General Area Trail (White) | 1.5 Miles
Sentry Bluff Trail (Blue) | 3.2 Miles
Natural Bridge Trail (Yellow) | 1.5 Miles
Mill Branch Trail (Red) | 2 Miles
Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area Location | Google Maps
Bell Smith Springs is one of those places that has an enormous regional popularity, yet still remains “under the radar” for much of the country. With a resume that includes distinctions as a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Park Service, Natural Area by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and Recreation Area by the U.S. Forest Service, it would be an understatement to say that this is indeed a special place. Navigating the winding backroads of the Shawnee National Forest through the Bay Creek Wilderness and Burden Falls Wilderness to get here is a challenging endeavor, but one that is well worth it once you arrive.
We are visiting Bell Smith Springs near the 30th Anniversary of the founding of the Heartwood Forest Council. Now a national organization, this small grassroots effort was founded in 1991 by local Jackson County residents fighting the U.S. Forest Service plan to clear cut portions of Bell Smith Springs and the Shawnee National Forest. The flawed and scientifically mis-proven plan would have seen portions of the canyon ridge top logged for the profit of private companies, while exposing the thin soils to irreversible erosion. This would have been followed by unnecessary prescribed burns and toxic chemical spraying that would affect an already fragile ecosystem for the worse. While forest management practices are always evolving, this was a time when the public stood up for what was clearly a poor choice in ethics and won out in a court order that banned all logging in the Shawnee National Forest for 17 years.
With 3 distinct trailheads to chose from, we opted to explore the main sights along the Natural Bridge Trail, Sentry Bluff Trail, and a small part of the General Area Trail. All of these can be reached by parking in the first gravel lot you encounter near the end of Forest Road 848. If you reach the dead end at the bottom of Forest Road 848, this trailhead leads down to the General Area Trails which is a hodgepodge of intertwining paths connecting the main area to the Hill Branch Trail. Though we’ll be skipping the Mill Branch Trail on this trip, this 2 mile loop explores a fascinating section of the canyon known as Hill Branch Springs, which was once home to a pioneer era grist mill. Alternatively, if both lots are full, parking is available near the Redbud Campground.
Located in a remote section of rural Pope County, this recreation area is centered around a steep sandstone canyon where four separate streams meet; Hill Branch, Hunting Branch, Spring Branch, and Bay Creek. Much of this is obscured from the wooded bluffs of the parking area until you begin the journey into the canyon. In the 1930’s, as this parcel of land was incorporated into the Shawnee National Forest, the Civilian Conservation Corps was brought in to help develop the site into a recreation area. While the canyon itself saw little agricultural activity, early settlers farmed the ridge tops and grazed livestock on the hillsides in the surrounding valley. Stands of Virgina pine were installed to help encourage the regrowth of a successive forest, while also mitigating erosion and regenerating the depleted soils.
Still in use today, visitors enter Bell Smith Springs through a series of stairwells and overlooks carved right out from the bedrock by the C.C.C. With the forest canopy fully leafed out, it’ll take a return visit during fall and winter to get a good view of the canyon from up here. Slowly making our way through the narrow passageway on our descent, we found ourselves walking into one of the many towering cliff overhangs found along the length of Bay Creek. This is the main trail junction for the eastern half of the park. Heading west along the cliff walls from here will take you through the General Area Trails to the Devils backbone and the Mill Branch Trail, turn the opposite direction and you’ll begin the Sentry Bluff Trail loop, or head due south towards the creek in the direction of the Natural Bridge Trail.
Natural Bridge Trail (1.5 Miles)
Following the Yellow Blazes for the Natural Bridge Trail, we begin the 0.35 mile trek to see the Bell Smith Springs Natural Bridge. Before the arrival of Europeans, prehistoric Native Americans were known to inhabit Bell Smith Springs, using many of its cliff overhangs as natural shelters. They made their way here, following the herds of woodland bison, bear, and elk that once drank from many of the springs found in this canyon. Reaching the full length of the Natural Bridge 1.5 mile loop requires crossing the widest part of Bay Creek. Having just seen a week of scattered rain showers, the large boulders normally used to cross this creek lay mostly underwater. Zigzagging across some of the shallower parts first, we inevitably had to wade through calf deep water to complete the crossing.
As soon as we climbed out of the creek bank, to my surprise, I could hear a small waterfall just off in the distance. Following the sounds of cascading water to the bluff line ahead brought us face to face with our first major landmark, the Bell Smith Springs Natural Bridge. This monster of an arch rising 30 feet over the canyon has a 125 foot span, making it the largest arch in the Shawnee National Forest. Though it’s rare to see more than a trickle of water emanating from the arch, we were lucky enough to find it with a fantastic flow. Excess water draining from the ridge above was also pouring over the entire back wall of the arch, which made it look like one of those water features one sees hanging in the lobby of doctors offices.
Officially, we are at the very heart of the Natural Bridge Trail, which loops from the base of the arch to the ridge top above us and crosses directly over the arch. One of the more fascinating aspects of this arch is that it is one of the few I know of that has a ladder scaling the side of it. Attached directly into the cliff on the southern end of the arch, this steel rung ladder was installed by the C.C.C. in the 1930’s and is still in use today. Though it’s not recommended you attempt it during wet or icy conditions, thrill seekers can often be seen taking this quick shortcut to the top of the bluffs. Our next stop on todays itinerary is Boulder Falls, situated at the halfway point of the Sentry Bluffs Trail.
