1. IT’S MORE THAN A REFUGE FOR WILDLIFE
Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge – When someone refers to Crab Orchard in southern Illinois, they are usually describing one of the largest lakes in the Shawnee Hills, but this stellar wildlife refuge is home not just to one lake, but it encompasses three of the best lakes in southern Illinois.
In between Carbondale and Marion sprawls 43,890 acres, which is a nature lover’s paradise. The refuge is home to Rocky Bluff Trail, which leads to the base of an impressive wet-weather waterfall. Although it lacks in hiking trails, it more than makes up with it with boating, kayaking, fishing, and swimming.
2. Weird Spelling, Crazy Scenery
Ferne Clyffe State Park – If you like huge sandstone bluffs and large wet-weather waterfalls, this is the best place in southern Illinois visit. One of the best trails to view both is Big Rocky Hollow Trail, which is a level path that parallels a scenic creek that terminates in a horseshoe canyon. At the end of this canyon is the most photographed waterfall in all the Shawnee Hills resides, Ferne Clyffe Falls.
The funny thing about this area is its name. Ask several people to spell this state park and you are liable to get several different responses. Ferne Clyffe derives its name from Old English, but don’t let the stuffy name detract you from the beautiful scenery. Boosting well over eight hiking trails, this park is a day hiker’s dream and one that I always suggest first-timer’s to the Shawnee Hills.
3. THE BURDENS WILL JUST WASH AWAY
Burden Falls Wilderness - What other waterfall in southern Illinois has its own wilderness named for it? None. Even though Burden Falls is not the highest waterfall in the Shawnee National Forest, it is one of the most scenic. This 35-foot waterfall plummets down 11-feet before hitting a ledge then spatters to a wider width for the rest of the drop.
Do not let the wilderness designation scare though, because access to the wilderness is just off a bumpy gravel road which crosses a little stream ways from the brink. There are no designated trails in the area, so the safest place to view the falls is from above at an angle. Since this is a wilderness area, little to no improvements have been made to allow access to the bottom. Word of Caution, this area has been the site of numerous people falling, stumbling, and getting hurt so be careful of the slick and unpredictable surfaces.
4. BE PREPARED TO BE AMAZED
Bell Smith Springs - As you descend the “Grand Staircase” into the canyon of Bell Smith Springs, it feels like you are stepping back into raw nature. Trees and shrubs line the scenic creek that is able to hold on to its reflective pools year round.
Hidden within the walls of sandstone are some of the best rock formations and landmarks in southern Illinois. This recreation area is home to gnarled rocks that are submerged in the water, appropriately named Devil’s Backbone. Another must see, is one of the tallest and longest natural bridges in the Shawnee Hills. Its enormous span will have you head pivoting back and forth in the effort to take it all in.
For the hiker, this is a haven of trails, that although this could be confusing at first with all its colored markers, will take you to the tops of bluffs and down below through creeks, where you are sure to get your feet wet.
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5. LOTS OF HISTORY, LOTS OF BEAUTY
Dixon Springs State Park - When one thinks of a state park in southern Illinois, their thoughts may drift to Giant City or Ferne Clyffe, but tucked away in the center of the Shawnee National Forest, is another state park that deserves a second look.
Dixon Springs State Park, has one of the longest histories of human habitation, starting with the Native Americans and continuing to the present day. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s this place was actually a thriving town in which people from all over the area would come to relax and socialize. Today the remnants of this habitation can be seen from the large stone dam to the three churches that set within mere feet of each other.
The main attractions now are the natural beauty that was here before it all, from large tumbled boulders, to a raging wet-weather cascade. Dixon Springs is truly among the great state parks in all of Illinois.
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