Hawks Cave Trail | 0.5 Mile Loop
Big Rocky Hollow | 0.75 Mile
Waterfall Trail | 0.75 Mile
Fern Clyffe State Park Location | Google Maps
During part of my research into visiting the Shawnee National Forest, I kept stumbling onto photographs of an impressive waterfall cascading over an enormous cave opening high up on a cliff. Turns out that those tantalizing images were of non other than the 100 foot tall Ferne Clyffe Falls, located within Ferne Clyffe State Park. Situated a short drive from Pomona Natural Bridge, Bell Smith Springs, and Giant City State Park, I made a point to stop here and visit three of the most photographed and iconic spots within the park; Hawks Cave, Big Rocky Hollow, and Ferne Clyffe Falls. Knowing nothing about this gem of a park before my visit, I was astounded to learn of just how integral Ferne Clyffe was to the development of the region.
Hawks Cave Trail (0.5 Miles)
Nestled in the heart of the Shawnee Hills of Southern Illinois, the grounds of present day Fern Clyffe State Park have been drawing in people since time immemorial. Filled with local legends and myths as large as some of its formations, we start our short excursion into the park by visiting Hawks Cave. Accessible via an easy 0.5 mile loop, this trail explores a nearly 200 foot long cliff overhang in the heart of the park, thought to be one of the biggest in Illinois. Beginning at the trailhead, we hop across the concrete lily pads over one of the dozens of intermittent streams carving their way through the bottom of this massive valley. Turning RIGHT at the “Y” intersection, we follow along the base of a woodland hill until the towering bluffs begin to inch closer and closer to the trail.
Hawks Cave is part of the original 120 acres of the park that have helped popularize the area since the 1920’s. Originally used as a sportsmans club where businessmen from Chicago could hunt, a teacher and early conservationist by the name of Emma Rebman stepped forward to buy the disused 20 acres and begin transforming the property into a park. Over the next several years she would continue to buy additional acres from surrounding landowners to total the 140 acres she would eventually turn over to the state for preservation. Much of the second growth forest surrounding Hawks Cave was meticulously groomed by handymen, clearing paths for trails and putting up signs to identify all of the unique sites. The entrance for Hawks Cave begins in a clearing where the trail enters a small rockshelter with a stream trickling over the front of it.
The size of Hawks Cave defies all logic or reason. Boulders the size of cars and small buildings line the entire interior space within the cave shelter. Some of this rockfall is naturally occurring due to erosion, but some of it can also be traced to a massive earthquake that struck the area in 1811. Just as you walk the sandy floor to the far end of the cliff wall, you’re shocked to realize that it extends twice as far in the opposite direction. Prehistoric Native Americans are said to have utilized this cave as a seasonal hunting camp. According to historical texts, at one point great herds of bison roamed through these canyons, extending further south to Buffalo Gap, making this an ideal hunting ground for early hunter gatherers. Archeologists and park staff have uncovered pottery shards, arrowheads, and prehistoric tools from this site over the years. Reportedly, a boulder with a notch carved out of it from Native Americans tying horses exists from a later period sometime post the 1500’s.
During the opening volleys of the American Revolutionary War in 1778 George Rogers Clark and his Kentucky band of “Long Knives” camped under the overhang during their conquest of Kaskaskia. Under orders from the governor of Virginia, he was to capture all of the British outposts in Southern Illinois. Landing at Fort Massac to find it abandoned, Clark and his 175 men marched across the forests of the Shawnee Hills, near present day Goreville, in a surprise attack on Fort Kaskaskia. Following the trail out of Hawks Cave, a small off-shoot veers right connecting this to the Happy Hollow Horse Trail and the 151-mile long River To River Trail. The Happy Hollow Trail is also the site where you’ll find one of Illinois largest arches, the Happy Hollow Natural Bridge. Finishing up the loop, we exit back out to the parking area and walk directly across the road to the next leg of our journey at the Big Rocky Hollow Trailhead.
