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Horseshoe Lake is an "oxbow" lake in west-central Illinois, created more than 3,000 years ago when a section of the mighty Mississippi River was cut off from the main river channel and formed a crescent-shaped lake. Horseshoe Lake is part of the flood plain area of the Mississippi River known as the American Bottom, which is now protected from flooding with levees and canals. Before construction of these flood control measures, the river sometimes changed direction and cut new channels with flooding from heavy spring rains. Covering about 2,400 acres, Horseshoe Lake is the second largest natural lake in Illinois after Lake Michigan. Its recreational offerings include boating, fishing, hiking, camping, bird watching, and hunting.
There are actually two Horseshoe Lakes in Illinois. This Horseshoe Lake is located in Madison County just a few miles east of St. Louis, Missouri, with the Mississippi River forming the border between the two states. The other Horseshoe Lake, located in Alexander County in the southern part of the state, is also an oxbow remnant of a previous Mississippi River channel.
Evidence of human occupation in the American Bottom region dates back to 8,000 B.C. The area is famous for its Cahokia Mounds, the giant earthen mounds built by a Native American civilization around 1,000 A.D. About 30,000-40,000 Native Americans lived in the "Mighty Metropolis" of Cahokia, which was the economic, social, and cultural center of the American Bottom region. The remains of the spectacular earthen mounds are testimony to this civilization's elaborate burial and tribal rituals. The Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site is a National Historic Landmark and a World Heritage Site. Remains of a 210-foot long Cahokia mound still exist today on Walker Island, an island in the middle of Horseshoe Lake.
Old lakes are generally shallower than newer lakes because they fill in with silt, and Horseshoe Lake is no exception. The lake's average depth of three feet demonstrates just how old it is. The lake's maximum depth approaches 55 feet at the location of a previous sand and gravel commercial operation. Because of its proximity to metropolitan St. Louis, Horseshoe Lake was developed by the Illinois Department of Conservation as a public recreation area. Horseshoe Lake State Park provides 2,960 acres of family fun. Pack a picnic lunch and head out to one of the five picnic shelters or one of the smaller park-and-picnic locations around the lake. The park also includes three playgrounds and two volleyball areas for kids of all ages. If camping under the stars is your preference, the park offers 48 tent and trailer non-electric sites between May 1 to October 31. Facilities include a sanitary dump station, pit toilets, and water hydrants. The park office issues camping permits.
Horseshoe Lake is an angler's paradise. Although bank fishing is good, boat fishing is even better. Three public boat ramps provide access to Horseshoe Lake. There is also a disabled-accessible fishing pier in the state park. Make sure that you obtain a state fishing license before throwing in your line for catches of largemouth bass, channel catfish, crappie, bluegill, carp, and buffalo. For anglers seeking trophy fish, largemouth bass in the 4 to 6 pound range are plentiful, while flathead catfish reaching 40 pounds are not uncommon. There are plenty of bluegill and yellow bass catches for those who enjoy bank fishing. Note that boat fishing is not permitted during the fall waterfowl season, and a 50-horsepower limit applies to all watercraft on Horseshoe Lake.
Horseshoe Lake State Park provides 4.5 miles of scenic hiking trails for spectacular waterfowl viewing. The self-guided trail on Walker Island has five different bird-watching habitats. Visitors will be treated to views of great blue herons, green herons, and migratory waterfowl such as Canada geese. In July and August the southern portion of the lake is drained, attracting blue herons and snowy egrets in search of clams and snails hiding in the mudflats.
Horseshoe Lake is also a popular Illinois hunting site with a fall waterfowl season, fall archery deer season, and spring wild turkey hunting. The lake is a top dove-hunting site, due to managed sunflower fields that attract the birds. Pheasants, quail, rabbits, and crow are also hunted in the State Park.
The importance of Horseshoe Lake extends beyond its recreational offerings. The lake provides flood water retention during periods of heavy rains that flood the American Bottom. The Cahokia Drainage Canal, a channelized natural stream, is the lake's main exchange with the Mississippi River. Horseshoe Lake also receives urban runoff through the Nameoki Ditch, agricultural runoff through Elm Slouth, and treated effluent from the Granite City Steel Company on the lake's western shore. Metro East Sanitary District controls the water levels on Horseshoe Lake through a small dam (weir).
For those who want to venture beyond the shores of Horseshoe Lake, St. Louis is just a few miles west. Known as "The Gateway to the West," no visit would be complete without some photo ops at the famous Gateway Arch. The St. Louis Zoo, Art Museum, History Museum, and Science Center are all free to visit.
Horseshoe Lake is a midwestern recreational gem, so plan your visit for a day, a weekend, or a week.
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