200 Years of Illinois: The long and writhing road

Clear LaRue Road. Today marks the day officials close the storied roadway to assist of one of Illinois’s majestic natural wonders: the spring snake migration in Shawnee National Forest. The limestone bluffs come alive as snakes, as well as various turtles, frogs, toads, and other animals, hitch up their covered wagons to trek to wetter digs in the nearby LaRue Swamp. Amateur herpetologists flock to see a wide variety of snake species making the commute between natural habitats. Three venomous snakes usually get the headlines: the cottonmouth, the copperhead, and the timber rattlesnake. But around thirty-five snake species make the trip alongside many kinds of reptiles and amphibians, including protected and endangered species.

Humans began closing a 2.5 mile stretch of the road in 1972. Until then, locals liked to shoot the snakes or run over them with their cars. The closure lasted three weeks in the early days. Research soon indicated that the animals took far longer to migrate. The Forest Service now closes LaRue Road, aka Snake Road, for two months in the spring and two months again in September-October, when the animals make the trip back to winter in the limestone. Though traffic cannot pass, the Forest Service allows people to walk the slithering, creeping, hopping highway. If you go, don’t except a tsunami of snakedom. Officials note that spotting twenty snakes in a day would be a big deal, unless you’re the type to add skinks to your scorecard to boost your numbers.