The landscapes you see and outdoor opportunities that await you today in Fulton County are the result of thousands of years of natural and human forces molding the landscape. The Illinois River, traveling in an ancient channel of the mighty Mississippi, marks the county’s southeastern boundary. Along the bluff here Native Americans built mounds that are still visible today. Strip mining for coal left an inheritance of many hundreds of lakes and ponds—so many that Fulton County ranks second in Illinois, with over 2,500 water impoundments! Deep ravines and bottomlands—the largest these, the Spoon River valley—make for a landscape of considerable character and variety. Recent and ongoing conservation and restoration efforts have created a rich suite of opportunities that awaits those who visit.
Abundant bird watching as well as chances to see deer, coyote, fox, badger, and other wildlife—even fish feeding—are all within your reach. Several of the top public wildlife viewing opportunities are highlighted in the Canton Loop of the Illinois River Country Nature Trail which features twelve diverse sites. Print copies of the Canton Loop guide are available upon request from the Canton Area Chamber of Commerce (309-647-2677 or www.cantonillinois.org/chamber). The Illinois River Country Nature Trail project offers seven “loops” of outdoor recreation and wildlife viewing activities. These stretch from Canton and Havana north through Illinois River Country all the way to Princeton and Ottawa. This same set of outdoor recreation and tourism attractions is now being shared with visitors through the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway. The Illinois River Road was designated one of America’s Byways in 2005, and many new programs to welcome and guide travelers are now in the works. Learn more about the National Scenic Byway and new developments at www.illinoisriverroad.org.
Traveling the Scenic Byway south from the junction of Illinois Routes 78 & 97 and US Route 24, you’ll find a remarkable vista opening up before you as you drop down into the Illinois River Valley. The complex of lakes, wetlands, prairie and forest plantings ahead is The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve. It stretches roughly 5 miles north to south and about 3 miles wide, including uplands west of the highway. The big lake you see here today, Thompson Lake, has returned after an absence of more than 80 years. Lakes and wetlands once existed along much of the Illinois River, providing crucial habitat for fish, waterfowl, and other wildlife.
Thompson Lake and the lands and waters surrounding it were transformed from a private hunting and fishing club around the turn of the 20th century, to one of the largest farms in Illinois. In 2000, the site was purchased by The Nature Conservancy, and work began toward restoration. Now the lake and wetlands have returned in dramatic fashion. The Nature Conservancy plans to manage the site to mimic the natural conditions and cycles of drought and flood necessary to support a rich diversity of plants and animals. Water levels in Thompson Lake will vary from season to season and year to year creating a dynamic landscape to which visitors will want to return.
The Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge is just to the south, and together the two Emiquon sites offer a wide range of outdoor activities, including hunting and fishing, hiking, canoeing, and, of course, ample wildlife viewing. A visit to the Emiquon sites should begin with a stop at Dickson Mounds Museum for an orientation to the opportunities to enjoy and learn about the surrounding landscape. While there, don’t miss the chance to see how humans have used the rich natural resources of the Illinois River Valley and surrounding landscape for 12,000 years.