of exquisitely curated exhibits and an inventory of over 70,000 artifacts. Touch of Nature Environmental Center is another must-do with more than 3,100 acres of rolling hills and lush forests, indoor facilities, and environmental and adventure education experiences that include zip lining, rock climbing and high ropes courses.
Just minutes from the city but a world away, Ballard Nature Center is home to dozens of species of birds and wildlife. Natural prairie, wetlands, butterfly and hummingbird gardens, fishing ponds and creeks round out the outdoor experience for the young – and the young at heart. Ballard Nature Center is a terrific outdoor classroom in every season. Spring wildflowers bloom throughout the grounds, and the natural prairie is in full glory come summer. Fall foliage abounds – so much so, that when you walk the trails, you’ll hear the familiar crunching of leaves under every footstep. In winter, follow the tracks of the wildlife that share the trails. Inside the educational center, dioramas and interactive exhibits offer entertainment and effortless learning opportunities on the flora and fauna of this region. A naturalist is on staff to assist with and facilitate these scholastic moments throughout the week. All hiking trails and outdoor areas are open from dawn until dusk. The Visitor Center is open, daily, from March to October, with limited hours in the winter months. Nearby, another adventure awaits you and your crew at Alwerdts Gardens and Alwerdt Artworks and Sculpture Park. Make a day of it at one of the Effingham area’s hidden gems. Located just one mile south, off Interstate 70, Exit 82, in Altamont, this business doubles as a botanical treasure house and outdoor gallery. Enjoy four acres of display gardens. Take the opportunity to identify and view over 1,200 varieties of fragrant, uniquely-landscaped herb, perennial and ornamental gardens. Adjacent to the gardens, take a tour of Alwerdt’s Sculpture Park. This half-mile walk, open April through October, around a picturesque pond, showcases both exceptional and whimsical works of art from artists near and far. Plan your education excursion, today, and discover all there is to see and do in Effingham County!
They say that you never stop learning. Throughout ILLINOISouth’s 22 counties, there are tons of great ways to learn history and dive deep into the past. Fort de Chartres State Historic Site in Randolph County is one of the best places for a fun educational trip. Located just outside of Prairie du Rocher, this 300-year-old treasure marks where the French colonized the Illinois Country. When you visit, you will learn all about the fall of the French to the British and stand in awe of the architecture of a building that was built in the 1700’s. The powder magazine on site is widely considered the OLDEST building in the entire state. Annually, the historical site holds events like the Colonial Trade Faire and Rendezvous celebrations. In September of this year, they are hoping to celebrate their 300th anniversary with a large gathering - depending on the state of the current pandemic. The Illinois Rural Heritage Museum is a special place in Pinckneyville that allows us to take a deep look back at the roots of southern Illinois. The museum explains the ever-changing story of rural life from different perspectives: agriculture, business, conservation, education, medicine, natural resources, technology, and transportation. Their mission is to preserve and restore important items that would otherwise be lost with the passage of time. The Vandalia State House is the oldest surviving capitol building in the state! This Vandalia State House is significant for its association with Abraham Lincoln, who served in the House of Representatives here. You can join a guided tour through the building and can view historic rooms to learn all about the connection between the State House and Abe Lincoln! If you love Heath bars or even just chocolate for that matter, you will absolutely love this next place. Heath Museum & Confectionery is where it all began for the Health Bar in Robinson - the county seat of Crawford County. Learn about the popular sweet treat from the beginning in 1913 to the present at this educational but tasty site. You can learn about how it started, how it was promoted early on, what happened to them during the war and depression, and what ultimately earned them great success with a toffee chocolate goodness. You will want to buy up all the Heath Bars after this visit! (PHOTO CREDIT: MIDWEST NOMAD FAMILY)
Are you looking to take a roadtrip with an educational twist? Metropolis has the perfect place for you that just happens to be the 3rd most visited State Park inIllinois. Fort Massac State Park is steeped in rich history not just for the State of Illinois, but for the foundation of our country.In total 4 flags have flown over the grounds now known as Fort Massac State Park. The Spanish had ownership in the 1500’s. In 1702 the land became a French trading post and mission. In 1757, the French fortified the area to block British expansion into the Mississippi River. 1764 the French abandoned the Fort to the British. In 1778, George Rogers Clark stopped at the Fort on his way to Kaskaskia as the exploration of the west began. George Washington ordered the fort to be rebuilt and garrisoned in 1794 and in 1908 the site was designated the first State Park in Illinois.In order to fully obtain all the information about Fort Massac, you will want to plan a visit to the museum and welcome center on the State Park grounds. In the museum, beautiful exhibits will teach you about the history of the land as well as what life was like on the frontier in the early days of our country. As you explore the museum you will see many artifacts that were exhumed from the grounds by archeologists that have been able to explore the area. Beautiful panels with the full history of the area line the walls. Examples of Military Garb and artillery are also on display. There are even a few interactive exhibits that will allow to play a game of checkers or get a one of a kind selfie going down the Ohio River. In the lobby of the Welcome Center you will find one of the most fascinating collections of Indian artifacts from the Mallin and Richey Collections. This collection of arrowheads is sure to impress visitors. History doesn’t just exist inside the museum. You can explore land that was so highly desired by walking a cobblestone path to history. There you will find a replica of the 1802 American Fort. Unfortunately, due to faulty construction, visitors cannot explore the inside of the fort structures. This area is slated to be rebuilt in the near future to allow visitors inside once again. Until that happens you can still marvel at the buildings and take the path to the George Rogers Clark statue overlooking the majestic Ohio River. History comes to life in the park the 3rd weekend of each October when thousands flock to the grounds to enjoy the Fort Massac Grand Encampment. This event is the 3rd largest event hosted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, coming in only behind the 2 Illinois State Fairs. With authentically clad British and American soldiers, the sounds of drum & fife corps, and the smell of delicious period authentic foods, the Encampment has become a must attend event for generations. There is even a mock battle that portrays military tactics of that period that is highly anticipated and enjoyed by visitors young and old. Come to Metropolis and learn so much more about this piece of land that has become so important throughout the history of our country. The Welcome Center and Museum is open 7 days a week to the public. Under current Covid-19 Guidelines, masks must be worn while indoors. A site interpreter is onsite Thursday - Monday for tours and to answer any questions you may have. For more information about the fishing, biking, hiking, camping and disc golf offerings at the park, you may call the park from 8:00AM - 4:00PM daily at 618-524-4712 or visit the Fort Massac State Park Facebook Page. You can also find information about all there is to do and see in Metropolis at the www.metropolistourism.com.
