Illinois’s Hidden Gem: Shawnee National Forest – West

n the second part of this post, I’ll explore what to see in the western portion of Shawnee National Forest. In case you missed the first part about the eastern portion of Shawnee, you can see that here..

Little Grand Canyon


Jumping across to the far west side of Shawnee is Little Grand Canyon located near Pomona, IL. Designated a National Natural Landmark in 1980, it’s my second favorite place in Shawnee, but favorite spot to go hiking. The trail is 3.6 miles long, which takes 3-4 hours from start to finish. The path starts at the high point of the canyon with a pretty easy and level path. The trail bring you to an observation point that overlooks the Big Muddy River and on clear days you can see the Mississippi River in the distance. I find the best view from the observation point is past the chain warning you not to go beyond this point. There’s a path that leads down a little further to an opening. Many people stop here and turn back, however I find the most beautiful part of Little Grand Canyon is the hike down into the canyon. The 3.6 mile loop takes you 365 feet down into the canyon and back up to the parking lot. You won’t come across many others here either, even on beautiful days I rarely came across 10 or more other hikers total in the 3 hours I was there. You truly get to experience nature in peace.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The hike isn’t easy in a lot of places and once you get down into the canyon the trails aren’t marked all that well. On more than one occasion I’ve passed a sign and wandered several hundred feet to a “No Trespassing sign”. When descending into the canyon or ascending out of it, you’ll find yourself in what I would describe as gullies, water worn ravines. These can be incredibly slick when wet and I have found myself on my butt due to this before. During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corps carved out steps and hand holds into the rock. Be sure to bring some good hiking shoes with good traction.

Little Grand Canyon is located about 15 minutes from Murphysboro, which is the next decent sized town or about 25 minutes from Carbondale where the area’s university is.

Pomona Natural Bridge


Just a hop, skip, and jump away from Little Grand Canyon is Pomona Natural Bridge. The hike here is short at just 1/3 of a mile, the trail forks into two separate paths, but together they make a loop so it doesn’t matter which way you go. The bridge stands at 30′ tall at it’s midpoint and 90′ long end to end. It’s as wide as 8′ at some points. It’s one of the largest natural bridges in Illinois and one of the most spectacular in the Midwest. The bridge was created due to water erosion washing away the rock beneath.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There generally aren’t too many people out here, but it’s definitely worth the stop. If you’re 21+, be sure to check out Pomona Winery for some wine after your hike, they specialize in producing wine from apples, but all of their wines are great (post about the Shawnee Wine Trail coming in a future post). I stress AFTER as I wouldn’t advise hiking after drinking.

Kinkaid Lake Spillway


Not technically in Shawnee National Forest, but it’s just north of the Little Grand Canyon and Pomona Natural Bridge. In the summer it’s a hot spot for Southern Illinois University students who stick around for the summer. Just about a 15 minute drive east of Carbondale it’s not far, but it is well hidden. Drive west on Route 149 west of Murphysboro about 7 miles. You’ll come along this slight “S curve” and go down a hill and over a bridge over the Big Muddy River, immediately on your right you’ll see road on your right as soon as the bridge is over. It’s Spillway Road and you’ll take it straight back along the river for a couple miles until it comes to a “T” at the dam. Turn right and you’ll be in the large parking area. There’s much to do at the spill way, on busy days in the summer you’ll see people fishing, kayaking, swimming, tanning, and playing games. At the top of the spillway you’ll come to the lake and there’s a nice swimming area that stays pretty shallow unless you go way out.

Base of the Spillway, the water meets up with the Big Muddy River

The spill way consists of 3 significant drop offs that water flows over like the one pictured in the first photo.


After you climb past the 3 smaller falls you get a walk through the water in the photo below, the water is shallow, but can be fast moving if there’s a lot of water coming from the spill way. There are decent paths in the area where you don’t have to walk in the water up to the lake. This area at the top of the spill way is a common area to see college students sunbathing or just hanging out as it’s quieter and more peaceful than the areas below.


After the short walk past this, you’ll come to the lake. There’s a small pipe fence separating the spill way from the lake, but it’s east to step over. The “beach” there has a gentle sloping surface and it takes going out quite far before you get more than 4 or 5 feet deep. It’s a place where you’ll consistently find families bringing their kids to swim. Kinkaid Lake Spillway is definitely worth checking out if you’re in the Murphysboro/Carbondale area, especially in the summer.

Ferne Clyffe

Ferne Clyffe

Ferne Clyffe State park encompasses 2,430 acres of practically untouched nature in the heart of the Shawnee National Forest. Limestone bluffs, a lake, waterfalls, and natural woodlands create some of the most beautiful vistas in southern Illinois. The most popular trail is a three-quarter mile trail that leads to the waterfall. The crushed rock path is flat or at a gentle grade for its entirety and is generously wide for most of it. The walk along the trail is beautiful as it mostly follows a small creek back to the waterfall. Limestone cliffs line both sides, but you don’t feel claustrophobic as it’s a fairly wide area. After the short 20 or so minute walk you’ll arrive at the waterfall, the best time to visit is in the spring once things have started turning green and it’s rained a little bit in the past few days or in the fall once the leaves have started changing colors. In the summer the water is more than deep enough to swim in and the water can get quite deep directly below the falls.

