As one of ten Research Natural Areas in the Shawnee National Forest, Stoneface’s iconic rock feature makes it a must see stop along any trip through Southern Illinois. Located within the Eagle Mountains, this naturally occurring rock escarpment is home to one of the finest examples of sandstone glades found anywhere in the region. From wildflower hunting for the rare Indian Pink to catching a glimpse of nesting bald eagles, this nature sanctuary is a treasure trove of exploration. A 1.5 mile trail takes visitors on a steep climb past caves and through arch openings to the weathered rock resembling an old man, nearly 100 ft from the valley floor. Just past the namesake Stoneface are several of the best far flung overlooks found anywhere in the Shawnee National Forest.
Stoneface Trail | 1.5 Mile Out & Back
Stoneface Trailhead Location | Google Maps
The Stoneface Research Natural Area is located in a secluded portion of the Shawnee National Forest known as the Eagle Mountains. Only an 8 mile drive from Karbers Ridge, it can easily fit a day trip including Garden of The Gods, High Knob, and Rim Rock Trail. With several twists and turns along backcountry dirt and gravel roads in rural Saline County, we found the trailhead to Stoneface in a quiet parcel of forest at the base of the Eagle Mountains in the village of Somerset. From the trailhead parking lot to the top of the bluffs is a moderate 1.5 mile journey. Earlier maps for this trail point to this being a much longer loop, but as it currently stands, it is an out and back trail.
The Woodland Hike
It’s not until you hike the short connector trail into the forest that the large Research Natural Area sign comes into view. Having been used as a popular picnicking spot by locals for decades, the federal government acquired all 180 acres of Stoneface in the 1930’s, as part of its creation of the Shawnee National Forest. It sat mostly quiet for years until an Illinois Nature Preserves Commission expedition in the 1960’s rediscovered this areas pristine woodland condition. Unlike much of the surrounding region, this area has seen little to no disturbance from agricultural activity due to its thin rocky soil. The result of this is a near perfect example of over a dozen different types of niche ecosystems that supports a wide variety of plants and animals.
Right from the get go, as the trail begins tracing the base of the towering bluffs, you can tell that this place is special. Every known flowering woodland bulb can be found blooming along this path from Trout Lilies, to wild Columbine, Trilliums, and the awe inspiring Indian Pinks, which bloom in early June. Due to the soil not having been disturbed, there exist almost no sign of invasive species in the entire preserve. Minuscule waterfalls trickling down from the sandstone ledges feeds lush hanging gardens of moss, ferns and sedges as far as the eye can see. On our early morning visit, we could hear the distinct call of nearly a dozen songbirds chirping away. The Shawnee National Forest serves as a bird sanctuary for an untold amount of neotropical migratory birds.
A half mile in and we reach one of the most distinct parts of this trail, as the path travels underneath Stoneface Arch. Not exactly a true arch, the cave opening was created by a massive boulder tumbling over against the side of a sheer cliff. Up a little further, we find the first of several small caves located along this path. The largest concentration of caves in the Shawnee National Forest can be found in this eastern section of the state. One of the best known is Equality Cave, which can be found just on the other side of Stoneface in the Cave Hill Research Natural Area. This cave is home to a regional bat species known as southeastern myotis, as well as some of the more common little brown bats, northern long-eared bat, big brown bat, and the federally-endangered Indiana bat.
From here, the trail begins its ascent to the top of the bluff via a series of sharp switchbacks. A few of the bald crags dotting the route have small waterfalls running over them and resemble the smooth granite tops found along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. Just before reaching the cliff line, off to the right of the trail is a seasonal waterfall tumbling 20 feet through a boulder filled ravine. One of the only signs that this is an established trail is the split rail fence guarding our right flank as we finish the last leg of the summit.
Its purpose is twofold; to keep hikers from inadvertently sliding off the cliff and to protect the sensitive plant communities of sandstone glades present here. Peering over the fence, one can see a myriad of flowering plants crowded along the edge of the sheer cliff. Tucked within these mini gardens are a rare species of stonecrop found only here, Sedum telephioides. Not just a haven for plants, many threatened species of raptors soar over these skies. The Peregrine Falcon, once extinct on the east coast of the United States, nests on the craggy bluffs of some of the most remote parts of the Eagle Mountains. If you’re lucky, you might even spot the regal presence of a Bald Eagle here.
The Iconic "Stoneface"
Within a few moments, we finally reach the iconic rock outcropping of Stoneface. The cliffs here are completely exposed to sheer 70 ft drops only a few inches from the trail, so take extra precaution. Having only seen it previously in photos, it was amazing to witness its uncanny appearance to the face of an old man. Carved over time by erosion, it boggles the mind to wonder what the earliest people whom discovered Stoneface must have thought about it. Though most people outside of the area have never even heard of this monument, it could easily qualify as one of the natural wonders of America. Not wanting to end this hike prematurely I continued a little past Stoneface to some of the best overlooks found anywhere in the area.
My favorite of these outcrops juts out into a wide clearing with far reaching views of farmland in the direction of Harrisburg. From up here, it’s natural to ponder why these cliffs rise up so sharply out of the landscape, while everything else is up ahead remains as flat as a flapjack. The Shawnee Hills of Southern Illinois lay directly over a fracture in the earths crust known as the Shawnee Fault Zone, which is responsible for creating the escarpment ridge Stoneface is a part of. Located at the northern tip of the infamous New Madrid Fault, this area of the state receives regular shocks and tremors from seismic activity year round. In 1968, this was ground zero for Illinois’ largest recorded earthquake measuring a 5.4 on the Richter scale. Though its epicenter was in nearby Hamilton County, the shockwaves were strong enough to topple chimneys as far north as Chicago.
Up next, we’ll be heading over to another little known recreation area tucked within the Shawnee National Forest called Bell Smith Springs. I’ll be tackling a 5 mile day hike to explore the Devils Backbone, Boulder Falls, and Illinois largest natural bridge fit with a cascading waterfall. Stay tuned for this epic journey and as always see y’all on the trails!