Burden Falls – The Best Waterfall in Southern Illinois ?

FaceBook Selected Burden Falls Photo

If you could visit only one waterfall in Southern Illinois would this be the one to go to?  Ask several different people and you will get several different answers, but can one Waterfall be called the BEST in Southern Illinois?

This article delves head-long into a debate that will rage long after you read this article.

The Stage

The sound of rushing water fills your head as you stare over the edge at the wild, tumbling beast that rages below.  You close your eyes and take in all the noise and find it not to be noise at all, but the sound of a soothing peace that wells up inside.

You re-open your eyes and take in the discovery of Burden Falls.  You make the decision that this is one of the best places in Illinois.

Far-Fetched?  Maybe, but out of all the waterfalls in Southern Illinois, this is the one that lures me back again and again.

The Best?

best:  That which is the most excellent, outstanding, or desirable.

There are many great waterfalls in Southern Illinois.  Take for instance the picturesque main Ferne Clyffe Waterfall or maybe the two-tier giant Rocky Bluff Falls, but when someone says “The Best” my mind wonders and tries to determine what that actually means.

The Main Falls

Thirty-five feet, falling from the lip to the plunge pool, with a tier in between around 11 feet.  By itself these numbers do not sound impressive.

There are larger waterfalls in southern Illinois, but it is not the size of this waterfall that makes it impressive, it is what surrounds it.

Burden Falls from Below

Burden Falls

Boulders, Rocks, Canyon

Boulders, Rocks, and a U-shaped Canyon set the foreground for a photographers wonderland.

  • Boulders create patterns and shapes that naturally blend in with the falls.
  • Rocks line a gently cascading creek below that even if the falls were not present would be worthy of a visit.
  • The small U-Shaped Canyon brings it all together giving the falls a sense of intimacy that can be rare in an Illinois Waterfall.

This is, also, one of the few waterfalls that has multi-angle photographic potential.  Usually even with a beautiful waterfall like Ferne Clyffe (which is probably the most photogenic) one tries to find one maybe two good angles, but Burden tops them all with a minimum four good potential photographs.

Burden Falls Creek

Burden Falls Creek


But, Wait There’s More!

If that wasn’t enough there are two other reasons this could be considered the Best Waterfall Area in Southern Illinois.

1.  Did you see the Upper Falls?

Yeah, there are multiple waterfalls flowing off a 5-10 feet rock shelf that gives ways to a wide “curtain fall” and another stream that pours in that gives way to two compact falls.  Very Nice!

Upper Waterfall at Burden Falls

Upper Waterfall at Burden Falls

2. Did you see the Twin Falls on the western edge of the canyon?

When the water is a flow’n these are a roar’n.  One of the twins is actually taller than Burden measuring around 48 feet.

This would justify a trip even if Burden wasn’t its next door neighbor, but being in the shadow of a great takes away from these two thin “free-falling” waterfalls.

One of the Twin Falls at Burden Falls

Western Bluff Waterfall

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And Now the Video

Check out this video of Burden Falls

Oh Yeah, Only One Problem

The trailhead for this area is just off the gravel road and one can see the upper falls without even getting out of their car, but that is where the convenience ends.

Since this is a designated Wilderness area, some of the structures that might make this a safer area, like stairs and bridges are missing, but that is what makes this place unique.

Although there is no “official” trail, there is only one safe way down to the base of the waterfall.  There is a faint trail that runs on top of the western bluff for about .25 then as the bluff gives out, the trail descends and hugs the bottom of the bluff back to Twin Falls and Burden Falls.

This is the preferred way down, because it does not involve crossing Burden Creek or getting next to the dangerous brink of the waterfall.

Waterfall Safety

Although waterfalls are beautiful they can also be deadly.  Stay away from the edges and remember any rock that is wet can be slippery.  Most of all be alert and use common sense to get home alive. Read an article on a fellow photographer and nature explorer Ed Cooley on his brush with disaster at an Arkansas Waterfall.


Where is it?

Nestled on the southeastern edge of the Burden Falls Wilderness lives its namesake, Burden Falls.  The wilderness area is composed of 3,694 acres and borders the Bay Creek Wilderness Area.

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 10.38.05 PM

In between the two resides a narrow gravel road that can be accessed by 145 or by navigating  backroads via Eddyville or Ozark and then turning on to Forest Service Road 402 or Burden Falls Road, which Google lists as McCormick Rd, also.

One of the creeks that forms Burden Falls has to be traversed if coming in from 145 via FS 402, so take precautions and do not cross if water is flowing too high.  If you come in from the Ozark backroads it does not involve a creek crossing.





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Use the map below to get directions by clicking on the tab and entering your address.  The tab is the approximate trailhead location.

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.

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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.

Top 3 Gottados – Southern Illinois Cave Shelters

This is the fourth entry in a series called Top 3 Gottados (Got to do). This series spotlights interesting and unique areas in Southern Illinois that everyone enjoying the Shawnee Hills should take time to explore.

