The following entries were written for Backpacker Magazine during an open-call for hikers in several diffenent states. One of these was Illinois. Currently the entry for Ferne Clyffe is being considered for an upcoming article, but in an altered form.
The format was to come up with a day, weekend, and week long hiking trails with themes on waterfalls, big forests, or coastline.
Just thought I would share these thoughts on our area with you, our fellow reader. Enjoy!
Day – Ferne Clyffe State Park
What’s up with the weird name? That is the first question one usually hears when one ventures to this area. The answer is such a unique area deserves a unique Old English name.
Located just a few short miles south of Goreville, Illinois lies one of the best kept secrets in Illinois. What resides here is 2,430 acres of undulating hills interrupted by sheer horseshoe bluffs.
A short .75 mile hike on the Big Rocky Hollow Trail leads to one of the most scenic waterfalls in southern Illinois. This 100 foot marvel tumbles in a straight free fall for 2/3 of the way and then come crashing down on a resilient sandstone ledge that gracefully cascades the rest of the way to a shallow pool.
The best time to visit the falls is in early spring or late fall when the potential for rain is higher. As with all the southern Illinois falls they are intermittent, but if the creeks are not flowing, this park still has several more gems to unfold for willing visitors.
Hawks Cave located just a short distance from the main fall is well worth the visit by itself. Only .5 miles this leads to not to a cave as the name implies, but one of the largest shelter bluffs in Illinois. What really makes this place unique is the jumbled pile of boulders-hopping rocks that lie in the shade of the bluff.
If these two hikes were not enough the 5 mile Happy Hollow Trail leads into the back-country of the park. This trail makes a loops on the top of a scenic bluff and then slowly winds its way down to take in a little known natural bridge and down through a valley where it follows the main creek in the park. Along the way three hidden unnamed waterfalls lie off-trail waiting for experienced explorers to discover their elusive nature.
Weekend – Garden of the Gods
Who says there can be only one Garden for the Gods. Colorado’s garden may be more well-known, but here in Illinois we have the eastern home to the gods. Nestled within the recesses of the Shawnee Hills in southern Illinois lies the regions most recognizable natural landmark, Camel Rock. This bizarre rock formation thrusts its head out over the Garden of the Gods wilderness area that encompasses 3,300 acres of deep woods.
This area was once drowned in an inland sea that stretched throughout the region. The sediments over time built up and the rock now exposed was originally buried over a mile deep. As time passed on the effects of weathering and erosion sculpted this area and with it uncovered rock that is wrinkled and folded. An iron-oxide rich layer creates weird concentric circles and bands that give some sections an ancient appearance.
The best place to start a weekend journey here is at the Backpackers Parking lot. From here one has the option to hike in three separate directions. To get away from the crowds the 1.7 mile Indian Point trail takes one below a sandstone bluff and provides ample opportunities to explore gaps and holes within the cracked and separated rocks. Indian Point is one of the most scenic points in the area giving expansive views off to the undulating hills and valleys off to the south and east.
As if this wasn’t enough one can head back to the parking lot and hike north which leads to the highly visited Observation Trail. This trail only 1/2 mile long is the home to the to rock formations called Devil’s Smokestack, Table Rock, Camel Rock, and Honeycomb Rock.
To get away from the crowds one can explore the northeast side of the wilderness area which has several different combinations of loops and trails that explore deep into the Shawnee Forest. It is here that one may find themselves alone discovering Mushroom Rock, Anvil Rock, and the weathered ship aptly named Noah’s Ark.
Southern Illinois’ longest continuous trail, the River to River trail, passes through this area and gives one plenty of weekend options to explore from five miles to twenty miles. With so much to explore one may find that one weekend is just not long enough to get the full experience of the Garden of the Gods.
Week long – River to River Trail
The Ohio, the Mississippi, two of the most well-known and respected rivers in the eastern United States. These rivers create the natural boundaries for the southern tip of Illinois. Between these two natural features lies Illinois’ only National Forest, the Shawnee. Just north of this 280,000 acres forest lies flatter lands that were scoured by the last ice age. The glaciers melted before they reached the Shawnee leaving the rolling hills and canyons intact and just waiting to be discovered.
One of the best ways to explore this area is by the River to River Trail, which extends 160 miles from one river to the other. This section is, also part of the American Discover Trail which extends from Delaware to California. Although this trail may be stretching the definition of week-long it transverses some of the best natural areas of Illinois.
One can either start on the Ohio side near Cave-in-Rock or on the Mississippi side at Grand Tower. Either way one can travel across five of the seven designated wilderness areas, from the foothills of the Ozarks to the Shawnee Hills of Illinois.
This trail doesn’t confine one to forest only, it will sometimes take one though quaint towns like Alto Pass and Makanda and back roads that feel as though time has stood still. As this trail avoids most of the congested areas of forest, one may find that they may have peace and solitude for days in one of the most wild and scenic places in Illinois.
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