Big Rocky Hollow (0.75 Miles) & Waterfalls Trail (0.75 Miles)
In essence, most of Ferne Clyffe State Park lies at the bottom of a massive canyon running north to south, with narrow gorges leading out like tentacles from a central valley. The 0.75 mile Big Rocky Hollow Trail explores one of these gorges along the northern boundary of the park. It intertwines midway with the Waterfalls Trail as it descends from the cliffs of the Deer Ridge Campground. The payoff at the end is the 100-foot tall waterfall known as Ferne Clyffe Falls. This is the quintessential hike at Ferne Clyffe where you’ll find most of its 200,000 annual visitors. From the trailhead, our path follows a gentle stream as it meanders through a progressively narrowing canyon. Coming here after a light rain, the sandstone walls glisten in the daylight, highlighting the hanging wall gardens of Big Rocky Hollow. Rock ledges crammed full of sedges, flowering bulbs, and a dozen different types of ferns inspired the Cairo brothers whom originally purchased this property to name it Ferne Clyffe in 1899.
To many, the area feels more like a tropical rainforest than an Illinois woodland. Adding to this ambiance are the sounds of one of the parks tropical resident, the Chuck-wills-widow. Ferne Clyffe is classified as an Important Bird Area by The National Audubon Society for containing one of the few nesting grounds in Illinois for this migratory bird who’s seen its numbers decline by 69% in the last 50 years. Spending most of the year in the rainforests of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, the Chuck-wills-widow spends its summer breeding in the Southeastern United States before returning south for the winter. Foraging by night on mostly smaller flying insects, this bird is also known to indulge in hunting smaller birds and even bats. The cave regions of Southern Illinois and the valleys of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers have the highest abundance of bats and natural bat habitats. As Illinois’ smallest bat, the Tricolored Bats 3 inch long body can easily be snatched in mid-flight by a prowling Chuck-wills-widow.
Looking up at the towering cliffs, you’ll notice rock formations in the shape of cathedrals and domes, some of which have tumbled onto the canyon floor, spawning comical names like Jacobs Coffin, Elephant Head Rock, and Castle Rock. There are a number of side trails climbing up the hillside and following directly below the sheer bluffs to several off trail caves and rock shelters. Approaching these secluded alcoves, you can feel the temperature getting cooler as you near the base of the cliffs. At the halfway point, a sign directing hikers to a Campground marks where the Waterfalls Trail merges with Big Rocky Hollow. Taking the steep ascent up the Waterfalls Trail to the top of the bluffs, will lead to a short 0.3 mile spur trail that treks over and around the top of the waterfall.
After a short distance the sounds of cascading water becomes more apparent as we near the metal bridge leading to the waterfall overlook. Surrounded by giant shelter bluffs all along a horseshoe shaped ridge, Ferne Clyffe Falls take center stage with its 100 foot plunge. The best time to see its full glory is after a heavy rain, but for now I can still enjoy its gentle flow. A paved overlook leads out to a pebble creek bank below the waterfall where kids can play in the natural pool. If it weren’t for its intermittent flow, this would easily dwarf Borks Waterfall and be a contender for the states tallest waterfall.
A small user made trail to the right of the waterfall leads up to the larger than life cave shelter tucked deep within the bluffs. Obscured by brush near the overlook, its opening actually stretches from one end of the canyon to the other. It’s a worthwhile place to explore in search of evidence of prehistoric use in the form of chert and flint shards near the drip line. However you chose to spend your day at Ferne Clyffe, you can’t go wrong by making Hawks Cave, Big Rocky Hollow, and the Waterfalls Trail the heart of your adventure.
Up next, w’ell be traveling to western Pope County in search of one of the best preserved stone fort sites in Illinois, Millstone Bluffs. Situated atop a solitary bluff once used by pioneers as a millstone quarry, the site is home to a prehistoric Native American settlement from the Late Woodland Period. Virtually undisturbed by modern peoples the fort contains the remains of a stone box cemetery and three separate petroglyph sites. This exciting place is accessible via an easy 0.5 mile trail. Stay tuned and as always, see y’all on the trails!