Sentry Bluff Trail (3.2 Miles)
The Sentry Bluff Trail begins just north of the natural arch and continues on a 3.2 mile loop around the northeastern spur of Bay Creek. Following the yellow blazes north from the arch, the trail quickly begins ascending the cliffs high above the creek. Upon reaching the top of the ridge the blazes switch to the blue of the Sentry Bluffs Trail. This is the toughest and longest trail at Bell Smith Springs. Throughout the entire length of this trail there is a total of 280 feet of elevation loss and gain as you walk right up against the sheer edge of the cliff. The views from up here of Bay Creek with all of its boulder filled rapids is unmatched.
As one of the more picturesque and serene areas at Bell Smith Springs, birders and naturalists flock to the Sentry Bluffs in the hopes of catching a glimpse of a rare shooting star flower or elusive songbird. One of the first unique habitats you’ll encounter on this trek are the numerous sandstone glades and barrens that dot the edge of the canyon. You’ll know you’ve reached them when the trail becomes incredibly muddy with sections that are difficult to cross without proper footwear. A few rock scrambles exist on this stretch and should be approached with extreme caution as the rocks are typically wet and slippery. Sandstone glades encompass a complex of sparsely vegetated rock outcroppings, perennial grasslands, and woodlands on shallow soil.
A 1988 study done by Southern Illinois University found 22 of these distinct habitats spread throughout the Shawnee National Forest which includes the sandstone glades found at Rim Rock\Pounds Hollow and Stoneface. After a nerve wrecking stretch of trail that has you walking right along the edge of the cliff, the path veers further inland into the parks dry mesic forest. The towering canopy of beech, oak, and sugar maple let enough sunlight in to support a rich understory of spring ephemerals including the rare Indian Physic. If you keep your eyes peeled to the ground, you might get lucky and spot some of the sprawling stands of wild blueberries found here. Impossible to plant or domesticate on industrial farms, low bush blueberries prefer the moist and acidic soils found on the barrens surrounding the exposed cliffs of Bell Smith Springs.
At the 1.6 mile mark of this trail, the path will begin descending the cliffs of Sentry Bluffs down to the banks of Bay Creek. It is here that you’ll find a wet weather waterfall known as Boulder Falls. Named for the boulder balancing over the roof of a small rock shelter, this seasonal waterfall cascades 30 feet down a rock strewn ravine to the creek below. Just past this, the trail approaches two separate stream crossings as it reaches the turn around point for this loop. Here, you’ll cross over the narrowest part of the canyon which contains another unique chute style waterfall. On the way back, one gets the option of continuing to travel along the rim of the canyon or as we did, descend a narrow staircase to the waters edge. To finish off this hike, we passed through several more large cliff overhangs on the way back to the main trail junction where we began our days adventure.
“Devils Backbone” General Area Trails (1.5 Miles)
The General Area Trail system encompasses a network of intertwining paths between the Hill Branch Trail and Sentry Bluffs Trail. As one of the first official paths built at Bell Smith Springs by the Civilian Conservation Corps, this was originally known as the Old White Trail. Those looking to explore the far southern terminus of the Bay Creek Canyon can find the Old White Trail Loop along a spur of the Natural Bridge Loop. As for us, we’re itching to see the Devils Backbone which is a natural landmark protruding out of Hill Branch Springs Creek. From the main trail junction, it’s a short 0.25 mile trek to get there. Back at the bottom of the narrow staircase we used to enter the canyon from the parking lot, we followed the White Blazes west along the bottom of the bluffs.
Passing by several more large cliff overhangs, the trail fords Hill Branch Springs. Only several feet wide at this narrow section, it was way easier than our earlier crossing of Bay Creek. Once across, the trail enters a wide river bank facing two enormous boulders protruding out of the creek. This is the Devils Backbone. These large jagged rocks were at one point part of the canyon wall, before breaking off and falling into the creek. They’re lined up in such a way that they resemble huge vertebrate from the spine of a giant beast. Some people believe this landmark is responsible for bringing the national attention to Bell Smith Springs that helped turn it into a recreation area.
Long before geologists and naturalists discovered the ecological significance of this canyon, the area was a coveted swimming hole. Locals would flock here every summer to swim in the clear rocky streams, jumping off the many large boulders found throughout the area. Photos predating the creation of the Shawnee National Forest can be found with locals sitting over the Devils Backbone in their swim suits, enjoying a day out in the sun. Today this is still one of the best swimming holes in the area, noticeable by the overwhelming crowds of people hiking down in nothing but their swim trunks and towels.
We can’t mention swimming holes in Southern Illinois without paying a visit to the best known spot in the region, Jackson Falls. Home to three seasonal waterfalls, the main plunge pool below Jackson Falls is a local favorite. Often overlooked by some of its flashier neighbors, the Jackson Falls area has great rock climbing, mountain biking, free primitive camping, and a very scenic 4 miles of hiking trails. Stay tuned as we explore this remote waterfall in the Shawnee National Forest and as always, see y’all on the trails!