Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge
By Joel Raeber
Posted July 2012
Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, located three miles east of Carbondale, Illinois, and about five miles west of I-57 at Marion, Illinois (about 100 miles south of Saint Louis), is one of the largest wildlife refuges in the Midwest. The refuge includes three manmade lakes totaling nearly 9,000 surface acres in its 43,890-acre total, with camping, hiking trails, hunting, fishing, wildlife photography, boating, swimming and picnicking. The eastern portion, 20,000 acres, is a wildlife sanctuary, and public use is limited.
The refuge provides significant resting areas for migratory birds utilizing the Mississippi Flyway. Wintering numbers of Canada geese can peak at 200,000. Within the refuge, you can find 245 bird species, 33 mammal species, 63 fish species, and 44 reptile and amphibian species.
Campgrounds have been developed at Crab Orchard, Little Grassy, and Devils Kitchen Lakes. There are 250 gravel, back-in sites (approximately 15 x 45 feet). The sites are generally level, shady and large enough to accommodate most RVs and even slide-outs. Facilities at the Crab Orchard Lake campground were recently upgraded (in 2011) to include electric service, water, grills and sewer at some of the sites. Restrooms and showers are available. Little Grassy and Devils Kitchen offer similar facilities for developed camping, along with some more primitive sites. The campgrounds are open from April 1st to October 31st. Fees range from $10 per day for a basic site with no services to $25 for full hook-up. There is a 14-day stay limit. For more information about the campgrounds, call the refuge visitor center at 618-998-5933.
The area around Crab Orchard NWR includes hardwood and pine forests, croplands, grasslands, wetlands, rolling hills, and rugged terrain on the northern edge of the Ozark foothills. Crab Orchard is the only National Wildlife Refuge to have resident youth camps for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.
The first inhabitants of the region were probably Kaskaskia and Shawnee Indians who may have used it as part of their hunting grounds. Stone, bone, and clay artifacts are still found today. Frontiersmen came into the area in the late 1700s, and by the 1800s, homesteaders had established farms throughout the area.
But by the 1930s, the land was depleted through extensive agriculture and logging, and in 1936, the Resettlement Administration acquired 32,000 acres of this depleted land along the Crab Orchard Creek. The original plans called for the construction of three lakes for recreational use and as an industrial water supply.
The War Department purchased an additional 12,000 acres of land and established the Illinois Ordinance Plant at the start of World War II. The geographic location, water supply, and federal ownership of Crab Orchard Lake made the area an ideal location for production of explosives. For safety reasons, different phases of the operation needed to be isolated from the others. The plant was scattered on more than 20,000 acres of land and circled the entire east end of Crab Orchard Lake. (The area that is today’s wildlife sanctuary, with limited public use.)
During the war, the plant’s production included 105 mm shells, 155 mm shells and 500-pound bombs. Operations of the Illinois Ordnance Plant were suspended in 1945; however, some military ordnance production continues today by private industry, and many of the concrete igloos built for munitions storage are now leased by private industry for storage of other products.
After the war, the area was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge was established for wildlife conservation, recreation, agriculture and industry.
Fishing is popular at Crab Orchard NWR. The three man-made reservoirs cover more than 9,000 acres and are available for fishing from a boat on a year-round basis with the exception of the eastern portion of Crab Orchard Lake, which is restricted from October 1 to March 14 to provide resting area for migrating waterfowl. Bluegills, red-ear sunfish, largemouth bass and channel catfish are popular.
Hunting is permitted in the refuge for deer, goose, turkey and other game. Illinois hunting laws apply to all areas of the refuge.
There are five established hiking trails in the refuge: Rocky Bluff Trail, Grassy Creek Trail, Wild-Turkey Trail, Woodland Trail, and Harmony Trail.
Rocky Bluff Trail is a moderately difficult two-mile loop that includes waterfalls, sandstone cliffs, Grassy Creek and rolling terrain. Grassy Creek Trail is 1 ½ miles that runs along a ridge top overlooking Devils Kitchen Lake. Wild-Turkey Trail (about two miles) and Harmony Trail (about one mile) walk through a variety of habitats, from pine plantations and hardwood forest to wetlands. Trail guides and field guides to aid hikers and maps of the hiking areas are available at the Visitor Center.
Spring and fall migration are peak times to observe and photograph many wildlife species and migrating birds. Early morning or evening is best for viewing wildlife. A nine-mile auto tour begins near the Visitor Center and highlights wetlands, grasslands, and woodlands and the wide variety of wildlife found in these areas. An observation platform on State Route 148 offers vantage points of Crab Orchard Lake's backwaters and is a good place to see migrating waterfowl. The refuge hosts several nesting pairs of bald eagles along with double-crested cormorants, great egrets, great blue herons and wild turkeys. Snakes, beavers, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, deer, rabbits, and the State-endangered bobcat may also bee seen.
Several boat ramps and marinas are available on the lake, with rental available for those who do not have their own boats.
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