Exploring Southern Illinois

Illinois is a very long state – about 8 hours from top to tip.  So, despite living in Illinois almost my whole life, I’d never explored Southern Illinois (aside from a wild campus visit to SIU, but that’s another story!)  As I make exploring the Midwest a priority this year (in hopes of moving away someday!) I decided it was time to right that wrong, and made plans to head down over Memorial Day weekend.

Bailey loves a road trip!

I reserved a campsite at Trail of Tears State Forest, one of many state parks in the area.  Since this campground was more rustic, the sites were only $8 per night, as opposed to more “luxurious” campgrounds nearby, which charge closer to $30 per night. The campground was actually really unique – two rutted dirt road loops with a few campsites scattered among them.  Each site had an outhouse, fire pit and picnic table, but otherwise it felt a lot like backcountry camping as you didn’t have any neighbors.

New tent!

Our first morning, we headed north to Pomona Natural Bridge, a natural rock arch in a green leafy forest.  This was just a short hike from the parking lot, thankfully, given the gross humidity already building early in the morning.

Pomona Bridge

Next up was Little Grand Canyon, which I’d read about (and Pinned!) many years ago.  We started the loop at the back end to avoid crowds, but after about 2 miles were told the trail up ahead involved some rock scrambling and I didn’t think Bailey was up for it.  (Plus, it was getting pretty hot and there weren’t as many creek crossings as I had hoped) We headed back to the parking and lot and hiked in a bit in the opposite direction where B was able to cool off in a stream.

Little Grand Canyon

After naptime and cool-down at the campsite, we headed  back out towards Cache River Wetlands area.  Unfortunately, it was closed by then so we were done touring for the day.  The next morning, we headed back again to that area as I really wanted to see the Cypress trees.  At our first stop, the trail was flooded so we waded in a bit, just enough to get a few photos.

Cache River Wetlands

We then headed to the Heron pond area, where there were some nice, shorter hikes in the shade.  This park was straight out of the Bayou!

Cache River Natural Area

Cache River Natural Area

Cache River Natural Area

We made a quick stop at Burden Falls for some photography (on my next vacation I would finally realize that timing is everything for waterfalls and mid-day, full sunlight is the worst possible time!)

Burden Falls

Burden Falls

Our last hike for the day was Garden of the Gods State Park.  This place was packed with tourists, so we didn’t spend much time here, but it was fun to see the different rock formations and outstanding views above the valley.

Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods

I had decided not to stay a 3rd night at Trail of Tears.  While it was a lovely campsite, it was on the far Western end of the area.  We had explored that side on Saturday, and then the Eastern side on Sunday, so rather than drive all the way back, I decided to pack up that morning and then take a chunk out of the 7 hour drive that night.

I stopped for dinner at the lodge at Cave in Rock State Park – they had a nice little patio overlooking the Ohio River into Kentucky.  A few of the parks, including this one, have cabins in addition to camping, which is a nice bonus.

Cave in Rock State Park Lodge

Rather than jumping on the Interstate, I took 2-lane highway 1 north about 3 hours and ended up camping at Lincoln Trail State Park.  Nice little tent site, with shower house nearby.  The hiking trails here looked pretty nice, too – definitely someplace to return if I get the chance.

Lincoln Trail State Park

I would highly recommend this area for a long weekend of exploring.  Garden of the Gods and Giant City State Parks seem to be really convenient, central locations to all the attractions, as well as offering different types of lodging like lodges, cabins and camping.  For backpackers, the River to River trail also runs through here.

I don’t know if it’s age, or too many Midwest winters, or being spoiled by 3 mild Seattle summers, but unbearable heat and humidity seem to be a recurring theme for my trips recently and summer is quickly becoming a hibernation season for me.  So, I’ll be sticking close to the A/C for the rest of the summer and hopefully get back on the trail again come Fall!

For all of my photos from this trip, click here!

And just for fun, a photo from my original trip to Carbondale in 1995.  Yeah, no hiking on that trip, lol!

Feb 1995 - Sarah and I took a road trip to Carbondale to visit Andrea at SIU.


