By Jessica Mozo
Carbondale is often called the capital of Southern Illinois, and it’s not hard to see why. Located an hour and a half (about 90 miles) southeast of St. Louis on the northern edge of the Shawnee National Forest, Carbondale has a population of about 26,000 and is the location of the main campus of Southern Illinois University.
Being a college town means Carbondale has lots of perks for residents and visitors alike. Cultural attractions, recreation opportunities and ample shopping venues make life in Carbondale exciting. The city’s history dates back to 1852, and Carbondale’s nostalgic Town Square and West Walnut Street Historic District are popular with tourists. The latter is a series of 54 private residences that were collectively named a National Historic District in 1975.
Downtown Carbondale has seen many visual and economic improvements in recent years, thanks to the efforts of the Carbondale Main Street Association. Downtown is a fun destination with special events, fairs and parades throughout the year.
Carbondale has won oodles of accolades over the past few decades, including the Best Small City in Illinois in 1990 and 1997 and the Governor’s Hometown Award in 2002, 2005 and 2009. It was also selected by Outdoor Life magazine as one of the Top 200 Towns for Sportsmen in 2009.
Carbondale Area Orchards and Wineries
More than a century ago, immigrants migrated to the Carbondale area to start orchards because the climate and terrain were favorable for growing fruit. Today, Carbondale has several apple and peach orchards that continue to thrive, two of which are stops along the Shawnee Hills Orchard Trail.
Rendleman Orchards in Alto Pass grows peaches, nectarines and apples and is open to the public July through December. Established in 1873, Rendleman Orchards is an Illinois Centennial Farm that has a charming farm market where visitors can sample tree-ripened fruits and homemade jams, jellies, salsas, ciders and syrups.
At Flamm Orchards in Cobden, treat yourself to a made-from-scratch dessert. The orchard has a Fruit & Cream Stand where visitors can enjoy in-season strawberry shortcake, peach cobbler and apple dumplings a la mode surrounded by hummingbirds. Flamm Orchards is open May through mid-December.
Not long after orchards began popping up across Southern Illinois, grape growers also began putting down roots in the region. As a result, several wineries have emerged, and visitors can explore them along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, one of the region’s top tourism attractions. The trail includes 12 wineries and continues to expand. It was established in 1995 by the Carbondale Convention & Tourism Bureau and the owners of Southern Illinois’ first three wineries: Alto Vineyards in Alto Pass, Pomona Winery in Pomona and Owl Creek Vineyard in Cobden.
Carbondale Entertainment Venues
Carbondale may be a small town, but it offers big-city entertainment. The Southern Illinois University Arena is an 8,000-seat venue that regularly hosts some of the biggest names in music. In its 40-plus years of existence, it has hosted concerts by Elvis, B.B. King, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Kenny Rogers and many others. The arena was renovated in 2010 with new seating, additional restrooms, improved handicap accessibility, a new scoreboard and improved concessions.
During the summer months, Southern Illinois University’s Department of Theater presents the highly anticipated McLeod Summer Playhouse at McLeod Theater. The 2012 season will include crowd-pleasers such as “Steel Magnolias,” “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “Chicago” and “Cinderella.”
For community theater at its best, look no further than The Stage Company, which has been entertaining Carbondale for 30 years. Performances are held at the Varsity Center for the Arts, and the 30th anniversary 2011-2012 season included “Nickel and Dimed,” “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” and “Inherit the Wind.” Opening July 12, 2012, The Stage Company will present “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
If you have kids in your traveling party, make sure to visit The Science Center of Southern Illinois. Designed for children ages 3 to 13, the museum features interactive, hands-on exhibits that let kids explore the world around them. The Science Center is located inside University Mall and is open Wednesday through Sunday. Check out the science-related toys, games, magic tricks and projects in the gift store.
Carbondale Outdoor Attractions
Grab your shades and a towel and head for Poplar Camp Beach on Carbondale’s Cedar Lake. The city-owned public beach and boat dock is known for its family atmosphere and gorgeous scenery. Fishermen regularly reel in crappie and bass, and the sandy waterfront leads to a swim and play area. Lifeguards are on duty during beach hours, and restrooms, picnic tables and concessions are on site.
If you love nature, don’t miss the Marberry Arboretum, located on 25 acres two miles south of Carbondale. The arboretum is a living museum with more than 600 species and 20,000 plants. Meander along scenic walkways, fish in the arboretum’s pond, or enjoy a picnic amidst the natural scenery. The arboretum also has some historic sites, including two unmarked Civil War graves and stones from a Shawnee Indian counsel fire.
Campers flock to Devil’s Backbone Park in Grand Tower during the summer months. The park has a peaceful campground overlooking the Mississippi River and an unusual rock formation called Devil’s Bake Oven. Legends say the caves within Devil’s Bake Oven harbored river pirates until U.S. troops drove them away in 1803. The park is also said to have been the site of an Indian massacre in the early 1800s. Some of the locals believe it is haunted.
Attention golfers! Carbondale is smack dab in the middle of the Southern Illinois Golf Trail. Hickory Ridge Golf Center in Carbondale is one of five courses along the trail, which was established by the Carbondale Convention and Tourism Bureau. The 18-hole Hickory Ridge course is open to the public and challenges all skill levels. Another challenging course along the trail is Kokopelli Golf Club in nearby Marion.
Love to shop? Spend a day browsing the specialty and antique stores that line Carbondale’s Illinois Avenue and Main Street neighborhoods. You’ll find everything from the quirky to the quaint, including 6Pence gift shop, 710 Bookstore and Dayshift Boutique, to name a few. Be sure to stop in Mary Lou’s Grill – a local landmark – for biscuits and gravy.
Looking for chain stores? University Mall has more than 50 popular stores, including Macy’s and JC Penney.
For more information, visit the Carbondale Convention & Tourism Bureau website. Also check out our list of Carbondale restaurants, as well as a little bit of history on how the city became the birthplace of Memorial Day.