Mountain Biking

‘Bikepacker’ Grant Miller’s Little Egypt River to River route puts Southern Illinois on the map – The Southern


by NELLIE BARIL

In Southern Illinois, outdoor adventurers have an abundance of opportunities for rock climbing, cycling, hiking, kayaking and swimming. While local residents are familiar with all that Southern Illinois has to offer, our region is somewhat underrepresented as a Midwest destination for adventure sports enthusiasts. 

Endeavors to increase outdoor tourism here are on the rise, with Southern Illinois ripe for potential and accessible most of the year. 

‘Outdoor paradise’

One area of outdoor adventure is a growing recreational trend called bikepacking. 

Bikepacking is best described as the intersection of all-terrain cycling and backpacking and is a booming industry as more road cyclists are eager to leave busy highways and as mountain bikers look for an efficient, dedicated way to camp and travel further distances by bike.

Grant Miller, of Carbondale, has taken significant steps in the journey to get Southern Illinois on the map of premier destinations for bikepackers, after entering the 2021 Fill In the Map contest on bikepacking.com.

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Miller created a 120-mile route for the contest and placed in the Top 10 overall group of winners worldwide. The competition called for entries of bikepacking routes in areas across the globe that are not well known to travelers.

The comments on the original post for the Fill In the Map contest had many bikepackers requesting more representation of routes in the Midwest. Miller knew this was his opportunity to be a part of something important. 

“The hidden gems that are here in our backyard, I feel like it’s an outdoor paradise. But we don’t have to remain hidden,” said Miller.

Fill In the Map sought entries for overnighter bikepacking routes, between 40 and 180 miles long, that could be completed in two days and one night. The contest creators asked for a route that included at least 60% unpaved surfaces and the safest possible roadways for any paved portions.

Supply points were asked to be taken into careful consideration, for both food and clean water, as well as campsites that fit well into the rhythm of the ride’s distance. The overnighter bike routes make for a perfect long weekend that can include time to enjoy the outdoors while also testing physical fitness on a challenging ride. 

According to their website, bikepacking.com has a continued mission of “compiling an independent map and catalog of great bikepacking overnighters” curated by readers from their respective locations. The contest was an effort to “enable people to get out and explore the world in a sustainable way, on two wheels.”

On the map

Miller, a native of Kansas who has resided in Carbondale since 2007, is a teacher educator at SIU and has enjoyed outdoor sports most of his life. An avid mountain biker and backpacker since high school, he has enjoyed living in this region and exploring the Shawnee National Forest, Trail of Tears State Park, Touch of Nature’s mountain bike trail, Cedar Lake and Little Grassy Lake, to name a few. 

“I consider myself an outdoor enthusiast. What I love about bikepacking is that it’s a great combination of cycling, mountain biking and backpacking. It, as an industry, has grown in a different way as well, with gravel road riding and so forth,” said Miller. 

Miller’s Little Egypt River to River route is now featured on the bikepacking.com website and puts Southern Illinois on the map with a geographically diverse and culturally rich trek for bikepackers.

Beginning in Old Shawneetown on the Ohio River, the Little Egypt River to River bikepacking route offers the beauty of the Shawnee National Forest, lush valleys along gravel backroads, ponds, creeks, historical landmarks and local eateries along the way. With highlights including the Old Shawneetown Bank, Heron Pond with the northernmost cypress swamp in the United States, the Barkhausen Cache River Wetlands with educational displays outlining restoration efforts, and trestle bridges and the infamous tunnel along Tunnel Hill Trail, the trip is informative and full of wonder. With 40 miles of the route being on Tunnel Hill Trail, cyclists can enjoy a large span of wide, traffic-free travel on a gravel trail that is a converted railroad bed. The Tunnel Hill portion is marked as “paved” on the Ride with GPS map of the route but is actually a smooth, gravel surface with just a 3% grade. 

Food stops along the way include Mimi’s Cafe in Creal Springs with homemade pies, Buckethead’s in Stonefort for fried catfish and BBQ, Ned’s Shed in Vienna which offers toothsome burgers, and Minglewood Brewery at the end of the route in Cape Girardeau for a celebratory beer. 

Miller’s Little Egypt River to River bikepacking.com post also includes climate and weather precautions, parking availability, as well as a 74.9 mile loop option near Tunnel Hill. This loop gives riders an opportunity to explore additional campsites and more of the diverse landscape in the region through Jackson Falls and Burden Falls with a swimming option at Bell Smith Springs. 