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Solo in SouthEast Asia

If I’m being totally honest, Asia was never high on my travel wish list – I pictured steamy hot crowded cities, and a very long flight to get there.  I’m past the age where I want to budget backpack and stay in hostels.  There were just a lot of other places much higher on my list, and easier to reach.  And then, friends of mine moved to Shanghai.  Having a local to visit totally changes the ballgame and is a great excuse to go someplace you normally wouldn’t.  So, in the summer of 2015, planning began.

By Winter 2015, my friends had been called back to the States much earlier than expected.  Oops!  I was too far into planning and booking to cancel my trip, but I had also done enough research that I was getting excited about the things I had planned.  I had only planned a few days in Shanghai at the end of my trip so that was easy enough to cut out. No need to deal with the red tape of China this time around!  So, this is the story of how I found myself roaming around Thailand and Cambodia for two weeks on my own.

I was pretty relieved that my ATM card worked with no issues!

Again, not keen on big, crowded cities, I intended to avoid Bangkok or spend very little time there.  I had a friend who told me about an elephant sanctuary outside Chiang Mai, so I knew I had to get there and it seemed as good a place as any to start my trip!  I found a good deal on a flight to Chiang Mai, with an overnight layover in HongKong.  Even with a hotel cost, it was still cheaper than the next cheapest option.  (With no direct flights from Chicago to Bangkok, I was also trying to avoid a 3-legged start to my trip)

After a quick overnight in Hong Kong, just enough to visit the Big Buddha on Lantau Island, I would have 3 nights in Chiang Mai.  A food tour, photography tour and full day spent at Elephant Nature Park didn’t leave too much down time.

Then, I would take an overnight train to Bangkok, where I stayed at the Aloft Bangkok for two nights.  Originally, I only planned 1 night in Bangkok (mostly so I could sing the song!) but when I found out about Sak Yant Tattoos at Wat Bang Phra outside the city, I changed my itinerary to work this in.  A tuk tuk tour was the only other thing I managed to do in Bangkok!

First class car (First Class is a relative term here)

Expique - Bangkok Night Lights TukTuk Tour

Next up, was Siem Riep in Cambodia to visit the Angkor Wat temples.  I planned to take a bus from Bangkok just for adventure, but at the last minute found a flight for $70 and decided I had better ways to spend 8 hours than on a chicken bus.  In Siem Reap, I spent 3 nights at Le Meridien Angkor, a full day touring the temples, and a whole lot of time at the pool!  (Who can blame me, it was gorgeous!)

Angkor Wat

Le Meridien Angkor

At this point, I originally planned to fly to Shanghai, but instead doubled back to Thailand for some beach time in Phuket.  Here, I stayed 3 nights at the Westin Siray Bay, with a full-day kayak tour and again, lots of pool time!


From Phuket, I flew back to HongKong for 1 more night before my morning flight back to Chicago the next day.

Overall, my itinerary got a little wonky with changes, and I was somewhat limited due to the fact that I originally purchased a flight home from Shanghai using miles (luckily I was able to change it from HongKong for $5 but not Bangkok which would have been much easier), but overall, it worked out pretty well!

  • Total trip Cost ~ $4200
    • Flights (5) – $1723 + 40,000 United miles
    • Hotels (13) – $717 + 30,000 Starwood Points
    • Tours & Tips – $662
    • Food – $365
    • Taxis – $237
    • Souvenirs – $200
    • Spa Visits – $67
    • Laundry – $40
    • Overnight Train Bangkok- 1st class sleeper – $50
    • Cambodian Visa – $30
    • Dog Boarding $100 (only 2 nights…thanks, Mom!)

For those wondering about all the Starwood points, I use a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card for most of my daily expenses.  I don’t travel constantly, or stay in hotels all that often, but when I do, I try to stay with one chain to maximize my points. Most of my points are earned through everyday purchases like gas, groceries and take-out…so much take-out!  The $95 Annual Fee is well worth it, given how many free nights I used on this trip alone!

Westin Siray Bay Resort & SpaPrego Pool

For all of my photos from the trip, click here!

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