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Cave-In-Rock, located in southern Illinois

Note: Each week, Joel Brunsvold, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, sends a postcard profile of a different Illinois state park, natural area or trail. This week, the director is writing about Cave-In-Rock, located in southern Illinois.

[JULY 23, 2005]  CAVE-IN-ROCK -- Ahoy, mates,

I won't make you walk the plank, but did you know Illinois used to be home to river pirates? Some of the baddest of the bad guys used to hide out right here, in Cave-In-Rock State Park. It's located in the Shawnee National Forest, on the Ohio River. Don't worry if you want to visit here though; the pirates have been gone for a couple of hundred years.

The cave out of which the pirates operated remains one of the central features of the park. The cave is about 350 feet deep, with a ceiling 35 feet high and a great room, about 80 feet by 80 feet. If only the walls of this cave could talk!

Legend has it that Samuel Mason deserted from George Washington's army and opened the Cave Inn Tavern, a house of liquor, women and sin. Travelers who stopped would frequently find themselves victims of robbery when they resumed their trip down the river. A few decades later, the Harp Brothers, Big and Little, were the most disreputable river pirates to maraud this part of the state. The brothers were killers who hid out here to avoid the hangman's noose in Kentucky. They used the cave as headquarters for their web of crime.

If you're thinking this sounds like a movie plot, you probably saw "How the West Was Won." The story of how ruthless bandits preyed on unsuspecting travelers was derived from places just like this and, sadly, real-life events.

If you come to Cave-In-Rock these days, you'll still be able to visit the cave. You can also take a trip on the Ohio River. If you don't have your own boat, you can rent a pontoon boat at a nearby marina or ride public river transportation.

When all the storytelling and hiking builds up your appetite, I recommend you try the fresh catfish dinner, served up at the Cave-In-Rock Restaurant. You can also catch and cook your own. A pond near the campground is stocked with bluegill and more. For those who were born to shop, it's just about eight miles into Elizabethtown, a place known for antiques, shade trees and hospitality.

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As I sit on the deck of the cabin overlooking the Ohio River, watching the sun set in a pool of crimson and auburn, I can't help but reflect on Cave-In-Rock's "pirate days." There's the ruthless meanness of the bandits and the contrast of the courage of settlers who left behind everything they knew for a dangerous trip and the mysterious promise of whatever lay where the current carried them. The backdrop to their stories is just as striking in its contrast: the river, so mighty, deep and wide; and then there's the cave, lying hidden dark and deep beneath the Shawnee Forest and the river bluffs.

I must say, while hiking the trails, riding the river and venturing into the cave exercise the body, the imagination gets a pretty good workout here at Cave-In-Rock State Park as well.

See you in the parks,

Joel Brunsvold, director, Illinois Department of Natural Resources

If you go:

Cave-In-Rock State Park is located on the Ohio River in Hardin County.

To reach the park from the northern parts of Illinois, proceed south on Interstate 57, exiting at Marion onto Route 13 east. Go east through Marion and Harrisburg to the intersection of Illinois 1 and 13. Turn south 22 miles on Route 1 to Cave-In-Rock State Park.

From the south, take highway 90 from Marion, Ky., and cross the Cave-In-Rock ferry and follow directional signs to the park entrance.

From the southeast take Interstate 24 west from the Interstate 24 bridge to Exit 16, then go 38 miles east on Illinois Route 146 to the park.

From southern Indiana, proceed through Evansville, Ind., traveling west on Route 62 and Illinois Route 141 to Illinois Route 1; then go south 36 miles to Cave-In-Rock State Park.

[Illinois Department of Natural Resources news release]

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