Cave or Rock (Bluff) Shelter?

The three areas in this article all have the name “cave” located in the title.  First, though we must determine what a “cave” actually is.  According to Merriam-Webster.com a cave is a natural underground chamber or series of chambers open to the surface.  Wikipedia defines a rock shelter as a shallow cave-like opening at the base of a bluff or cliff.  With this in mind we will look at the Top 3 Gottados Southern Illinois Cave Shelters.

None of these areas are true subterranean caves, such as Illinois Caverns.  They require not special equipment and are all accessible by hiking short distances.

# 1:  Cave-In-Rock

Cave-In_RockArguably the most impressive “cave” shelter in Southern Illinois is at Cave-In-Rock State Park.  A gaping 55 foot entrance looks out over the Ohio River.  A limestone entrance is a gateway to an area that stretches over 150 feet into the side of a 60 foot bluff.   A single person groove leads the way to the back where rays of sun pour in through a natural skylight.  The back opens up into a wide chamber.

Cave-In-Rock has a rich history.  It seems that most of this history focuses on robbers, murders, and pirates. Very negative events for such a awe-inspiring place.

This area was acquired by the state of Illinois in 1929 and currently consists of 204 acres.  The bluffs above the cave offer several nice picnic areas that over look the Ohio River.

#2 Hawk’s Cave

Hawk's CaveThis one definitely falls under the rock shelter category, unlike Cave-in-Rock and Sand Cave there is no chamber to explore.  What it lacks in depth it makes up in sheer size.  This overhang is one of the largest in Southern Illinois spanning over 150 foot.  An added plus is a rock jumble below the shelter.  I always love going here to “boulder hop” or just to photograph the huge rocks against the sandstone wall.  The shelter has a creek above that during high runoff produces a thin waterfall.  I was able to see it for the first time in early spring.

Located at Ferne Clyffe State Park the Hawk’s Cave Trail is a 1/2 mile “lollipop trail”.  The parking area is the same as the Big Rocky Hollow Trail, which is the main waterfall trail.  It immediately crosses a creek and veers to the left.  Follow until you get to an intersection and go right.  Shortly after you will come to a smaller rock shelter that, also, produces a waterfall during high runoff.  Around the next bend Hawk’s Cave comes into full view.  Take time to explore this area and make sure to bring a camera.

#3 Sand Cave

Sand CaveThe largest sandstone cave in the United States is what one usually finds out when they search on the internet for information on Sand Cave.  In my research I could not confirm or disprove this claim, but what I can say is that this chamber is a unique area in Southern Illinois.

Out of the three “caves”, this area is the least developed.  There are no signs indicating that one has arrived here.  The trailhead (which I am not sure is an appropriate term for the parking area)  is suitable for one maybe two cars.  The trail is a forest road that looks like it may still be used by A TV’s.  I usually park just to the right of the road making sure I am completely off of the gravel road.

The trail parallels a rocky bluff on the right.  After about 1/2 mile the trail veers to the right.  Here there used to be a sign indicating Sand Cave Ecological Area, but I believe it is no longer there. Continue to hug the bluff and in about another 1/2 mile you will arrive at the cave.

The entrance is hidden from view almost until you are upon it.  Usually the word WOW  follows shortly after encountering nearly a  30 foot hole in the side of the bluff.  Once you step inside the chamber seems to grow.  It is about 100 feet deep, but as James Baughn commented:

With a level floor, vaulted ceiling, and spacious dimensions, Sand Cave would make for a fine house.

A bathtub like ring encompasses the back where it looks as though water has pooled.  A large rock sits off-center of the opening and provides a nice place to sit and take in this natural structure.   Make sure to take time to explore the vertical bluffs just past the entrance, they are worth the extras steps.


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

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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.


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.

Top 3 Gottados -Easy to Get To- Waterfalls in Southern Illinois

This is the first in a series called Top 3 Gottados (Got to do). This series will spotlight interesting and unique areas that everyone enjoying the Shawnee Hills should look into.

With the first official day of spring arriving on March 20, I thought it would be nice start thinking about my favorite topic, Waterfalls! The last two days we have received an abundant amount of rain. Today, I once again “chased” waterfalls. Spring is an excellent time to get outside and stretch out those winter blues. What better way then discovering these three easy to get to treasures.

  • Main Ferne Clyffe Waterfall - An easy .75 mile handicap accessible trail to the most scenic waterfall in Southern Illinois. Location: Of course Ferne Clyffe, just outside Goreville, IL.
  • Burden Falls – Located near Eddyville, IL. From Bell Smith Springs turn left and then turn right at the first intersection. Stop at a Ranger Station for detailed directions.
  • Rocky Bluff Falls – Located in the Crab Orchard National Refugee, near Devils Kitchen Lake. This is a US Fee Area must pay for a parking permit at the Refuge Headquarters. Can purchase at the Refuge Headquarters on the outside of Herrin, Il.

Disclaimer: Caution: Waterfalls can be dangerous. Rocks are slippery. Never get close to the edge. 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.