Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Illinois Ozarks
Nature Bulletin No. 450-A   March 25, 1972
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Starting from Cook County with a full tank of gas, you can drive down through Illinois and be entering that section of the state known as "Egypt" before refilling. In no other direction could it take you to finer scenery, to a region richer in early history, or bring you among people with customs, a background, and an outlook more different from dwellers of Chicagoland.

Illinois is much longer than most of its residents realize -- 379 miles. Waukegan near the Wisconsin line is farther north than Windsor, Ontario, and Cairo at the other extreme is 40 miles farther south than Richmond, Virginia. Signs of the Deep South in those southern counties are cotton growing, cypress swamps, cane brakes, magnolias, and clumps of mistletoe in the trees. Spring comes a full month earlier there than in northern Illinois. While we are still in the grip of winter, miles and miles of peach and apple orchards cover Egypt's hills with bloom.

The Illinois Ozarks are an extension of the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. They rise abruptly from the surrounding country and stretch for 70 miles in an east-west direction across southern Illinois from Grand Tower on the Mississippi to Shawneetown on the Ohio . Another rugged belt only 5 to 10 miles wide extends northwest almost to East St. Louis. The Ozarks are very ancient mountains, much older than the Rockies. Over the ages, weathering has reduced their height many hundreds of feet. The highest points are Williams Hill and Bald Knob, 1065 and 1045 feet above sea level, respectively, and about 700 feet above the nearby valleys. The only higher ground in Illinois is Charles Mound, in the extreme northwestern corner of the state, which is 1241 feet above sea level.

The French made the first permanent settlements in our Middle West along the Mississippi River in southern Illinois, within a few years after Pere Marquette's first explorations in 1673. However, a century later, at the close of the Revolutionary War, there were only about 300 white inhabitants and 250 slaves in the entire Illinois country. Then, the American government encouraged immigration by offering homesteads at small cost, and settlers began to come down the Ohio River or up the Mississippi into southern Illinois where the population of the state remained concentrated until the 1830's. In the Ozark hills, timber cutting and farming had reached their peak and begun to decline by 1900 due to widespread soil erosion. The habit of burning the woods in spring hastened the trend and soon both the forests and the soils were nearing exhaustion.

A new era is dawning in southern Illinois. Several state and federal agencies have developed lakes, parks, historical memorials, waterfowl refuges and scenic spots. The most important single factor in its rehabilitation has been the Shawnee National Forest, established in 1933, with a gross area of 800,000 acres spread through nine counties. There, good forest management is protecting its water, soil, forest and wildlife resources. Best of all, it is becoming a great outdoor recreation area with abundant opportunities for picnicking, camping, hiking, boating, swimming, fishing and hunting.

For information, write the Forest Supervisor, Shawnee National Forest, Harrisburg, Illinois.

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