Little Grand Canyon – Two Canyons, One Great View
Little Grand Canyon – Two Canyons, One Great View
Close your eyes and imagine a canyon.
No, No, not that canyon (lol). Wipe those ideas aside for a moment and think smaller, more intimate, more Midwestern.
Images of steep gray sandstone, deep green ferns, and a stream that has gently carved the area for many centuries, may fill your head.
Yeah, that’s it! Now take that image and place it into the far reaches of Southern Illinois and you have what we call the Little Grand Canyon.
Why We Go
Many of us are lured here just by the name. The words “Little Grand Canyon” invokes within us a certain expectation of something impressive and special.
It’s a lot to live up to, but kept in the proper context this area more than lives up to its namesake, with it towering bluffs and slippery canyons there is something here that makes one want to explore this geologically significant area.
Why is it Here
Water! The erosive power of water is the reason that this place exists. As you step out of your vehicle at the trail head all around you lies an environment continuing to be shaped by the force of a little powerhouse called the raindrop.
The water slowly funnels its ways down the many ridges taking the course of least resistance, scouring the sandstone over many years giving us what we see today.
For more information check out the following video describing the Geology of Little Grand Canyon.
The lower level trail head is where most people start the hike, but the upper level by the restrooms is another option. Since this is one of the few loop trails of Southern Illinois, it doesn’t really matter where you start from.
There is conflicting information on just how long this loop trail is. A map located on site indicates that the trail is 3.6 miles, but the brochure on the Shawnee National Forest website (map) indicates 2.9 miles. If you have a GPS it would be an excellent opportunity to measure it yourself, I know I will.
Where to Begin
As stated before, most people start at the lower level. It is the quickest route to enter the nearest canyon. According to the signage it descends approx. 1 mile to an overlook area. The trail then turns sharply and within a short distance the canyon comes into view.
If it has rained recently, this is the section where it gets tricky. The force that is sculpting the stream may be present, creating slippery conditions which can be very dangerous.
This is not the place for small children or people lacking a sense of balance.
Time to Fall
I have seen all kind of footwear try to descend this canyon, be it flip-flops, sandals, and sneakers. None of these are appropriate for this area. Hiking boots or shoes with a Vibram-like sole (grippy) are a must and it still can be tricky even with them.
If you don’t have the proper shoes, this would be a good place to turn around. If you do turnaround or you are hiking the loop in the opposite direction the ascent to the parking lot is a heart-pounder.
If you did bring the appropriate gear, it’s time to descend the canyon. The best policy is to take your time, watch your step, and be prepared to fall at anytime.
Canyon No. 1
Out of the two canyons, this canyon in my opinion is the most scenic. The trail descends steeply and can be the most treacheous.
In one section you must hold on to chiseled hand grips and hug a thin piece of sandstone that is the rim of a plunge pool. Afterwards you zig-zag your way steeply to the canyon bottom.
The Valley Floor
To get to the second canyon you must follow a trail that winds it way through the floodplain of the Big Muddy River. This area in the spring can be overtaken by heavy spring rain that can make the bottom section impassable.
In the summer weeds over 6 feet tall try to engulf the trail. Although not a difficult hike on the valley floor make sure to take your time and be on the lookout for snakes.
Canyon No. 2
If you are coming from the bottom you will notice that you gradually enter the second canyon. Huge sandstone bluffs protrude from the valley floor on your right.
Soon you come to an intersection of two canyons merge. The one to the left ends in an intermintent waterfall. The main canyon veers to the right and involves a slight non-techinal climb up a small waterfall. After this it is only a short distance to the top of the canyon.
From this vantage point you can see the vast Mississippi and Big Muddy floodplains. You can catch glimpes of the Big Muddy straight below. In front of you lies the massive Swallow Bluff and to the far left (west) is Fountain Bluff. This view to me is one of the gems of Southern Illinois.
Finish the Loop
After taking in this great view, the trail undugulates briefly until topping out along the fairly level Viney Ridge. According to the on-site map, this section from the the overlook back to the parking area is around 2.1 miles.
Final Thoughts & Words of Caution
As you have read through this article, you may see a reaccuring theme. This place can be potentially dangerous.
This is one hike in Southern Illinois that I rarely suggest to fellow hikers just starting out and there is a reason for that. I have seen too many times people hiking this 3.6 miler without water in the dead of summer or wearing flip-flops of all things down the slippery slopes of the canyon.
This is not a place to be when the canyon is wet, after heavy rains, or in the winter when the canyon has ice buildup.
Over the years, I have heard numerous reports of people getting hurt and even dying in this area. It always saddens me to see, what potentially starts out of a fun day of hiking ends up being a day where someone gets hurt.
Disclaimer - Take your time. Use Common Sense. Get Home Alive
Below is just a sample of things going wrong at Little Grand Canyon.
- Lost family
- Makanda man falls at scenic overlook
- Stranded hikers
- Person falls breaks legs and needs rescued
Below is a video of the area filmed during October 2010 during a severe drought. At that time there was very little water in the canyon, making it a great time to visit the canyon, because the sandstone was not slick in most places.
Use the map below to get directions by clicking on the tab and entering your address. The tab is the approximate trailhead location.
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