Published: March 2009
Central States
Check out the season's best weekend trips near you.
Text by Contributing Editor Robert Earle Howells
Illinois
Instant Wilderness: Climb Giant City

What corn belt? Giant City State Park in southern Illinois is surrounded by 4,055 acres of hilly oak and hickory forests and peppered with sandstone bluffs up to a hundred feet high. Rock climbers can score great top-roped routes at Shelter One Bluff and beside Devil’s Standtable Cliff, where overhanging boulders are an option for the ropeless set (dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt). Midwestern backpackers have a rare wilderness escape route on the park’s Red Cedar Trail, a 12-mile path that leads past more remote rock formations and, midway along the trail, a primitive campsite (permits, $8). There’s also a tents-only campground reachable by road ($8), but a cozier option is Giant City Lodge, a historic stone-and-oak retreat that looks as if it were airlifted from Yellowstone National Park (two-bedroom cabin, $79; giantcitylodge.com). And don’t worry about tracking down a restaurant: All-you-can-eat fried chicken dinners are the house specialty.

Arkansas
The Wild Card: Explore the Darker Side of Life

With both sandstone crevices and limestone caves to explore, Devil’s Den State Park is absolute paradise—for bats. There are seven species in all, including everyone’s favorite, the threatened Ozark big-eared bat. Humans can get in on the fun too. Devil’s Den, the park’s signature cave, is actually a crevice, a sandstone crack in the hillside that penetrates 550 feet and is a hangout for a thousand or so bats—just one of 61 such slots in the park’s amazing Upper Crevice area. Check with the visitors center to see if a guided crevice hike—a fairly strenuous slitherfest—is on the docket. The park’s longest limestone cave runs 1,600 feet. It’s bereft of formations, but it’s a muddy, mucky challenge to negotiate; nontechnical, but you need to register to enter. If you prefer daylight, the park has miles of trails for horseback riding, hiking, and mountain biking, a lake to paddle, campsites starting at $10, and comfortable CCC-era timber and stone cabins ($100; arkansasstateparks.com/devilsden).

Michigan
Snowshoe and Sip Brew

When snowshoeing into a Michigan winter, it’s best to go heavily fortified—hence Timber Ridge Resort’s Suds & Snow Festival (March 7; $20; five-person cabins, $119; timberridgeresort.net). The idea is to snowshoe out on the resort’s 5K cross-country skiing network to the best-stocked trail station you’ll ever encounter in the wilds. There you can sample suds from microbreweries such as Jolly Pumpkin, Short’s Brewing Co., and Right Brain Brewery, and dive into brats, soups, and chili supplied by area restaurants. Although the event caters to shoers, skiers are welcome (there’s almost always snow on the ground till Easter) and can venture beyond Timber Ridge to the famed Vasa Pathway, a beautifully groomed 60K XC trail that winds through the dense pines and hardwoods of Pere Marquette State Forest, just east of Traverse City.

Tennessee
Adventure Base Camp: Watauga River Lodge

Transplant one of those Western gentleman’s fishing lodges to Tennessee and what do you get? Great guided fishing on a trophy stretch of the Watauga River that’s casting distance from your spanking-new knotty-pine cabin—for half the price. No cigar room, designer chef, or wine cellar at Watauga River Lodge & Outfitter: What you get is 20-fish days, heck, 40-fish days—rainbows, mainly, but also trophy browns in the seven-to-15-pound range (doubles from $150; wataugariverlodge.com). And if the Watauga is slow, you’ve got a hundred miles of floatable river within 40 minutes of the lodge. "There’s more great water than you could fish in a lifetime here," says guide and co-owner Tim Holcomb. "And in March, you’ll probably have it all to your lonesome."