Bell Smith Springs – Grand Staircase & Natural Bridge – Part II

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

Did you miss part one? Click on the following link to get caught up on all the action – Bell Smith Springs: Part One – Devils Backbone.

Monday July 12, 2010

Grand Staircase at Bell Smith SpringsI walk amongst the trees and shrubs that thrive within the canyon.  In places it feels like a jungle as I move branches away from hitting me in the face.  Another web wraps its invisible threads around my skin, which glistens with beads of sweat.

I turn my thoughts inwards and wonder why I come outside in the heat of summer.  The answer almost appears immediately, some of the best times to hit the trail are when others resist the call to go outside.  Summer is part of the cycle of seasons and produces interesting affects on the surroundings.  I am always amazed at what is growing and how the wildflowers of spring wither and become the fruit of summer.  It is only in extremes that we can enjoy the familiarity of the  average.

I think back and remember previous times I have visited Bell Smith.  I shudder as I think about the swollen waters of a late fall creek.  I remember just this winter coming here and experiencing a snow-covered landscape that screamed explore me.  This place like many others in Southern Illinois is special and can take years to fully explore and understand.

Another web engulfs my glasses and brings me back to the present.  I stop and wipe them off with my shirt and continue on.  I am heading towards a “Grand Staircase” near the main parking lot.  A large crack in the weathered sandstone provides a natural corridor that the rock steps hug against.  This unnatural sight blends easily into the landscape with the planning and artistry of a master craftsman.  It is as elegant as any ballroom staircase and provides a nice entrance into the canyon.

Natural Bridge at Bell Smith SpringsI sit up my camcorder and film a series of scenes ascending and descending the different sections of the zig-zagging steps.  I find that climbing up and down to get multiple angles makes me sweat even more.  I have found the ultimate stair steeper out in nature.  I stop and look in my backpack for the second of my water bottles.  I had previously downed the last one and knew I had to be more considerate to this one.  I take a few swigs and wet my mouth and head to the next destination to explore.

The trail parallels Bay Creek for a short distance, giving glimpses of the creek that created the main canyon.  Walking next to the creek, the bluffs stand far apart making me forget at the moment that I am walking in a canyon.  The trail makes a sharp right and heads straight into the creek.  Today, low water makes the crossing easily passable.  I hop from rock to rock trying to avoid soaking my feet.  It is not always easy to cross here.  It only takes a little rain to make this creek swell into a small river.  In the past I have had to be more cautious at this crossing.  I remember once not being able to cross in fear of being swept down the creek.  This is no place to take chances.

Natural Bridge Waterfall at Bell Smith Springs

Hidden across the creek in the greenery of summer, lives the natural bridge.  I hike the short distance up towards the its base.  I gaze up in wonder once again at the arching mass.  Previously, I had measured the natural bridge.  The top deck spans 92 feet, the base spans 135 feet, and it rises from the bottom to the top of the deck to a height of 40 feet.  These measurements are unofficial, but during the previous winter I made a device to measure some of the natural features of the Shawnee Hills.

I fail to capture the true essence of the bridge on film.  My video camera struggles in the low-light.  The footage I later find out it unusable.  Arrrrggghh!  There is always next time isn’t there.

I wind my way up to the right of the bridge and scramble between the bluff and a huge boulder.   I see the hand of man in the form of steel bars protruding from the side of the sandstone up ahead.  I still can not believe that they exist here.  A ladder made of metal climbs straight up the bluff.  There origin is not known, but it looks like a project the CCC would have done in the 1930’s.  I grab the cold rounded steps and check to make sure it is still pounded into the rock.  It does not budge, so my mind settles.  I start the process of going up.  The bluff sinks in about midway and forces an awkward switching of the feet to the next ladder.  Soon I scramble just off to the left of the bridge.  WOW!  These steel rungs are not for everyone.  If one is scared of heights, the saner and safer route that winds up to the left of the bridge would be a longer hike, but a nice alternative.

I walk over the deck of the bridge.  Its girth appears larger on top than from below.  Several people could walk side-by-side and still have room.  The creator of this bridge resides to the left.  A small intermittent creek flows down and to the right slowly carving threw the rock like a knife made of water.  I have in the past seen this creek flow.  It creates a unique waterfall that takes a free-flowing plunge of about 40 feet to the bottom.  This last winter icicles hung tightly to the lip of the fall and provided a home for daggers of translucent frozen water that stretched toward the earth.

I take the saner route off the bridge. The third bottle of water disappears as I head back towards my vehicle.  I was amazed to not have seen a single soul in my four hours of exploring and I take with me footage and memories of a day spent discovering natural landmarks at Bell Smith Springs.

Disclaimer:  The author and Shawnee Hills Outdoors disclaim any liability or loss incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use and application on any information contained in this blog.  Please check ranger stations and park superintendents for latest information regarding these areas.


We are always looking for comments to help better our site.  Please feel free to share experiences or questions with us.  We would be happy to pass along information that would help others explore our Shawnee Hills.

E-mail Updates

Have you signed up for our e-mail updates?  Now is the time, because shortly we will have some e-mail only posts that go behind the scenes at Shawnee Hills Outdoors.  It’s easy just enter your e-mail below and your in.  Thanks!



Click on the red tabs to get directions to each of the areas described in this article. Location of areas are approximate only. Please consult an Illinois map before venturing to any of these destinations.


  1. Gary Marks says

    As I look back at this video, I can see the difference a good video camera made. I need to go back and re-shoot this area.

  2. cindi says

    I love how you describe those steps. OMG.. I HATE heights and when I got to them and realized it was either climb them or turn back, I put my camera away, took a deep breath, said a quick prayer and never looked down.. until I got to the top!
    In general, this place confused me. So many trails veering off. I would love to go back. Like you, I went in the heat of summer. (8.21.10) Not a very pleasant outing.
    Thanks for your review!