LaRue-Pine Hills-Otter Pond Research Natural Area

View Along LaRue

LaRue-Pine Hills is one of the most unique areas in the world. As with many places in the Shawnee National Forest, the beauty we see today is rooted in geologic history.  LaRue-Pine Hills it took millions of years to form its bedrock before nature’s erosive forces took over and created the 150-foot limestone bluffs that now rise out of the Mississippi floodplain.The area derives its name from the nearby tiny settlement of LaRue and the distinct short-leaf native pine stands on its blufftops.  These massive bluffs extending roughly 5 miles along Highway 3 are as impressive today as they were to explorers Lewis and Clark in 1803.

LaRue-Pine Hills’ unique physical characteristics dictate and support a rich biodiversity not found anywhere else in the country. In all, the area covers about 4.5 square miles (3547 acres) and contains 14 natural communities including forests, wetland, prairie, glade and barren ecosystems and geologic features. Please help protect this special place for future generations to enjoy, study and appreciate. 

At a Glance

Operational Hours: The area is open year-round.  Forest Road #345 (the Snake Road) is closed to vehicles twice a year from March 15th to May 15th and Sept. 1st to Oct. 30th.  Capturing, collecting or harassing wildlife of any kind is Prohibited.
Area Amenities: Interpretive Site, Accessible, Tent camping, Camping trailer, Picnic tables, Toilets, Parking
Permit Info: Group visits or research activities require a permit; email or call our Natural Area's Coordinator at (618) 658-2111, to request a permit.
Open Season: year round
Busiest Season: Spring and Fall
Restrictions: This Research Natural Area has been established to protect a number of special plants, animals and natural community types. To help meet these objectives the following restrictions apply to public use and occupancy of the area.

The following is prohibited:

  • Collection, handling or removal of any snake species. This includes gathering, herding, harassing or having in possession. Also to have in your possession collecting equipment (unless authorized).
  • The use of horses except on Forest Road 345.
  • Overnight camping.
  • Building, maintaining, attending or using a campfire (gas stoves are allowed).
  • Excavation, disturbance or removal of any soil, stone, or material lying upon or contained in the rock or soil of the area.
  • Cutting, killing, destroying, injuring or removing living vegetation.
  • Taking or killing of any animal, bird, fish, reptile or amphibian, except for game species as defined and permitted by Illinois state laws.
  • Conducting certain activities such as, research projects, tours, group visits, etc. which the Forest Service has not approved in writing.*
  • To possess or use motorized or non-motorized vehicles and cycles off-road.
  • Using a gas-powered motorized watercraft (electric trolling motors are allowed).
  • Rappelling or rock climbing.
  • Abandonment of garbage brought to the LaRue-Pine Hills RNA.
  • Establishment of commercial enterprise, construction of any improvements, establishment of permanent or semi-permanent camps or erection of structures. Temporary waterfowl blinds are permitted, but must be removed at the end of each hunting day.
Closest Towns: Wolf Lake, IL. 62998
Information Center: Hidden Springs Ranger District (618) 658-2111

General Information


To Winters Pond Access:

From Jonesboro: Take Highway 146 west 8 miles to Highway 3, then north 8 miles on Hwy 3 to Muddy Levee Road. Turn east (right) onto Muddy Levee Rd. and go 3 miles to LaRue Rd. where the road T’s. Here, turn right for Winters Pond parking area and the ‘Snake Road’ or turn left and proceed 0.6 miles to Pine Hills Road. At this point you are at the north end of the RNA.

From Murphysboro:  Take Highway 149 west 7 miles to Highway 3; then south 13.6 miles on Hwy 3 to Muddy Levee Road. Turn east (left) onto Muddy Levee Rd. and go 3 miles to LaRue Rd.  where the road T’s. Here, turn right for Winters Pond parking area and the ‘Snake Road’ or turn left and proceed 0.6 miles to Pine Hills Road. At this point you are at the north end of the RNA.

General Notes:

While traveling up the Mississippi River, Captain Meriwether Lewis writes in his journal:

Novr. 22ed 1803 …but here putts in some high clifts the summits of which are crowned with pitch-pine & seeder, these rocks are nearly perpendicular in many places sixty feet, and the height of the hills appear about to be about 120 feet above the banks which forms their base…

Downloadable Brochures and Maps

Know Before You Go

Camping: Camping is allowed in Pine Hills Campground.


Pine Hills road (see brochure map) leads to high bluff areas. Ticks, chiggers and poison ivy are prevalent, especially during summer months, take the proper precautions.  Venomous snakes exist in the area, avoid being bitten by slowly moving away if you encounter any snake.

Research Natural Area Designation

LaRue-Pine Hills/Otter Pond became the nation’s 250th Research Natural Area (RNA) in 1991. RNA’s are permanently protected to maintain biological diversity and to provide places for research and monitoring of undisturbed natural areas. The 2,811-acre tract includes LaRue Swamp, the Pine Hills (named for the stands of native shortleaf pines on the bluffs) and Otter Pond.

Collecting of any kind (plant, animal, rock, etc.) is prohibited.

Geology of LaRue-Pine Hills 

The geologic story of LaRue-Pine Hills begins millions of years ago when most of Illinois was a large inland sea known as the Illinois Basin. Over time the sandy shores of this sea became the sandstone rock formations one sees throughout southern Illinois. The deepest portion of the sea became the towering limestone bluffs at LaRue-Pine Hills. The rocks that make up the bluffs at LaRue-Pine Hills are Devonian age Bailey Limestone (about 408 million years old). Limestone is composed of lime (precipitated calcium carbonate) from the shells of dead sea animals (i.e., sea shells, coral, etc.). Over millions of years these layers of shell deposits were pressed into rock. Once the sea receded, this bedrock was exposed to nature’s erosive forces. Wind and water began to wear away the rock creating ridges and gullies, carving out the beautiful limestone rock formations of LaRue-Pine Hills.


Parking lot at Winters Pond accommodates about 12 vehicles.

Parking area at south gate of Snake Road accommodates about 5 vehicles.


Area roads offer flat pull-outs for viewing. Picnic tables and vault toilets meet ADA standards. The "Snake Road" is a gravel road and flat in elevation however some low spots may have standing water on them.

Recreation Map

Map showing recreational areas. Map Information


Day Hiking

Viewing Wildlife

Viewing Plants

Viewing Scenery


Interpretive Site: Winters Pond & along Pine Hills Road
Camping trailer: in Pine Hills Campground, no hook-ups
Picnic tables: Winters Pond and McGee Hill
Tent camping: in Pine Hills Campground
Toilets: along Pine Hills Road
Parking: no buses
Accessible: vault toilet and picnic tables

Recreation Areas

Recreation Activities


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