The Hall of Honor & R.D. White Military Museum, located at the Mt. Vernon Outland Airport is an educational, artistic memorial tribute to the brave men and women who have defended our country. View the history of our military through the stories of those who gave so much. Walk the halls of this incredible collection of wartime exhibits and feel the emotions so evident in all the photos and letters. The experiences of those who lived through these wars, wore the uniforms, and earned the medals served our country well and are exhibited throughout the walls and halls of the airport. Many of the exhibits have been compiled with donations of memorabilia from our own Jefferson County heroes that include the veterans’ personal items and stories. You will be humbled by this memorial to our Jefferson County Heroes, as well as gain a lifelong educational experience of times gone by. Leave a salutation in the book of memories for the next generation. Allow yourself plenty of time to stroll the halls, to carry with you an overwhelming view of the sacrifices of those who gave so much to keep us free. There is no admission fee, and the museum and hall are open daily. End your journey through history at the Bonnie Café, which is attached to the museum, for a delicious meal. You might even meet a few of our local veterans who frequent this fine establishment. Ask them about their experiences and thank them for their service to our fine country. You will walk away with a feeling of gratitude for those who serve and have served our country and a lasting educational memory.For more information, events and other attractions in Mt. Vernon, visit www.enjoymtvernon.com.
Over the river and through the woods to the cypress swamp we go! Cache River Wetlands – Illinois’s Hidden Bayou is one of nature's masterpieces. Stroll the boardwalks, hike or take a canoe or kayak through the mysterious Cache River Wetlands, a "Wetlands of International Importance." Learn about our tupelo-cypress swamps, hardwood forests, limestone glades and sandstone bluff. The Cache River Wetlands Center offers a variety of interpretive exhibits and information. The Wetlands center hosts a variety of educational programs throughout the year, and includes a wildlife viewing area and walking trails featuring both wetland and prairie communities. Learn more about the ever changing Cache landscape, migratory birds, state champion trees through touch screen displays. And be sure to catch the 12-minute orientation film, “The Enduring Cache,” which provides an excellent introduction to the region’s landscape and history. The Cache River Wetlands Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Learn about the 'Giant Streets' that gave Giant City park it's name and get maps and trail details. Open 8 – 3:30 daily. Giant City State Park Visitor’s Center contains an exhibit hall with displays of the natural, cultural, and geological features of the park. Don't miss the 10 minute film about the park in the audio/visual room. There is a Discovery Corner that kids love to explore. Ask about the scavenger hunt for kids. Get a prize upon returning it at the end of the hike all filled out, remember, the center closes at 3:30 PM. One fish, two fish, red fish blue fish! Well, Bluegill and Redear Sunfish anyway. Little Grassy Fish Hatchery produces about a million fish per year, on average, including channel catfish, blue catfish, largemouth bass, bluegills and redear sunfish. Most of the channel catfish produced by the state come from Little Grassy. Great place to take your children for a lesson on how our fisheries help stock our ponds and other needs to our Eco system. While prime viewing is in the summer months, visits are available spring to fall between 8:30 and 3:30 with an appointment: 618-529-4100. On May 15 load up the family to experience Life on the Illinois Frontier at Saline Creek Pioneer Village. Tour authentic buildings and learn from reenactors. Southern Illinois history comes to life at “Life on the Illinois Frontier.”
“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself”. Learning should be fun, exciting, and experienced. In Williamson County we have a number of great opportunities to experience immersive education. The Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge isn’t only for recreation, they also offer a number of ways to learn about nature and conservation. The Visitors Center has interpretive exhibits and introduction videos to help jumpstart the learning experience. They also host a variety of on-site environmental education programs that allow children to gain skills and knowledge about wildlife, plant life, and other helpful information while enjoying the outdoors. Their “Becoming an Outdoor Family” program is a great way to help both parents and children learn and get involved together! Nearby, you’ll find the Little Grassy Fish Hatchery. The hatchery offers both scheduled and walk-in tours of their facility. These tours are a great way to learn more about the process our local lakes use to conserve fish populations. Another great way to experience education in our area is to visit our historic sites, memorials, and statues. Both the Carterville Heritage Museum and the Williamson County Heritage Museum allow the opportunity to see historic artifacts, information, and more, up close and personal. The Harrison Bruce Historic Village at John A. Logan College is a special location that offers the opportunity to step back in time and explore historic buildings on their tours. The village is made up of original and replica structures from the 1800’s. One of these buildings is a one-room schoolhouse that was used from 1860 to 1951 in Perry County. The JALC campus is also home to the General John A. Logan statue. It is one of almost a dozen historic military-related memorials you will find in Williamson County. Additionally, you’ll find four libraries in our area that each offer a number of fun and educational programs for kids of all ages. Lived experiences are a great way to bring education to life, so we invite you to learn with us in Williamson County!