Fall in love with nature – Waterfall adventures in Illinois

When you think of waterfalls, Illinois doesn’t automatically come to mind. In fact, an online guide to waterfalls doesn’t mention Illinois in its listing of states with waterfalls. But they are in our own backyard and, big or small, are a welcome sight that adds to the joy of a walk in the woods. Because of Illinois’ geography, most waterfalls are in the southern region of the state near Carbondale. Southern Illinois is home to several state parks, national wildlife refuges and the Shawnee National Forest. The natural features make it perfect for waterfalls. Some appear after a heavy rain and are gone within days or even hours. Others generally run from midwinter through early spring; however, due to this year’s rains, most were still flowing as of late June.  hile most of Illinois’ waterfalls are in the south, there are a few in the northern region, and that’s where we will begin our adventure.

Waterfall Glen Trail

Located just a few miles west of Chicago, Waterfall Glen Trail is a 9-mile loop that leads through woodland beside a stream and offers several panoramic views. The waterfall is only a few feet high, but with the backdrop of trees along the low stream bank, it makes for a lovely photograph, especially in the fall. The trail is broad, well-marked, and suitable for hikers of all skill levels, runners and people with pets. It is a kid-friendly park, but strollers may have difficulty in some areas.

As with any green space in an urban/suburban setting, the sounds and sights of civilization are present at points along the trail, but this should not detract from the overall enjoyment of your time there. The park is open all year, with some trails groomed for cross-country skiers, but March through November is the best time to go.

Starved Rock State Park

Starved Rock State Park
LaSalle Canyon in Starved Rock State Park

About 100 miles southwest of Chicago, off Interstate 39, is Starved Rock State Park. The park is named for its signature feature, a 125-foot sandstone butte that towers above the Illinois River. With more than 13 miles of trails and nine scenic waterfalls – St. Louis, Aurora, French Canyon, Wildcat Canyon, Tonty, LaSalle, Ottawa, Kaskaskia and Illinois – the park offers lots of opportunity.

There are two main trails, the Bluffs Trail and the River Trail, with connecting trails at several points in between. All falls, except for St. Louis, are accessed via the River Trail, which fronts the Illinois River. As you hike, you will enjoy lovely views of the river, a variety of plant life along the trail and interesting geological formations. The Bluffs Trail runs through the woodland above the river valley, with views of the river and several waterfalls along the way. Both trails are well-marked with signage and trail maps every 200-300 yards. While family-friendly, there are steps and other barriers to maneuver. The trails become more natural and the degree of difficulty increases the farther away from the visitors’ center you get.

As for the falls, each seems to have a personality. For instance, French Canyon Falls, reached by a narrow winding path, is quiet, peaceful and almost shy as it glides down a long rock incline to slip gently into a small horseshoe-shaped pool.

By contrast, Wildcat Canyon, though small, is unbridled energy. The water doesn’t just fall, it leaps, exuberantly hurling itself through a narrow gap between the rocks and plummets into the pool to create ripples that lap at the feet of visitors.

Remember that Starved Rock’s falls usually flow from midwinter to midspring or briefly after a heavy rain. The ice falls that form in winter are quite impressive. The park itself is open year-round, and summer is the busiest time. Last year, Starved Rock, which is Illinois’ premier natural attraction, was host to more than 2 million visitors.

Matthiessen State Park

The Dells in Matthiessen State Park
The Dells in Matthiessen State Park

Three miles south of Starved Rock is Matthiessen State Park. Matthiessen is a 2,000-acre multi-activity park with several hiking trails, but the most popular and spectacular feature is the Dells, a mile-long hairpin canyon that runs from Deer Park Lake to the Vermilion River. The canyon is divided into the upper and lower Dells. The upper Dells begin at the falls at Deer Park Lake and continue to Cascade Falls.

The lower Dells begin with Cascade Falls’ 45-foot drop and continue to the river. The best way to get an overview of the Dells is to take the Loop Trail, a broad, easy path through mature woods that takes you around the perimeter of the canyon with bridge crossings at three points. In the canyon, which can be accessed at several points, hikers can enjoy the profusion of ferns and sandstone formations along the cliffs.