Carving out a niche

Once the Little Egypt River to River bikepacking route was posted on bikepacking.com and social media platforms, commenters immediately began displaying enthusiasm about the 120-mile excursion. Both residents of Southern Illinois and bikepackers from across the country shared plans to explore Miller’s route in the coming year. Graduates of SIU who have since moved away from the area, and even people who have lived in Southern Illinois their entire lives, examined the route and found landmarks they weren’t aware of previously. 

“I think the most important part for me is just really emphasizing how this industry is really growing and how there is a need for this. In our region we have all the pieces there it’s just putting that route together,” Miller shared.

Miller’s route, on Ride with GPS, shows the total mileage, elevation changes, locations for purchasing food and water and filtering fresh water, campsites, points of interests including historic landmarks, and lodging in cabins, hotels and bed and breakfasts. 

The majority of the Little Egypt River to River route is gravel with the remainder being chip seal, low traffic rural roads. Gravel biking has become increasingly more popular as it provides a safe way for cyclists to travel and enjoy scenery without the headache of heavy vehicle traffic. While gravel bike paths still offer the rider an endurance challenge with long routes, the diverse terrain provides more opportunities for exploration and adventure than traditional road biking. And while mountain biking usually requires travel to a dedicated trail, gravel biking can be a more accessible option as a combination of all types of cycling. 

As with most sports, the cycling industry has created several gravel bikes for this new niche of adventure sport. Gravel bikes are essentially mountain bikes with drop bars similar to a road bike and bigger tires that make transitions from paved roads to gravel to dirt easier. For road bikers who must stay on paved surfaces, gravel bikes make it possible to leave the roadway and explore dirt and gravel paths all in one trip.

When asked about the gear necessary for a bikepacking trip, Miller described the streamlined cargo options he uses on his gravel bike. While carrying a backpack is always an option, fatigue can set in if cyclists have to hike their bikes uphill. Saddlebag packs, often called panniers, are useful in road biking, but with the bumps and hills involved in bikepacking, the contents may spill out.

Tourism and sport intersect

His ultra-light gear includes a seat bag that holds a sleeping bag, extra clothes and sandals, a crossbar bag that typically holds food, toiletries and utensils, and a handlebar bag with a tent that includes poles in smaller than usual segments. Water and a water filtration system are placed in the fork bag and mount and a cookstove with a fuel canister and burner are stored in the water bottle mounts. 

“When I first started backpacking, we were carrying 50 or 60 pound bags of gear in the old Army surplus style bags. Ultra-light backpacking got really popular in the 90’s and early 2000’s so this is the ultra-light gear that a lot of companies offer now,” said Miller. 

During his trial run of the route, Miller brought along two Carbondale cyclist friends, April and Antonio Martinez of Carbondale, to help document and explore the route. Antonio, a professional photographer, captured breathtaking photos that are now on the bikepacking.com website for the Little Egypt River to River route. The Martinezes are both involved in outdoor adventure sports and remain active in current efforts to increase tourism in Southern Illinois for cyclists, rock climbers, runners and kayakers. Owners of The Joos Cap in Carbondale, they value overall health and wellness and are eager to help in efforts to enhance outdoor tourism in Southern Illinois.

April, who also participates in mountain bike races at Touch of Nature’s new multi-use trail, said her favorite portion of the route was Heron Pond and enjoying the historical landmarks that are sometimes overlooked in the region. 

“I think the new route, having it on the map, will obviously help people find all of the hidden gems, the small towns, and the histories behind those towns as well as the outdoor tourism that we have around here,” said April. 

Miller’s Little Egypt River to River route is a monumental step for increasing awareness of bikepacking and tourism options in Southern Illinois. He said he has travelled seven plus hours to ride the 240-mile bike route in Bentonville, Arkansas on past bikepacking trips and that there is a need for this exposure in our region. With the wineries and breweries, bed and breakfasts and cabins, and outdoor activities available here, the addition of planned, publicly accessible bikepacking routes gives travelers a reason to travel to Southern Illinois and enjoy all the amenities surrounding their ride. 

“That’s where we have both of those tracks in Southern Illinois that rarely intersect. We have the outdoor activities, we have the wineries and breweries and this route that is actually sport and tourism. This is where it intersects and we have a richness of that in this region,” Miller said. “It’s a blank canvas to have this type of tourism explode.”

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