Rim Rock Trail | 0.8 Miles
Lower Trail| 0.7 Miles
Pounds Hollow Lake Trail| 0.6 Miles
Rim Rock Trail Map | US Forest Service
Rim Rock Trail Location | Google Maps
Engulfing the southernmost tip of Illinois from the banks of the Ohio to the Mississippi River, the Shawnee National Forests 280,000 acres of wetlands, lush canyons, and razorback ridges lays in stark contrast to the states mostly agricultural landscape. Encompassing 7 officially designated wilderness areas, over 30 hiking trails, and 17 state parks, this is where Illinoians come to escape the hustle and bustle of its larger northern cities. Within earshot of Garden of the Gods Wilderness, High Knob, Stone Face, and the Pounds Hollow Recreation Area, this is easily the most visited part of the National Forest.
Rim Rock Trail lays at the eastern edge of Shawnee Forest Country, along Karbers Ridge Rd across from the popular Rim Rocks Dogwood Cabins retreat and a little north of the 160-mile long River to River Trail. There are three trails that explore this area with the main Rim Rock Trail looping around the top of the knob. Traveling around the base of the escarpment is the Lower Trail (also known as the Beaver Trail). Connecting Rim Rock to the Pounds Hollow Recreation Area is also the Pounds Hollow Lake Trail. Done together, they make for an easy, yet astonishing 2.1 mile day hike. Determined to do all three trails, we began our morning by hiking up the Rim Rock Trail to explore the ruins of the old stone fort, hike to the summit overlook, and check out the sandstone glades of the eastern rim.
Rim Rock Trail (0.8 miles)
At the trailhead you’ll find several signs explaining the areas long and somewhat mysterious history. People have been exploring the unique topography of the pounds escarpment surrounding Rim Rock since at least the last 1,500 years. If you zoom out on the area using a topographical map or any smart phone map app, you can see how the area juts out into a solitary knob, surrounded on three sides by a deep ravine, and with only a narrow land bridge connecting it to the surrounding ridge. Much like the castles of the British isles, surrounded by water filled moats and only accessible by a narrow drawbridge, this made for an easily defensible location to set up a settlement.
Southern Illinois was inhabited as early as 10,000 years ago by people attracted to the regions abundant natural resources. It wasn’t until roughly 1,500 years ago though that stone forts, dating back to the Woodland Period, began springing up all over the region. Rim Rock is one of ten known stone forts found within the Shawnee Hills including Millstone Bluffs and Giant City’s Stone Fort. Though archeologists have little to go on as far as how big the structure was here, based on the debris field and other stone walls in the area, they surmise it could have been as large as 6 ft wide by 6 ft tall. Reaching the top of the knob, very little is left of what must have been a large settlement encompassing much of the area. As settlers moved in towards the beginning of the 1800’s, the completely tamed the wild landscape, transforming it into areble farmland.
During the 1930’s, this property was purchased by the Works Progress Administration in the midst of the Great Depression. As part of their work, the Civilian Conservation Corps was tasked with planting a cedar grove on top of the “Pounds”, in order to stabilize the exhausted soil from what was then abandoned farmland. Later they constructed the series of stone steps and walls leading down from the summit near the overlook of Robinette Creek. To get the best possible views from here, you’ll have to visit during fall and winter. The Rim Rock Trail continues past the main overlook to several other vantage points along its western bluffs.
Lower Trail (0.7 miles)
In order to reach the valley below, we’ll be taking the steep staircase next to the main overlook, down into the canyon maze and through the popularly named “Fat Mans Misery”. Alternatively, you can access the Lower Trail by taking the far righthand trailhead from the parking lot. This bypasses the top of the bluff, traveling through a boulder strewn ravine, straight to the forest floor. Known for its tight passageways and guarded by 15 ft tall walls, this part of the Rim Rock Area is by far the family favorite. On any given weekend, kids can be found playing hide and go seek throughout the tight corridors, some of which lead into tiny pocket caves. Exiting the maze, one walks out through a false arch, onto an expansive rock shelter with open views of the valley below. Laying halfway between the bluffs and the forest floor, it feels like you’re standing atop a treehouse fort.
Adorning the shaded, rocky slopes in every nook and cranny within sight are hundreds of wild columbines. Their deep red and yellow tipped blossoms shine against the moss covered boulders like ornaments on a Christmas tree. A spiraling maze of field stone steps lead down from this area to the very bottom of the escarpment. Here, nestled between the cliffs and the crystal clear waters of Robinette Creek, is where we found Ox-Lot Cave. Its name is a leftover remnant of when settlers utilized the rock shelter as a livestock pen. In the very back of the cliff overhang is a trickling natural spring which provided water for the oxen, horses, and mules kept here.
At one point in time, twenty families lived in the hollow during the late nineteenth century, before completely abandoning it. Oxen in particular were of important use during the logging boom of Pounds Hollow between 1902-1906. The animals were crucial in helping to transport fallen logs to the nearby train depot located where Pounds Hollow Lake is now located. The Civilian Conservation Corps damned the deepest portion of Pounds Hollow at the northern edge of the recreation area to where two steep valleys meet to form the lake.
Pounds Hollow Lake Trail\ Beaver Trail (0.6 miles)
Leaving Ox-Lot Cave, we enter the heart of Pounds Hollow. When this trail system was rehabbed, with money donated by the Illinois Federation of Women’s Club in 1962, it was called the Beaver Trail. In essence this trail follows the entire circumference of Rim Rock just below the bluffs. Though the short portion headed to the lake is now called the Pounds Hollow Lake Trail, it quickly resumes its original 9.5 mile journey south to Camp Cadiz as the “Beaver Trail”. The lush, regenerated forest surrounding Robinette Creek was once home to a substantial population of beaver.
On occasions, visitors may spot a pointed, chewed up tree stump or a large pile of debris, known as a lodge, choking up a minor tributary. Having been hunted to near extinction, their numbers have rebounded substantially, especially in 8 of the largest watersheds within the Shawnee National Forest. Keep an eye out and you might spot one swimming near Pounds Hollow Lake. Exploring the sheer bluffs of this remote ravine reminds me a lot of the canyons and hollows made famous at Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio.
The only difference here is that instead of the large crowds and manicured aesthetics of that park, this place has been left to re-wild. Just about every imaginable woodland wildflower found in Illinois can be found blooming at this location, giving cause for the Illinois Native Plant Society to deem this a wildflower “super site”. From the stunning flowers of eastern shooting stars, to mayapple, trout lilies, bellwort, anemones, and even three different types of trilliums can be found growing here from late March through May.
Large piles of rock fall give way to two enormous cliff overhangs used as rock shelters along this route. The first one overlooks the sweeping meadows near Ox-Lot Cave and can be reached via a small side trail. A second, taller overhang is just uphill from the 3-way trail intersection along the Lower Trail. One could spend multiple trips simply exploring each and every rock crevice in this valley. Just past this area, the trail levels out as you approach the shores of Pounds Hollow Lake. This 25 acre lake is one of the best swimming holes in the area, with a large sandy beach and several ramps for launching kayaks and canoes.
Only electric motors are allowed on the lake, which also makes this a great spot for fishing largemouth bass, redder sunfish, and channel catfish. Not yet ready to kickback and relax at this popular summer spot, we’re headed northwest to climb some scenic cliffs and catch a glimpse of the famous weathered stone named “Stoneface” within the Stoneface Research Natural Area in the Shawnee National Forest. Stay tuned and as always, see y’all on the trails!