Visiting Snake Road in Southwest Illinois
Snakes Everywhere on Snake Road
There is an area along the Mississippi River in extreme southwest Illinois near Jonesboro that teems with snakes and other herps in the months of April and October. A 1.5 to two mile road is blocked off in the Shawnee National Forest to allow migration of herps to and from hibernation sites in a several hundred-foot high cliff face. The limestone cliff is bordered by the road which is in turn bordered by a swamp on the river side. Visitors are welcome to walk the road in search of garter snakes, ribbon snakes, plain bellied water snakes, and a host of other species. The snake most often seen is the western cottonmouth.
Many years ago, I read about a place where numerous herps could be seen just by walking a road during migration periods. I believe the article was in a now defunct (and missed by me) magazine called "Reptile and Amphibian Magazine." Snake Road is located in the Shawnee National Forest in Union County Illinois. Wildlife in the area is strictly protected, no snake sticks or other herp hunting paraphernalia allowed. The road is about a 6-7 hour drive from my home in Cincinnati and generally our local herp club mounts a spring trip in April and a fall trip in October. The spring trip is occasioned by temperatures reaching into the 70's. There are a number of small hotels in Jonesboro, Murphysboro, and the surrounding area, or you can camp at the nearby primitive Pine Hill Campground, although night temperatures can sometimes get pretty cold for the typical summer camper. If you arrive before the migration really gets underway in the spring, the herps will tend to be up on the bluffs (including unexpected species like rough green snakes and green treefrogs). Arrival as migration tails off will have you intercepting herps on the road itself (it is closed to traffic, although emergency vehicles can get back there if needed) and you may even arrive after many animals have moved out into the swamp. I have seen green snakes, black ratsnakes, plain bellied water snakes, water moccasins, ribbon snakes, gartersnakes, leopard frogs, green frogs, bird voiced treefrogs, green treefrogs, dwarf American toads, brown snakes, smooth earth snakes, and other herps actually on the road, and others have seen hognosed snakes and red milks on the road and a timber rattlesnake nearby.
I was surprised by the variety of folks I met along the road, including Canadian college professors, Iowa bird watchers, students from nearby Southern Illinois University, professors doing research on local raccoons and wood rats, well known herp breeders, and well known herp authors. The variety of folks using the road is not dissimilar from the diversity of herps found there. Snake Road is a location where southern (green tree frog), western (plains leopard frog), and midwestern (midwest worm snake) come together.
Let's Walk the Road
Snake Road is best accessed via SR 3 near the towns of Ware and Wolf Lake. It is in the LaRue Pine Hills Natural Area. You turn right off SR 3 and take an unpaved road along a dike until the road dead ends into a small parking lot, either on the N or S side, depending upon which dike you take. There are no restrooms at either parking lot. I have found the best approach to be to walk the road one end to the other and then back again. As an old geezer, I have been able to do this a couple times a day. Some visitors climb up the rock faces to search along the cliffs. I am not sure of the legality of this and safety is also a consideration. I you fall on the steep slope, the tendency is to put out your hands to catch yourself, not always a good idea where venomous snakes are common.
If you are alone on the road, your chances to see herps are somewhat lower than if there are others around, since folks open find animals and point them out to other groups. On the other hand, too many visitors can result in many animals being chased off the road before you see them. I have found Fridays and Saturdays during the correct times of year to be the best times to walk. A slight rain seems to be no problem, as long as temps stay in the 70's or above. I've not had much luck near dusk, but believe that this might be due to dropping temperatures rather than light levels. Be sure to check the graveled road very carefully, especially in the center where grass may grow. Small species like brown snakes, ring necks, and juveniles of several species are hard to see among the gravel pieces. Also look ahead of you, as you might just see a snake crawling off the road's edge.
Where to Stay
There are several small motels in Jonesboro and a couple of other nearby towns that appear to be frequented by waterfowl hunters. I found one that I have returned to for several years, and the prices are quite reasonable. If you're a camper, there is a primitive State Forest Campground nearby—Pine Hills. It has pit toilets, but no showers. I don't recall if water is available or not. There are also a number of fast food and small local restaurants in Jonesboro and Anna, along with gas stations.
Visit While You Can
The State Forest seems to be doing a great job of maintaining reptile populations at Snake Road while allowing visitors to enjoy the resource. Hopefully this will continue if visitors follow the non-collecting regulations and spend their time spotting and photographing the reptiles, amphibians, scenery, and other wildlife (I've also spotted deer, red foxes, herons, warblers, a variety of ducks, and even one bald eagle that was sitting on a tree branch hanging right over the road).