There are 18 trails in Ferne Clyffe State Park as seen in the image below. Here’s a link to a full size map on Department of Natural Resources website.

Ferne Clyffe Site Map (Large)

Between all of the trails and activities, you can easily spend a day or two here. You can camp, backpack camp, hike, swim, climb, play, picnic, and explore. In the 1950’s the Illionis DNR built a dam across the Buck Branch Creek and less than a decade later Ferne Clyffe Lake was filled. The lake is fairly small at just 16 acres, but it provides some of the opportunities mentioned previously as well as fishing.


Giant City State Park


Writing about Giant City brings back a lot of memories, located just 10 miles south of Carbondale I ventured down here many times on a nice day while in college. Giant City provides more amenities than any of the other places mentioned previously as it has a visitor center and lodge complete with a restaurant. There are also campgrounds and cabins near the lodge that you can rent. For one of the most spectacular view in Giant City, park at the lodge and head over to the observation tower near by, the tower brings you to the tree tops and you can see for miles over the Shawnee National Forest. There are miles and miles of trails in Giant City State Park. I had a few favorites that I would usually go to so I didn’t make it to all of them, but I’ll discuss my favorites at least.


One of the shorter and easier trails is the Devil’s Standtable Trail. It can be as short as a third of a mile, or if you go up and around top side, it can be about a mile long. The trail is named for the unique rock formation along the trail. There’s a section of rock separate from the rest of the Cliffside that forms a “table” shape. There is a significant drop off, around 60′, but you can jump from the cliff to table over what is about a 2′ gap, but I don’t recommend it. (Yes, I’ve been dumb enough to do it, but there’s no real reward in doing it even if the risk of falling is small).


The next, and likely the most popular, trail is the Giant City Nature Trail. It’s one of the longer ones within the park at 1.9 miles, but there is a lot to see along the way. The highlights include “Fat Man’s Squeeze”, “Balanced Rock”, and some impressive sandstone and lime stone cliffs. The parking lot is large and you’ll walk across a bridge that cross a small, usually dry, creek. After you cross the creek you have a long uphill walk to a “T” intersection in the path. it doesn’t matter which way you go as it’s a large loop so you’ll finish the trail on the side you don’t choose. For whatever reason, I always chose to go right, perhaps just out of habit after a few trips. You’ll make your way around the hill side with a slight, continuous left until you come to the backside of the hill. Once on the back side you’ll hike along side the steep sandstone cliffs.


The bridges and built walkways here aren’t numerous, but they are solid and are done well so that they don’t take away from the surrounding nature. You’ll come across the bridge and the trail soon comes through this:


“Fat Man’s Squeeze” is in this area. It’s not for the claustrophobic either. I was skinny in college and I still ripped up my shirt and shorts squeezing through it. You start at the bottom in a small crevice and it gets tighter and darker as you go through. It gets to a point where you can’t even see where your footing is. The most difficult part hasn’t even come up yet. In the back there’s a 90 degree corner you have to get yourself around and it takes some time to figure out how to get around it. After that it’s just a short slide through to the top. You have to climb your way out and it’s no easy task, I’m pretty sure this is where I ripped my shirt. It helps if you have some friends that are already out that can help pull you out.

Fat man squeeze top

You finish up right next to “Balanced Rock” after you continue on and climb back down to the path (4 or 5′ drop to climb down, nothing difficult.)


You’ll follow along the path for a while and then work your way left around the hill and follow along more cliff sides, some places can get rather wet if it’s been raining and in the winter I’ve seen some pretty large ice formations. You can also see how deep it is beneath, some places you can go back 15 or 20 feet underneath the top of the cliff.


Shortly after this point you’ll meet back up with the “T” intersection you started at. Take a right and follow the path downhill (Woo!) back across the creek and to the parking area.

In Giant City there’s also a trail that’s over 12 miles in length and it’s called the Red Cedar Trail. I never took this one on, but from what I read it’s a pretty easy trail to do, just incredibly lengthy. It does feature a small waterfall as well. If you do decide to take it on be careful and pay attention to the trail, it’s easy to wander from the path or miss a turn. Giant City is a large area to keep up and with Illinois’s budget woes the last few years the park budget is usually one of the first things to get cut.

Other trails in Giant City include Trillium Trail and Stone Fort Trail.

It’s incredible just how much there is hiding down in southern Illinois when it comes to the outdoors, hopefully this article and the previous article opened your eyes to just what southern Illinois has to offer. There’s definitely several days worth of hiking down there if you just seek it out!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s