Arts & Culture » Summer Guide

Summer Guide: Castle life in Southern Illinois

Sleep in style, explore the Little Grand Canyon, tour some wineries—then sober up at a ghost town



I've always felt well suited for castle life—holed up in a regal, fortified residence of stone, one can get some real thinking done in between visits from neighboring feudal lords and having to devise the occasional military strategy. But since I live in Midwest, U.S.A., and nowhere near the grand Warwick Castle—my turreted birthright, located in Warwickshire, England—a bizarre, Middle Ages-style bed and breakfast 13 miles outside of Carbondale will have to do.

Pretty much a straight six-hour shot down I-57, architect Bruce Goff's Duncan/Etzkorn Castle Dwelling in Cobden (2375 Wing Hill Rd.) offers an architecturally unusual home base from which to explore the surrounding Shanwee National Forest (more to come on that). Built from 600 tons of local sandstone rock, the castle (sans moat) was designed by Goff in the mid-60s for Southern Illinois University sociology professor Hugh Duncan. Converted to an inn in 2002, it sleeps a total of six, but because of the residence's open plan—the master bedroom is the one room with a door—innkeeper Glen Etzkorn won't accept multiple reservations unless members of each party are well acquainted with one another.

Sure, the castle would probably fit snuggly in one of Windsor's drawing rooms, but you still reserve the right to be king and/or queen of your own microkingdom for a weekend.

Once you've spent the evening soaking up the castle's architectural charm and plowing through its Goff-themed library of books and magazines—the Art Institute of Chicago, where the architect's archives are kept, also provided blueprints of the building—get some rest and wake up bright and early, well prepared to venture outside and huff some fresh air.

The surrounding Shawnee National Forest offers dynamic terrain rife with hills, canyons, ponds, rivers, and other geological wonders—that is, geological wonders for the state of Illinois. The Little Grand Canyon features a 3.6-mile hiking trail with panoramic views of the Big Muddy River and the Mississippi's floodplain. Instagram-ready waterfalls and towering walls of exposed sandstone can be seen from the canyon's floor. The not-so-adventurous types seeking a simpler hike can check out the nearby 90-foot-long Pomona Natural Bridge that's tucked within an easygoing half-mile trail.

For the even more adventurous, there's rock climbing to be had 40 miles east of Carbondale at Jackson Falls—the only spot in the forest's 280,000 acres where the sport is allowed. There are around 60 bluff- and boulder-climbing opportunities, with most of the routes stretching upward of 50 and 60 feet.

Before traipsing back to the castle, you can get nice and toasty by visiting one, two, or seven of the 12 wineries along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, located south of Route 13 and west of I-57. Wineries within the castle's commonwealth include the Rustle Hill Winery in Cobden (8595 New Hwy.), Owl Creek Vineyard in Cobden (2655 Water Valley Rd.), and the Von Jakob Vineyards in both Pomona and Alto Pass (1309 Sadler Rd. and 230 Hwy 127). The Yellow Moon Cafe (110 N. Front) and Palace Pizzeria (215 S. Appleknocker Dr.) are convenient Cobden spots for a dinner before or after the wine-tasting spree. If you're a ravenous carnivore unconcerned with staying close to the castle, the renowned 17th Street BBQ, 30 miles away in Murphysboro (32 N. 17th), offers racks o' ribs, brisket, pork shoulder, burgers, and fried potatoes.

Charge your camera's battery overnight, because after checking out of the Goff, you should hop back on 57 and head south about 45 minutes to Cairo, Illinois, the southernmost city in the state. The detour will take you to a cinematic ghost town at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, abandoned due to economic decline that resulted from incredible downturns in river trade.

Cairo's population has dropped from around 15,000 at its peak in 1920 to less than 3,000, which has left once-bustling avenues lined with vacant, dilapidated buildings. The art-deco-style Gem Theatre, which opened in 1910, has sat empty since 1978—marquee still intact—and the city's 44-bed hospital, closed since 1986, is consumed by vegetation. It's a bleak landscape, but a picturesque one worthy of exploration before you make the trek back north to Chicago. Just last year, the United States Army Corps of Engineers blew up a levee on the Mississippi in order to save the city from floods—an encouraging decision that proves Cairo has not been forgotten.

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