The Tunnel Hill State Trail offers bicyclists and other outdoor recreationists with 45 of the most beautiful and peaceful miles in Illinois. The Trail stretches south from Harrisburg, through Vienna to Karnak, and includes a 2.5-mile spur through the Cache River State Nature Area from Karnak to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Cache River Education Center in Rago. Because a majority of the 45 miles crosses through Johnson County, Illinois State legislators named Johnson County the Bicycling Capital of Illinois.
Developed on a portion of the Norfolk Southern Railroad rail bed, the crushed gravel Tunnel Hill State Trail is suitable for multiple uses. Bicycling is the most popular, but many people also walk, run, hike, and cross-country ski. As cyclists travel on the trail they can experience a wide variety of scenery, history and cultural sites as well as the chance to see wildlife ranging from turtles and deer to birds.
The trail passes through flat farm country then into the hills of the Shawnee National Forest. After that it passes through wetlands, including cypress-tupelo swamps, and continues along meandering creeks and bluffs. There is something for everyone along the trail.
The tunnel at Tunnel Hill, which has given the Trail its name, is one of the most fascinating features of the trail. Originally 800 feet long, the tunnel was shortened to 543 feet after a portion of the tunnel collapsed in 1929. There is an otherworldly sensation when entering such a long tunnel. One enters in full daylight, and there is always light at the end of the tunnel, but somewhere in the middle darkness and perspective merge. One biker says, “ The sudden, almost total darkness surprises you. It is a little scary, and really exciting!” In addition to the tunnel there are 21 picturesque trestles, ranging in length from 34 feet to 430 feet, feature decking and side rails, entice trail users to stop and enjoy breath-taking views. The longest is Breeden Trestle 2 ½ miles south of Tunnel Hill near Sandburn, is also the highest at 90 feet tall. Continuing south to Vienna, a favorite stopping and starting point for many cyclists, visitors find a small railroad museum, indoor restrooms, trail staffers, and a lovely city park.
Many international visitors from as far away as Chile and Tanzania ride on the Tunnel Hill Trail as they travel across the United States on the TransAmerican Bike Route, according to Molie Oliver. A 36-year-old African college professor, Dr. Saleem Akbar, on the three-month holiday in America, recently stopped in New Burnside. Seeing America by bike from coast-to-coast he said, “I expected America to be wonderful, but nothing prepared me for just how beautiful it really is.” Dr. Charles Cohn, a retired nuclear physicist from Atlanta, Georgia, stops in Vienna four times a year. Cohn is a 70+ year-old race walker who competes internationally. “I am a marathon race-walker, and with all of the car travel I do between races it is important to stop and train. The conditions on the Tunnel Hill State Trail are very good for race-walkers, and the almost 20 mile round trip to and from Vienna is a good day’s training.”
The Tunnel Hill State Trail is intersected in Johnson County by the River-to-River Trail, which connects the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers; the unmarked American Discovery Trail, which follows Southern Illinois’ backroads; U.S. 76 Bicycle Route, which is part of the TransAmerica Bike Route; and the Trail of Tears, which was the primary route taken by the Cherokee Nation on their forced move from the Smoky Mountains to Oklahoma during the winter of 1838-1839.
Restrooms, picnic tables, and water fountains are located at several places along the trail provide rest areas for cyclitists. It is recommended to carry water and food if you are planning a lengthy trip just in case of emergencies.
The Tunnel Hill State Trail web address is: