Cave-In Rock State Park.
Cave-In-Rock Trail | 0.25 Miles
Cave-In-Rock State Park Location | Google Maps
No trip through Southern Illinois or the Shawnee National Forest should be considered complete without a quick stop to see the famous Cave-In-Rock. Having spent several days exploring places like Garden of the Gods, Rim Rock Trail, Giant City State Park, Pomona Natural Bridge, Jackson Falls, and Stoneface just to name a few, it was time to head back to Kentucky, but not before making a stop at this iconic natural landmark. Located within the 204 acre Cave-In-Rock State Park, this larger than life cave is accessible via a short and family friendly 0.25 mile trail. Open year round and free to the public, this self guided cave tour includes a river walk below the 60 cliffs overlooking the Ohio River and the Kentucky-Illinois state line. Just across the way, you’ll encounter a flurry of river traffic as tug boats and ferries transport essential goods and services much the same way its been done here for hundreds of years.
After taking the picturesque drive through historic downtown Cave-In-Rock, we turn left past the parks boat launch and enter Cave-In-Rock State Park. This miniature 204-acre state park on the southern tip of Illinois is deceptively large, especially when you take into account all of its amenities. Boasting fishing at a stocked trout pond and along the Ohio River, three developed playgrounds, two moderate hiking trails, over fifty camping sites with showers and restrooms, eight cabin suites, and the Lodge Restaurant which is gaining notoriety for its delicious southern style cooking, you could spend an entire weekend here and never run out of things to do. As for us, our main goal is to explore the massive Cave-In-Rock cavern situated on the southern shore of the park.
Visitors can reach the cave from either the Lower Trail parking lot located adjacent to the parks boat launch, or as we did, drive in to the first developed playground and park at the Upper Trail Trailhead. The Upper Trail is definitely the way to go if you want to see something dramatic. Leaving the parking lot, a paved sidewalk and stairway climbs 60 feet to the top of an earthen berm which protects the park from the floodwaters of the Ohio River. Once you reach Park Road, walk across it to the informational posters and there you’ll find the entrance to the riverwalk. Before the Illinois Department of Natural Resources purchased the property and began developing the trail system here, the path down to the cave would have been treacherous. The only way into the cave would have been by boat or by scrambling down the sheer cliffs.
Workers cleared this wooded slope and constructed a stacked stone overlook with a staircase leading down onto the banks of the Ohio River. Walking onto it, the whole thing looks like a small fort. Depending on the height of the river, this is as close as visitors occasionally get to Cave-In-Rock considering it is often partially underwater. After a short stroll along the sandy riverbank, we reach the enormous opening of this larger than life cave. The entire thing stands 50 feet tall, by 40 feet wide, and 120 feet deep. One of the more fascinating aspects of this natural landmark has to be its iconic keyhole shaped entrance. The narrow slot at the bottom of the opening acts as a small ramp leading up into the belly of this fascinating place. A fissure at the top of the cave lets in sunlight and acts as a natural chimney for early visitors using it as a natural shelter. For thousands of years, Native Americans hunting the large herds of bison present all over this corner of Southern Illinois, used the cave as a hunting camp.
During the opening stages of the American Revolution, militia men under the command of George Rogers Clark defeated the French in a serious of skirmishes throughout Southern Illinois, which culminated in the succession of land claimed by France and the Kaskaskia Tribe. Along with land from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota, this came to be legally recognized by Congress in 1787 as the Northwest Territory. Much has been written about the infamous murderers and river bandits that occupied this cave throughout its hundred year period of terror. Using it as their base of operation, men such as the Harpe Brothers and Mason Gang Pirates would lure unsuspecting travelers into the cave to rob, torture, and murder them. They were even known to conduct piracy on the river by ramming and boarding merchant vessels in order to steal their cargo. A posse made up of Hardin County pioneers and settlers put an end to all of the mischief after a reward of $700 was offered to capture or kill the men. While most websites go into depth on that history, I’m more interested in some of the lesser known mysteries of the cave.
Though M. De Lery gets credited with discovering and noting the cave on his map during an expedition of the Ohio River in 1729, he was most likely led there by tales from previous explorers. According to the “History of Hardin County, Illinois”, written in 1939, the first European to set foot in the area was a Frenchman by the name of Martin Chartier. Accompanying famed explorer Sieur de La Salle on his expedition of the Mississippi River, his claim to infamy was in inciting a mutiny at Fort Crevecoeur in 1680, near present day Peoria, Illinois. Following the incident he fled south, becoming adopted into a local band of Shawnees in the process. It is said that when the first pioneers entered Hardin County via flatboats and canoes at Cave-In-Rock, they were met by Martin Chartier and his band of Shawnee warriors, whom were already camping on the bluffs overlooking the cave. Chartier would go on to establish a trading post that would eventually transform into the city of Nashville, Tennessee and become a powerful broker, interpreter, and advocate for the Shawnee in the early 1700’s.
Another fascinating aspect of Cave-In-Rock are the prehistoric pictographs and petroglyphs that were reported to exist in the back of the cave. In 1848, a well-known antiquarian and archaeologist name William Pidgeon visited Cave-In-Rock to study its rock art. He became famous for his 1858 work, Traditions of Dee-Coo-Dah and Antiquarian Research, although at a later time his work was critically deemed to be partly almost science fiction. He described the curious pictographs at Cave-In-Rock as humans that looked like ancient Egyptians. This rock art was eventually destroyed by vandalism and erosion caused by water from the river flooding the cave. Some of what does remain are the historical carvings and modern graffiti along the caves ceiling dating as far back as 1913.
Another little talked about, yet fascinating aspect of traveling to Cave-In-Rock has to be its famed ferry. In operation since 1803, the Cave-In-Rock Ferry is one of four passenger ferry services that cross the Ohio River. Connecting Illinois Route 1 to Kentucky Route 91, this free service paid for by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet operates 7 days a week from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. As part of our visit to Cave-In-Rock State Park, we’ll be taking the ferry ride back into Kentucky on our way to visit the Mantle Rock Nature Preserve. Home to the largest natural arch east of the Mississippi River, this nature preserve is also recognized by the National Park Service as an official stop along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. This has been a bucket list stop on my itinerary for years and a great place to end our adventures throughout the Shawnee National Forest and Southern Illinois. Stay tuned for this upcoming article and as always, see y’all on the trails!