Hike #4: Southern Illinois State Parks

(This is the extremely belated fourth post of my Twelve Hikes, Twelve Months series.)

At the very beginning of last April, I set out on a day trip with my mom and sister to explore some of the lesser visited natural areas in southern Illinois. Many people familiar with the region think of mainstays like Giant City State Park and Garden of the Gods as worthy hiking destinations. However, if you’re interested in places a little off the beaten path, read on for highlights of that spring day extravaganza.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

We began our day at Ferne Clyffe State Park on the Big Rocky Hollow Trail. Located about a mile outside the town of Goreville, this state park is smack dab between interstates 57 and 24, making it easily accessible for day-trippers.

(Fun fact: Goreville sat in the path of totality during the 2017 solar eclipse, and will be close to, if not in, the path of totality during another solar eclipse on April 8, 2024.)

Big Rocky Hollow Trail is a wide, level path that cuts through woods in a small canyon until it arrives at a short waterfall. A different trail branches off early on and follows the rising bluffs to the right. In early spring, bits of vegetation and hardy flowers pop up among boulders and under the tree canopy. Rock faces are covered in springy, bright green moss. Walking among those boulders was an otherworldly experience for us. To lengthen our hike, we followed the path partway up the bluff and then returned to follow the main trail to the waterfall and back.

Dixon Springs State Park

About 25 minutes southeast of Ferne Clyffe is Dixon Springs State Park. While it does have a few hiking trails, we stopped off to use the park’s picnic facilities.

The almost 800-acre site sits on a rock face and was used as a health spa in the 19th century because of the seven mineral springs onsite. The remnants of a small community remain, including at least two old church buildings perched atop a hill.

We ate lunch at a picnic table right next to a beautiful stream, and spent some time exploring the immediate area and soaking in the lovely spring air. We crossed a bridge overlooking one of the springs and walked up to the site of the old settlement. Because we had packed our day with destinations, we then moved on to make the most of it.

Golconda

We couldn’t come so close to the Ohio River, just ten miles from Dixon Springs, and not go take a look at it. So we turned left out of the park onto Illinois Route 146 and drove into Golconda, a historic river town with a population of 2,000.

Main Street was absolutely lined with motorcycles that day. We kept going and parked near the Pope County Historical Society, across from the courthouse, and proceeded up the levee steps to peek at the mighty Ohio River.

The Pope County Historical Society was also well worth a visit. Rooms upon rooms tell the story of Golconda and the surrounding area. You can see varied collections exhibiting Golconda’s history, learn about the Trail of Tears, and spy the high water mark from the 1937 flood.

One other notable stop for us was The Chocolate Factory, a gourmet chocolate shop that opened in 1977 and is located across from Dixon Springs State Park. We made sure to stop in and pick up some homemade fudge as we headed westward once again.

Heron Pond Natural Area

To cap off our day of wandering, we headed to Heron Pond Natural Area to see some natural cypress swamp. A lot of people probably don’t realize that southern Illinois has such a gem – it was definitely my first time hiking through a habitat like that.

Heron Pond is located less than 15 minutes south of Vienna. The parking lot was rather remote, and then it was a good half mile at least before reaching the boardwalk that enters the swamp. We followed a dirt path (the Todd Fink Heron Pond Trail) that bridged a creek and then followed it. Turtles sunning themselves on the opposite bank plunged into the water as we walked by.

If Ferne Clyffe felt surreal, this place was even more so. The ground and cypress roots were completely covered in water, which was in turn carpeted with duckweed. Centuries-old cypress trees rose out of the water and towered upward, competing for sky and sunlight exposure. It was the kind of place someone could get lost in time just experiencing the silence.

This year, we hope to complete another similar day trip, picking out places we haven’t been and enjoying the arrival of spring. I encourage you to get out, wherever you are, and do the same.

Know Before You Go

Ferne Clyffe State Park

90 Goreville Rd, Goreville, IL 62939

Dixon Springs State Park

982 IL-146, Golconda, IL 62938

Pope County Historical Museum

112 N. Columbus, Golconda, IL 62938

The Chocolate Factory

990 IL-146, Golconda, IL 62938

Heron Pond Natural Area

Heron Pond Ln, Belknap, IL 62908

 

 

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