Shawnee National Forest – Cedar Lake – Cove Hollow
Majestic sheer bluffs, a shimmering lake, two beautiful intermittent waterfalls, steep rocky descents, abused. These are all adequate words to describe this hidden gem located just a short distance from Pomona Illinois in the Shawnee National Forest.
- Difficulty: Steep descents from the bluff with rocky, uneven trail conditions, rocks very slippery when wet
- Length: The loop discussed here is about one mile
- Highlights: Nice views over Cedar Lake, tall intermittent waterfall, large rock shelter
Notes from the Trail
Usually the first reaction that I receive when I mention Cove Hollow is that they have never heard of it. Me either until I started exploring Southern Illinois and now it is a place I come to over and over again.
Avoid this Place?
Located on the western banks of the man-made Cedar Lake lives a short section of bluffs that rival any in Southern Illinois for its pure scenic value. There is only one problem, it is also a well-known camping area where weekend parties can occur, thus the need to avoid this area on warmer weekends.
With saying this though, if you can manage to come on a weekday or during winter you may just have the place to yourself and be able to explore this area free from others.
I have been wanting to return to this area for sometime, but have found myself visiting the more popular trails in the area such as Pomona Natural Bridge, Little Grand Canyon, and La-Rue Pine Hills. All of those places are treasures to the Shawnee National Forest, but this area to me ranks high on the places to see on the eastern side of the forest.
I drive what looks to be a one-lane paved road that ungulates and glides with the natural topography of the land. The Cove Hollow Road is a dead-end street and it is not until topping the final hill that I can see the parking area.
The day before I had topped the hill and saw several cars packed into this small parking lot. I knew that I would have to come back. The potential for someone camping in the area I wanted to film was very high so I headed elsewhere.
Morning rays made my eyes squint as I head back down the dead-end road. Being a weekday I was hoping that the weekend campers had packed up and gone home. Once again, I top the last hill in anticipation of an empty lot. No one was there. Alright, this was more like it.
I grab my gear and head out. The tinge of fall has hit this area and is within a week of being at its peak color. The early morning light makes the changing leaves glow making me look up in sections in wonder. What a beautiful place. My thought turns to how nice it was to be out in Southern Illinois and the Shawnee Hills in Fall.
I walk down the recently improved trail to an intersection where the trail heads out across the top of the bluff. From up above, the waters of Cedar Lake glimmers between small openings in the forest canopy.
Slippery When Wet
The path consists of smooth sandstone that today is completely devoid of moisture, thanks to the drought conditions this year. I have been here many times in the past when that has not always been the case. This place can be dangerous when the sandstone becomes “slickrock” and lives up to its name, making one forget about the scenic views and more worried about the next step.
I cross a small stream that plummets off the heights of the bluff. This gives way to the first of two waterfalls in this section, but this one is the most elusive to view, because of its small stream water volume.
A short ways up the path the trail descends via a “butt sliding” rock (for some) to a section on the bluff that has eroded more slowly, therefore giving access to the land below. The fall colors jump to life here, with reds and yellows. I would only later realize that this would be the best fall colors I would see this year.
The path continues steeply down a rocky cut in the bluff. This is one place to not rush. I set up my tripod several times and try to capture the beauty of this area. Huge rocks keep me company as I a press my hands upon its cold surfaces for extra support while heading down.
As I near the bottom the first glimpse of something massive comes into view. I round the bluff to the right and there it is. The first time I stepped foot in this area I was blown away. Tucked away in a horseshoe bluff was an enormous shelter and the signs of a free-flowing waterfall, but it was not running that day.
The shelter area behind the falls fells like a cozy outdoor room, surrounded by bluffs with Cedar Lake at your feet. I can see why the debris from past campfires litter this area. I sit down for several minutes and take in the scenery.
A huge rock skyscraper looms off to the right, leaning as though it might tumble sometime in the near future. Above me the stream, from which the intermittent waterfall tumbles, has created a deep grove into the lip of the sandstone. It appears as though is has been chiseled by the hand of man, but the true sculpture is the swift flowing water after a heavy rain.
I think about the times I have seen this 52 foot free-falling waterfall tumble to its shallow pool below. It is a very elusive fall, since its drainage up above is small. I have been here previously when I thought I would be able to see it only to be disappointed by a small trickle that was hard for the camera to capture.
On several occasions I have made it a point to visit right after a hard rain and that is when it puts on its best show. Tumbling in a slender line the water crashes below and echoes off the bluff walls. The sound of rushing water fills the ears and takes over all sound. It is only after you have distanced yourself from the falls and let your ears readjust to reality that you realize just how overpowering its presence can be. The water below the pool slithers like a snake to the mass of water in Cedar Lake. It is quite a sight.
Back to the Start
This season though the fall has remained tight-lipped, so I head out and continue to film. I loop back around and instead of scrambling back up the bluff and I decide to hike the trail below. I come back to the first waterfall I crossed up above and notice that graffiti has been plastered under a small shelter. I wonder what the purpose in this destruction is. Beer cans are on top of a small ledge that would require some risky maneuvers to put there. I shake my head and continue down the trail.
I follow the sheer bluff that protrudes from the ground to my left. I see the tracks of mountain bikes that sometime visit this place. The trail soon leaves the shadows of the sandstone and loops back around on the newly improved trail back to the parking area.
I have been fortunate to enjoy this area and will soon come back next spring and explore the full length of the Cove Hollow Trail, which winds its ways towards the Pomona boat dock, but as I jump back in my vehicle I hope I will be back sooner to photograph icefalls this winter.
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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. Although this post talks and shows video of a person hiking alone, it is the best policy to always have a hiking partner. If you do attempt to explore any of these areas make sure you are have the proper knowledge to survive in the woods, do not rely on a cellphone for help. Please check ranger stations and park superintendents for latest information regarding these areas. This website is for entertainment only.
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