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 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 do not require 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 overlook 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 ATV’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.

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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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. Crow says

    Wow, I have been hiking in Southern Illinois for years and never knew about Sand Cave. I’ll have to check it out next time I’m down that way. Thanks! Great site, btw. Just stumbled across it today.

  2. Gary Marks says

    Thanks Crow. Sand Cave is a little off the beaten path, but well worth the effort. The parking area is almost none existent, but I have always parked just to the right of the path the goes back to the area. Get totally of the gravel road and don’t let the barking dogs make you change your mind about hiking this unique area.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment and I have video that needs to be edited of the area that I hope to have up in the next couple of months.

  3. rick creamer says

    bay creek lake #5 has a rather large cave also some of my buddys and i have been several times its a hike or canoe trip from were you park at the levee but well worth the effort and you can easily hike to bell smith springs from the shelter cave site