The Pomona Natural Bridge, located in Pomona, Ill., is a great quick hike for all ages.

After years of hearing tales from several co-workers about the beauty of southern Illinois, in 2012 I broke down and took a two-night solo camping trip to check it out. 

I have to admit that I went into the trip with a little hesitation.

My impression of the state had been linked to that stretch of flat highway that connects St. Louis to Chicago. Thankfully, I decided to take a leap of faith and listen to my co-workers.

My first visit was a success. To say I fell in love with southern Illinois was an understatement. In the past six years I have made several return trips. Each time I found more reasons to appreciate the sights, sounds, and people of southern Illinois.

Based on the adventures I have had, I highly recommend the following destinations to help you see Illinois in a whole new light:

The sun above that crack in the wall of rock — that’s at Giant City on the Giant City Nature Trail.

• Pomona Natural Bridge in the Shawnee National Forest is located near Carbondale, Alto Pass, Murphysboro, and Anna. It is a great place to picnic, but the hiking trail is the real highlight. It’s a short and relatively easy trail, but don’t rush it.

Go off trail and explore the areas below the 90-foot natural bridge, too. One can easily spend several hours at Pomona Natural Bridge, but don’t forget the region is also known for wine trails, sweeping vistas, and scenic drives.

• The Alto Pass Overlook is simply breathtaking. It’s located on Skyline Drive near Alto Pass and well worth the stop. You can gaze out over southern Illinois and see for miles on most days. Catch it around sunrise or sunset for some stunning scenes.

• South of Carbondale in Makanda is Giant City State Park. The natural beauty and various opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors make Giant City a “must-see” destination.

Camping, fishing, a visitor center, hiking, horseback riding, a lodge, and more await you.

My favorite part of the experience is hitting the Giant City Nature Trail, which features bluffs of sandstone formed over 12,000 years ago.

Walking down between rocks at Gar- den of the Gods on the Observation Trail.

Hands down, of all the trails I’ve hiked in our nation, it is one of my favorites.

• In my opinion, Garden of the Gods in Herod is the crowning jewel of the Shawnee National Forest. It’s heralded as one of the most photographed locations in the state of Illinois and I can see why.

The .25-mile Observation Trail may be short in distance, but just like Pomona Natural Bridge, you can spend hours on this trail exploring and simply stopping to stare at a view that seems to stretch for eternity.

The literature states this trail can take up to an hour to walk, but I recommend you take more time than that to appreciate this place that serves as a reminder to us all of why it’s important to enjoy (and protect) the spaces that makes America so special.

I have yet to camp at Garden of the Gods, but I can safely say it is on my to-do list. Watching the sunrise or set (or both!) from this area is something I look forward to.

Those are just four of the places I have found great peace and enjoyment within the southern Illinois region.

I could easily add more to the list, but in my humble opinion you have to start somewhere and these four spots serve as a great first taste of what this region has to offer.

(Michelle Turner lives in Union, Mo.)

On the Giant City Nature Trail.