Piney Creek Ravine Trail | 1.3 Mile Loop
Access Trail | 0.7 Mile
Rock Art Trail | 0.16 Mile
Piney Creek Ravine Location | Google Maps
There is no shortage of rock art sites to visit in Southern Illinois if you know where to look. As a whole, most of them are located on the western half of the Shawnee National Forest within earshot of the Mississippi River. On a recent visit to Pomona Natural Bridge, Giant City State Park and Fern Clyffe State Park, I decided to take a small detour north to explore this little known State Natural Area. Juggling between heading to Fountain Bluffs or Millstone Bluffs, I eventually settled on Piney Creek Ravine due to the fact that it contains the largest collection of petroglyphs and pictographs not just in the state, but in the region. Though difficult to find and a well hidden secret, just across the creek from the main site is another lesser known stretch of prehistoric rock art known as the Tegtmeyer Site.
Piney Creek Ravine can be found in rural Randolph County, about 45 minutes northwest of Carbondale, Illinois. At the entrance to the park, visitors must hike a short access trail to enter the ravine and reach the main 1.2 mile loop. Encompassing 198 acres, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources acquired the property in 1972 in order to protect the sensitive prehistoric rock art and later established it as a State Natural Area. Aside from the rock art, Piney Creek Ravine is also home to one of only two places in Illinois were the short leaf pine tree naturally grows. To add another layer of federal protection, the park was named a National Natural Landmark in 2001. Overseen by the Illinois D.N.R. and National Park Service, the rock art site is under 24 hour surveillance to prevent the theft or destruction of its priceless cultural artifacts.
Piney Creek Falls
Tucked deep within a secluded canyon and hidden by the rolling landscape of farm fields, it’s a wonder that anyone ever discovered the site in the first place. Once you reach the crest of the canyon at the end of the access trail, you’ll descend to the first of three creek crossings along the entire span of the loop. About 50 yards downstream, this clear flowing stream cascades over a cliff overhang to form Piney Creek Falls. On the other side of the creek, the path will quickly reach a “Y” intersection, forming the beginning of the official loop. The LEFT path goes directly to the rock art site 0.25 mile away. Heading RIGHT will take you the long way around to Piney Creek East Waterfall and back behind the rock art site. Our main interest today was in seeing the petroglyphs and pictographs, so we took the LEFT path.
On the downhill trek, Piney Creek Falls will come into view on your left as it splashes 25 feet into the canyon below. A small side trail leads to the cliff overhang below the waterfall and several pocket caves hidden on the far side of the ravine. As we make our way to the banks of Piney Creek, we encounter the second of three water crossings along this loop. During most of the year, the water level is low enough that one could easily skip rocks all the way across the stream and continue straight to the other side. With most of the path submerged under 2 feet of water, todays crossing would have us wading in knee deep water. Thankfully, a group of locals showed us an easier way to cross this creek. Facing the creek, if look to your RIGHT, there is a well traveled path that runs parallel to the stream for roughly 40 yards to a gravel embankment. Walking out onto the rocks near a small waterfall and crossing over the large boulders at this spot, we were able to reach the other side while staying dry.
Attached to the main loop is the short 0.16 mile spur trail directing visitors to the main rock art site at Piney Creek Ravine .Looking up at the towering stretch of cliff before us, we came face to face with the largest collection of prehistoric rock art in the Midwest. Consisting of well over 200 images that have been painted and pecked onto the face of a 100 foot long cliff wall, the site is considered a national treasure. While rock art sites are more commonly found in the dry and arid weather of the Southwest, they occur less frequently in the eastern half of the countrys’ wet and humid conditions. Most archeologists believe that the rock art found at Piney Creek Ravine was created over a 700 year span between the Late Woodland to the Early Mississippian Period, by a group of people known as the Mississippians. Thought to be the builders of the ancient city of Cahokia, they are also credited with creating many of the earthen mounds and stone forts found in Southern Illinois.
When French explorers and missionaries first encountered these natives, whom referred to themselves as the “Inoca”, they numbered somewhere around 20,000 people. Consisting of roughly 12 different tribes, the Illinois Confederation (as they were later called), occupied a stretch of the Mississippi River Valley throughout modern day Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, and Arkansa. A partially nomadic group, the Illinois settled this area in a system of 60 villages consisting of long houses and wigwams, centered around the prehistoric city of Cahokia (outside present-day St. Louis).
As the center of the Mississippian culture and the largest settlement north of Mexico, Cahokia had already been abandoned for 300 years before the arrival of Europeans in the 1600’s. By the time Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet rowed past the site in 1673, not only did they miss the mounds and report seeing no Indians, but of those original 12 tribes that existed, only 5 remained. All we have left of this lost period in American history, is the artwork left behind at the bottom of this obscure ravine.
Among the many images found here are pictographs of human hands, deer, serpents, birds, and a canoe. The images, painted in a bright red ochre made from ground minerals and animal fat, can still be clearly seen even after a thousand years. Stretching over a 4 foot section near the far end of the wall, several pictographs appear to depict hunting scenes with men holding bows and arrows, surrounded by deer. On the far right corner of the scene is the faded image of a concentric circle representing the sun. Several other concentric circles and the faint image of a shielded warrior appear near the center of the wall, but are covered up with by some historic graffiti. One of the more prominent nearby images is that of a large deer or antelope.
Though the pictographs are easier to spot, the petroglyphs take a bit more effort to discern. When early settlers first discovered this site in the 1800’s, they began adding their own graffiti directly over the prehistoric ones. These modern carvings and drawings record the names of the areas first pioneers as well as crosses and masonic symbols popular at the time. In the process of adding their own mark to this mysterious wall, many of the prehistoric ones were covered up or destroyed. The majority of these images, pecked onto the soft sandstone using a small rock, seem to resemble human-like figures, animals, and crosses. With the help of several other visitors, we were able to spot a series of four human figures holding hands. Another faint image resembles what’s thought to be an atlatl, which early spear throwers utilized to gain greater velocity for throwing javelins.
Large boulders opposite the wall also contain many images including that of a human-like sun symbol, attributed with designs found within Inca ruins in South America. Anthropomorphic figures with wings and tails also feature prominently on this wall. A large winged animal and human figure in mid-flight is the main feature of the Tegtmeyer Site located just on the back side of the main wall. Though we will never truly know the who, why, or how of these sites, something about the tranquil beauty of this canyon must have inspired early peoples to leave their mark here. At best, archeologists attribute the creation of these panels as part of a religious ceremony. In total there are 4 known rock art panels at Piney Creek Ravine, with 3 of those not actively advertised. So if you have a little extra time on your visit, explore some of the nearby cliff walls along the 1.2 mile loop and maybe you’ll make a discovery of your own.
Up next, we’re headed back into the Shawnee National Forest to visit one of Illinois most beloved parks, Giant City. Located near the city of Makanda, this 4,000 acre state park is a haven for nature lovers with its 8 distinct hiking trails, rappelling, rock climbing, and horseback riding trails. Designated a National Natural Landmark in 1980, the state park also contains several archeological sites including a prehistoric stone fort and a Union encampment during the Civil War. Stay tuned as we explore 4 of its most popular trails in our upcoming article featuring Indian Creek, Giant City, Devils Standtable, and the Stone Fort Trails. As always, see y’all on the trails!