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Trail Guides

Jackson Falls, The Best Kept Secret In The Shawnee National Forest, Illinois

Guide to hiking the Jackson falls waterfall trail in Shawnee National forest Illinois


Sitting in the heart of the Shawnee National Forest, Jackson Falls is one of the busiest hubs of outdoor recreation in Southern Illinois. Known as the “Best Kept Secret in Illinois” this place is home to some of the largest seasonal waterfalls and streams in the region. Locals flock here every summer to escape the heat and wade in the natural pool below the towering North Falls. This canyons 70 foot sheer sandstone cliffs and 4 miles of trails draw in rock climbers, bouldering enthusiasts, equestrians, mountain bikers, and hikers from all over the region. 


Top of Falls | 0.25 Mile

Bottom of Falls | 1 Mile

Jackson Falls Trail Map

Jackson Falls Location | Google Maps

Before you visit, there are a few things to mention; Jackson Falls is classified as “non-maintained forest land”, which essentially means you are on your own here. Aside from a vault toilet near the main trailhead, everything you need must be packed in and packed out. There is no drinking water or trash services at this site. Though restricted to a 14-day continuous stay, camping here is free and allowed anywhere within the Jackson Falls area. Injuries and deaths have occurred from fatal falls here, so exercise extreme caution while hiking near the exposed cliffs.

Trailhead for Jackson falls waterfall Shawnee National forest Illinois  

With its centralized location near Bell Smith Springs, Millstone Bluff Archeological Area, Trigg Tower, and just southwest of Garden of The Gods, a visit to Jackson Falls can easily be incorporated into any trip within the Shawnee National Forest. Main access to Jackson Falls is located along the gravel lined Glen St Falls Rd near the town of Ozark, Illinois. It’s a rough and bumpy 4 mile drive from the intersection of County Rd 8 and Glen St Falls Rd to reach the North Access area for Jackson Falls. With space for only a dozen cars, this parking lot gets full fast, especially on the weekends. Alternatively, if you have a 4x4 vehicle, you could find extra parking by driving across the creek into the primitive campsites across from the main parking lot. More camping and parking can be found near the South Access lot along this road, but requires fording 3 more creeks and is only recommended for vehicles with high clearance and 4x4 drive. 

Jackson falls waterfall hiking trail in Shawnee National forest Illinois  

Top of Jackson Falls (North Falls)

From the North Access Trailhead to the top of the falls is a quick 0.25 mile trip. Scattered on either side of this path are several of the dozens of primitive campsites that surround Jackson Falls. On any given day during the summer, this place is jammed packed with families on vacation and climbers looking to spend a few days out on the crags. The shallow stream running through the campsite, Little Bay Creek, has several cascading waterfalls with wading pools used by campers as a source of water and a way to cool off on a hot summer days. If you get in the water, just keep in mind that in less than a quarter mile, this creek plunges over a 50 foot cliff. 

Cascades of Jackson falls waterfall in Shawnee National forest Illinois  

Walking alongside the stream, we exit the forest onto the precipice of Jackson Falls. It’s exhilarating to stand over the sheer cliff of the canyon and feel the mist rising from the falls. The plunge pool below the falls is one of the main swimming holes in this area, asides from the streams of Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area. Though seasonal in nature, Jackson Falls is only 1 of 3 major waterfalls found here. Locally they are known by their placement in the canyon, so Jackson Falls is typically referred to as North Falls. 


Jackson falls waterfall in Shawnee National forest Illinois

East Falls (Trail 048c)

Skirting the rim of the canyon is one continuous trail dividing the canyon into North West, and South. Facing the falls, if you were to turn RIGHT this path would lead onto Trail 048 towards the far West Section of Jackson Falls and its North Access. There you’ll encounter Hobo Cave, Railroad Rock, and the smallest of the waterfalls, West Falls. Turning LEFT at Jackson Falls will take you onto Trail 048c, which leads to the quickest way down into the canyon via the Dog Walk Access near East Falls. This is the most commonly used access point used by day hikers and climbers. Beginning this journey requires crossing directly over the top of Jackson Falls. Walking back 15 feet downstream from the precipice of the falls, the stream is shallow enough to cross without getting too wet or risk getting swept over the falls. 

