Trails: Mentor Graham’s Footsteps, Cardinal Ridge, Shady Hollow, and Damselfly Trails
Hike Location: Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic SiteGeographic Location: south of Petersburg, IL (39.97791, -89.84701)Length: 4.1 milesDifficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)Last Hiked: May 2019Overview: A loop hike along the Sangamon River featuring recreated New Salem village.Site Information: Route Map:
Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 4 and SR 97 on the northwest side of Springfield, take SR 97 northwest 16.6 miles to the main entrance for Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site. Turn left to enter the site’s main area, and park in the large blacktop parking lot in front of the Visitor Center.
The hike: The year was 1831 when a 22 year old Abraham Lincoln arrived in New Salem, IL via flatboat on the Sangamon River. At that time, the village had only existed for 2 years. Unlike most villages in Illinois, New Salem was not a small farming village but a collection of 20-25 families many of whom had young craftsmen or businessmen trying to make a new life on the frontier. Thus, Lincoln fit right in. During the 6 years he lived here, Lincoln made a living as a boatman, soldier, postmaster, surveyor, general store owner, and railsplitter, with various levels of success in these various occupations. Yet his best-known achievement in New Salem was getting elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1834. Lincoln moved away from New Salem to Springfield, also in his election district, in 1837. The village was abandoned in 1840 only 11 years after it was settled, so it is almost as if New Salem existed just to give Lincoln his start. In the 1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a recreation of New Salem on its original foundations, and their recreation is open to visitors today as Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site. The village is the site’s main attraction, but it also features a campground, a large picnic area, a restaurant, picnic shelters and a boat ramp on the Sangamon River, and 6 miles of hiking trails. Although the recreated village is quite popular, the trails see little use, and the route described here forms a loop through the park’s trail system while still touring the recreated village. Bugs were a significant factor on my visit, so make sure to wear good bug spray during the warmer months.

Trailhead: Mentor Graham's Footsteps Trail

To save the recreated village for last, this hike starts with the Mentor Graham’s Footsteps Trail, which begins at a signed trailhead at the opposite end of the parking lot from the Visitor Center. On my visit, the Mentor Graham’s Footsteps Trail was closed due to a bridge being out. Therefore, I had to start my hike by walking back down the entrance road to the other (eastern) end of the Mentor Graham’s Footsteps Trail, which is located at the site’s main entrance on SR 97. The trail down to this point has a little more up and down than the road, but it stays in the forest and is much more scenic.

Start of Cardinal Ridge Trail

At the site’s main entrance, carefully cross busy SR 97 and look across a mowed grass field to the right for the start of the Cardinal Ridge Trail. The Cardinal Ridge Trail enters the woods at a brown wooden post and climbs on a steep and eroded track. The difference between maximum and minimum elevations on this hike is only about 120 feet, but several short steep areas such as this one increase the difficulty. 0.6 miles into the hike, you reach the top of the hill and a trail intersection with the Cardinal Ridge Trail’s main loop. Angle right to begin hiking the loop counterclockwise. The Cardinal Ridge Trail is one of the site’s best-maintained trails, and the wide single-track trail passes through shrubby broadleaf forest for its entire distance.

Hiking the Cardinal Ridge Trail

At 1.1 miles, you reach the Cardinal Ridge Trail’s southernmost point where an unmarked side trail exits right to access another parking lot. A few hundred feet later, you reach another unsigned trail intersection. The Cardinal Ridge Trail continues straight to close its loop, but this hike turns right to head for the Sangamon River on the Shady Hollow Trail. Quickly you cross the park road and come to the official trailhead for the Shady Hollow Trail. The Shady Hollow Trail fools you by making a brief dip through a side ravine before beginning its winding descent toward the Sangamon River in earnest. This trail is another single-track dirt trail, but it passes through younger forest that features some osage orange trees a dense understory of honeysuckle.

Hiking the Shady Hollow Trail

At 2.2 miles, you reach the bottom end of the Shady Hollow Trail at a collection of picnic shelters along the Sangamon River. These shelters make nice places to sit and rest near the midpoint of this hike provided they are not reserved. Drinking water may be available here in season. To continue the loop, turn left on the Damselfly Trail, which heads northwest out of the picnic shelter area with the river on your right.

Sangamon River

The initial segment of the Damselfly Trail follows an old asphalt road that stays very close to the river. At some points the river’s erosion has undermined the asphalt, so you have to watch where you are stepping rather than just mindlessly follow the asphalt. After curving left to leave the river, the Shickshack Trail exits left to head for the site’s restaurant. Stay straight to remain on the Damselfly Trail. 2.8 miles into the hike, you come out on the east shoulder of SR 97. The Damselfly Trail turns right to cross a creek on the road’s bridge before heading back into the forest on the same side of the road. The last (northernmost) part of the Damselfly Trail follows a narrow strip of high ground between a wetland on the left and the river on the right. I have to be honest and report that this portion of the Damselfly Trail was in very poor shape on my visit. The path was barely discernable, several fallen trees had to be climbed over or around, and vast areas of stinging nettle lined the route. This area shows the site’s lack of funding and staffing, a problem on the state level in Illinois.

Recreated grist mill

At 3.4 miles, you cross a muddy area to reach the Damselfly Trail’s north end at the site’s recreated saw and grist mill along SR 97. The muddy area you walked through is actually an old Sangamon River channel, and a mill operated on this site from 1828 until 1853. To get to the rest of the recreated village, climb some wooden steps and cross SR 97 using a covered bridge, then walk uphill a short distance on asphalt path.

First Berry-Lincoln Store
Joshua Miller Blacksmith Shop

The recreated village contains 22 log buildings, and it includes both residences and commercial buildings such as a school/church, a tavern, and several stores. Two of the stores were run by Lincoln while he lived here; they both went bankrupt. Costumed interpreters, mostly volunteers, bring the village to life. I spent several minutes talking to a nice older lady doing needlework in one of the residences. Walking through the village brings you back to the Visitor Center, thus completing your tour of Lincoln’s New Salem.