The Dells stream is lake-fed, so the falls flow year-round; however, spring and early summer or fall when the leaves begin to turn are the best times to visit. The Dells are family-friendly, but with 12 sets of steps and landings to get from the parking lot to the loop trail and additional steps to access the Dells, it is not a park for strollers or wheelchairs.

Rocky Bluff Trail

Rocky Bluff Trail in Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge
Rocky Bluff Trail in Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge

Rocky Bluff Trail is part of the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, located east of Carbondale, and there is a $2 per day use fee. This fee is per vehicle, not per person. Even if you don’t visit the rest of the refuge, you get your money’s worth at Rocky Bluff. Park your car, take the path just to the left of the sign and almost immediately you are looking down on a two-tiered waterfall that drops about 25 feet into a rock-strewn stream. A moderately difficult but short path leads to the base of the falls.

Back up at the sign, the path to the right heads to a 2-mile trail that crosses a small stream, plunges into the woods and leads you to another waterfall. The next portion of the hike takes you along the face of sandstone cliffs with a small creek before bringing you back to the waterfall through a hardwood forest. The trail is open year-round, but the best times to visit are in April for the wildflowers or fall for the colors. The trail is not suitable for strollers, but a 4- or 5-year-old can navigate it easily with a little help at a couple of the steeper spots.

Ferne Clyffe Waterfall Trail

Waterfall Trail at Ferne Clyffe State Park
Waterfall Trail at Ferne Clyffe State Park

Ferne Clyffe State Park, just south of Goreville, has 18 trails, but the waterfall trail is popular. Getting to the falls is moderately difficult or very easy depending on your approach. The difficult path begins at a sign in the Deer Ridge Campground and takes you down a .75-mile path of rocks and roots that crosses a small stream and joins with the flat mile-long path that begins at the picnic area.

Although the path from the campground isn’t difficult, the picnic area path is better for small children. Walking up the picnic shelter path through the tall trees, you see the cliff and rock formations ascending and the basin narrowing as it nears the falls. Descending from the campground, the trail leads to the base of the south cliff wall.

Ferns are everywhere, but the centerpiece of the basin is the falls, 100 feet from rim to pool, cascading off the rim and flowing down a 40-foot slope of rock into the pool. As with all the parks, each season has its charm, but if you want to see the falls in action, your best bet is April or May, depending on the rainfall.

Devil’s Standtable at Giant City State Park
Devil’s Standtable at Giant City State Park

Giant City State Park

Like Starved Rock, Giant City State Park takes its name from a geological feature, in this case giant sandstone walls. Of the eight designated hiking trails in the park, two have waterfalls: Devil’s Standtable and Red Cedar Falls.

Devil’s Standtable Trail leads to a rock formation that gives the trail its name. Step onto the trail and in 100 yards, you are standing in front of a huge rock shelter with a slender stream plunging over the rim. It is a modest waterfall but stand quietly and you’ll see chipmunks scampering around the foot of the bluff and bank swallows flitting to and from nests in the cliff.

The Red Cedar Trail, the most rugged and longest trail in the park at 12 miles, is designed for those wanting a challenging hike and backpacking experience. The falls is a few miles in, but this is not a trail for families with small children or inexperienced hikers.

Little Grand Canyon Trail

Little Grand Canyon at Shawnee National Forest
Little Grand Canyon at Shawnee National Forest

One of 19 trails in the Shawnee National Forest, Little Grand Canyon Trail is a three-mile loop that offers a panoramic view of the Mississippi River valley, some interesting waterfalls and, especially on weekdays, a chance for some solitude. The section of the trail down to the canyon outlook and the section of trail from the main outlook back to the parking area are broad and easy to walk. While steep in some sections, there are benches conveniently located.

The section between the outlooks and the trail is narrow and quite difficult near the waterfall. Another factor to consider with these falls is water level. Water is needed to have flowing falls, but incessant rains put much of the canyon and part of the trail under water. Great times to visit are in the spring when the falls are flowing and the wildflowers are in bloom and in fall when the canyon will be ablaze with autumn color.

Whether you are hiking to see a waterfall, looking for wildlife or just enjoying some time away, be respectful of nature. Please stay on the trails, don’t litter and always be mindful of your fellow hikers. Happy hiking!