East falls of Jackson falls waterfall in Shawnee National forest Illinois

This mostly unmarked path is easy to follow, but becomes quite narrow at times making it hard to see. Several scrambles up and over the ledges above the rim can be unnerving at times, so just take thing nice and easy. Keep an eye peeled along this route for climbers ascending two of the most popular monoliths here, Spleen Peak and Lovely Tower, just on the other side of the rim. With over 500 named climbing routes separated into 60 unique areas, you’re bound to see climbers dangling from the cliffs throughout your entire trip. The canyons bullet stone, unique geology, and rich scenery makes this one of the best sport climbing destinations in the Midwest. You’re getting close to the Dog Walk when you can hear the cascading sound of East Falls off in the distance. East Falls is a smaller mirror image of North Falls, but equally as mesmerizing. Instead of plunging into a pool, East Falls spills over a boulder pile and gently flows through a narrow ravine where it eventually joins Little Bay Creek. 

East falls waterfall of Jackson falls trail in Shawnee National forest Illinois  

Dog Walk Access (Trail 048c - 049)

Crossing the bridge over East Falls, keep an eye out on your right for the narrow passage into the Dog Walk. Passing through a break in the cliffs, the Dog Walk is a spiraling staircase created by a 30 foot tall pile of boulders connecting the top and bottom of the canyon. The entire thing is propped up by three enormous monoliths neatly stacked over one another like Jenga blocks. Though I’ve seen kids of all different sizes and ages scale it with ease, this is still a strenuous and dangerous scramble. A bright orange stretcher at the bottom of the descent is a stark reminder that people get hurt recreating here all of the time.

Dogwalk access trail into Jackson falls waterfall in Shawnee National forest Illinois

The Dog Walk Access contains one of four first aid stations, centrally located throughout the bottom of the canyon, provided by the Beta Fund. The Beta Fund is a non-profit organization that works in partnership with private landowners and public land managers to help conserve and preserve access to climbing areas in Illinois, Arkansas, and Missouri. For life threatening injuries, there is even a helipad for med-vacs located at the Southern Access to the falls. To reach the plunge pool of North Falls, follow the well traveled path from the Dog Walk, north along the bluffs of the canyon. This is Trail 049 and it loops around the entire base of Jackson Falls for a 3.25 mile stretch. On the way you’ll cross right in front of East Falls. 

Dogwalk access trail into Jackson falls waterfall in Shawnee National forest Illinois

Jackson Falls (North Falls)

Until the area was incorporated into the Shawnee National Forest during the 1930’s, much of this canyon sat quietly idle, with the exception of a commercial rail line running through the heart of it. Jackson Falls began to gain traction as a recreation destination when an avid rock climber named Eric Ulner began bolting the first routes here in the 1980’s. Much of the pre-colonial history of the falls has been lost to time, but since Jackson Falls shares the same canyon with a prehistoric Native American fort at Millstone Bluff Archeological Area several miles downstream, it can be assumed these early people might have enjoyed the falls much in the same way as us today. Civil War era engravings can be found on the creek bedrock near the top of the falls dating back to 1860, as the only clue that settlers roamed these bluffs.  

 Jackson falls waterfall trail in Shawnee National forest Illinois

North Falls will come into view just as you pass through a maze of giant boulders and rock piles surrounding the base of Spleen Peak and Lovely Tower. This side of the falls is heavily wooded, so to get the best view skip from rock to rock over Little Bay Creek to the other side of the falls. Though Jackson Falls “North Falls” is not the largest waterfall in the Shawnee National Forest, nearby Burden Falls beats it by a few feet, it is easily the prettiest. Centuries of rock falls and cliff collapses here have created a natural swimming hole right below the falls that resembles an infinity pool. Locals from all over the area come here during the summer months to enjoy a day out on the water or to picnic on the rocks overlooking the falls. Thanks to volunteers and responsible stewardship principles practiced by regular visitors, this will remain a place that we can all enjoy well into the future.

 Jackson falls waterfall in Shawnee National forest Illinois hiking trail

Up next, we’ll be hitting the road to visit the highlight of any trip to the Shawnee National Forest, Garden of the Gods. This Wilderness and Recreation Area is arguably the jewel of Southern Illinois and solely responsible for putting the region on the map. With its jaw dropping vistas and awe inspiring rock formations, this is one of the most photographed places in all of Illinois. Stay tuned as we take a sunset hike along the Indian Point and Observation Trail in this magical place. Stay safe and as always, see y’all on the trails!

Jackson falls waterfall hiking trail in Shawnee National forest Illinois


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