McCORMICK, Ill.–Sam Stearns stood on the rock outcropping cut by a small stream, looked around and said, “This might be where I watch the eclipse.”

I could see why. I felt like Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon. I can’t think of a better place to watch the solar eclipse on Aug. 21 than in a lunar landscape surrounded by light-blocking tall trees.

My problem? I have no clue how to get back there.

Stearns walked Les Winkeler and me in circles this spring at Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area in the Shawnee National Forest in Pope County. As darkness settled in and we twisted on confusing trails behind Stearns, whip-poor-wills began calling, echoing through the canyons.

It capped a stunning evening.

If headed to southern Illinois for the total solar eclipse, take in the wild spots in southern Illinois beside just the eclipse. That wildness could be as inspirational as the eclipse may be.

Some wild spots in southern Illinois are well known: Giant City (conveniently near Carbondale, center of eclipse focus), Garden of the Gods, Ferne Clyffe, Jackson Falls, Cave-in-the-Rock and Tunnel Hill Trail.

I was fortunate to have Stearns take me to new spots in April when I visited Winkeler, sports editor for The Southern, to see the spring migration at Frank Bellrose Waterfowl Reserve.

Burden Falls flowing good in April.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Stearns is a founder of Friends of Bell Smith Springs and one of Illinois’ most notable conservation advocates. I need to do a full story on him.

We met him and his dog Biscuit at Burden Falls Wilderness in Pope County near his home. We were lucky to come a few days after a good rain. The intermittent falls were going good.

We hiked into the canyon, then scrambled to the rim trail behind Stearns’ direction while he explained the drainage and wilderness area, including the tale of an aircraft crash there.

Then it was to near-by Bell Smith Springs, which the U. S. Forest Service describes as “one of the most beautiful recreation areas the Shawnee National Forest has to offer.’’

Multiple streams come together in canyons. Even in April, people swam in some pools. There’s eight miles of trails. Stearns must have taken us on pieces of most, because he twisted Winkeler and me completely around by dark.

There’s beautiful streams (flowing well in April) and pools, and distinctive sandstone cliffs and formations, including Devil’s Backbone. (Whoever named that had an imagination or was caught in a storm there.)

Afterward,in the dark, Stearns drove us back to Burden Falls. There, he handed us craft beers. We stood in the dark, sipping and listening to Burden Creek bubbling.

It was time.

An epiphany before the coming eclipse.

Our family debated how to do the eclipse so long we missed renting in a cabin inside the total eclipse. But we found one about an hour away. We’re undecided where to view the eclipse. I vote for Bell Smith Springs, but might be outnumbered.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has some camping sites remaining at the World Shooting and Recreational Complex in Randolph County (reserveamerica.com).

Carbondale eclipse activities are at carbondaleeclipse.com; SIU activities are at eclipse.siu.edu. Shawnee information is at fs.usda.gov/main/shawnee/home.

Devil’s Backbone at Bell Smith Springs.
Credit: Dale Bowman