Bell Smith Springs – Devils Backbone – Part I

This series, Notes from the Trail, focuses on thoughts and events that happen with the interactions in nature.

Devils Backbone from the rim of the canyon.As I head off the main road on the outskirts of Ozark, IL, the road turns to gravel.  All roads leading to my destination are made of rock bringing to this area a sense of remoteness.  The truck bounces along the uneven road.  The familiar clouds of  dust that usually bellow from the tires are absent.  Last nights rain has quenched the thirsty road, preventing a dust covered paint job.

I am on my way to the heart of the Shawnee Hills to visit Bell Smith Springs.  This area was designated in 1980 a Natural National Monument for its examples of landforms created by stream erosion and mass wasting.  According to the National Forest Service there is over 700 species of flowering plants, ferns, and lichen to be found in this area.  I find myself coming back here again and again to explore and discover this unique Southern Illinois landmark .

Thick storm clouds linger from a front that is passing threw.  The clouds help even out the light and bring me here in hopes of capturing photos and filming footage.

Bell Smith Springs is one of the few areas in Illinois that has several unique natural features packed all into a walkable area.  Hidden in this ancient canyon resides the Shawnee’s largest natural bridge spanning 125 feet and arching 30 feet.  Two huge chunks of  tooth-like sandstone form the the spine of the aptly named Devil’s Backbone.  Up Hill Branch Creek flows one of the longest and most unique “slickrock” streams in Illinois.  The stream slickrock ends with an intermittent cascade that empties into a former grist mill site.  Bay Creek and its tributaries are, also, known for there crystal clear waters, which are in short supply in Southern Illinois.  People come from miles around to swim at there own risk in the deep turquoise pools.

Bay CreekI drive to the main trailhead to scope out how many vehicles will be in the parking lot on this summer weekday.  To my surprise no one is here.  I turn around and backtrack towards a side road that leads to the Hunt Branch trailhead.  I drive down and to my right a hill gives way to Hunting Branch Creek, one of the tributaries of the  Bay Creek.  As I near the parking area I once again notice that there is a lack of people.  I am thrilled to think I might have this place to myself.

I head out with the goal of hiking a part of the white diamond trail.  This particular section leads to the top of the canyon rim.  The trail follows above the intersection of Hill and Hunting Branch Creeks.  It is from the top that I soon arrive at an overlook that opens to a view of Devil’s Backbone.  It was at this spot in springtime that I was able to capture from afar the backbone against a sheer rust hued wall that provided a colorful backdrop.

I am back today to sit up my video camera.  My task is to go down to the rocks as I film footage from above.  My only concern is that I am leaving my tripod and camcorder alone for anyone to take.  I scurry down the trail in less than three minutes.  I take caution on a section that has me ducking and hanging on to the bluff as the trail follows a natural ledge down.

Devils Backbone from belowI began the process of walking back and forth near the massively angled rocks.  I want to make sure that I film different motions and movements so that I can edit the footage into a watchable sequence.  If someone would have came along and saw me doing this, they would have thought I was out of my mind.

I take a moment to really observe the geography of the area.  The backbone seems to have been created from the undercutting of the creek.  The stream would have eroded a shelter-type area leaving an overhang above.  Over time, with the freezing and thawing seasonal cycle, the sheer weight of the overhanging rock would have given way, creating the backbone we enjoy today.

Within 15 minutes I am back at my equipment on the overlook.  I notice that even though the clouds cover the summer sun, the humidity makes it feel as though I am wearing a snug winter jacket.  I regret the fact that I only brought three bottles of water.  I know better than this and take one of the bottles and with three gulps it is down.  I need to ration the last two, which is never good when dealing with thirst.  I wonder if it will be enough for the rest of the trip?

Next Time: Part Two

Next time we continue the discovery of the natural wonders of Bell Smith Springs.  I explore the natural bridge and focus in on a “Grand Staircase”.  So look for us next week for the second part of this exploration of the heart of the Shawnee Hills.

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Take a look at some video shot of Devils Backbone.  Next week there will be a longer version, that includes footage from the top of the canyon rim overlooking Devils Backbone.  There will, also, be video of the “Grand Staircase” and the massive Natural Bridge.


  1. Larry Johnson says

    I hesitated to mention this, but figured you’d want to make the correction. Your FB notice says . . .

    Gary Marks SNEAK PEAK: Will not be posting this on Shawnee Hills Outdoors until about six hours from now. Get the first look and tell me what u think. Thanks

    . . . in this usage, the word you’re looking for in the all-caps heading, is PEEK — a quick look. The spelling of homonyms gives us a “real word” and spell checkers accept them because they’re actually words that have been spelled correctly. But we still have to use the word we mean. With all the words we key in to our assorted postings it is hard to nail every one. Here’s one easily fixed. Regards –

  2. Gary Marks says

    Thanks Larry for the comment. I am the first to admit that my grammar and use of punctuation is not the best, but I do appreciate when people point out errors. I believe it can only make my writing better or I may just need an editor. Again, thanks for taking the time to comment.