Tag Archives: state park

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.


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




Castlewood State Park: A Photo Tour of Lone Wolf and River Scene Trails

Recently my husband and I went exploring at a local state park near where we live. Castlewood State Park, which sits nestled in a bend of the Meramec River, is a mere 15 minutes from our front step. I had been to the north section of the park once before, this spring, but at the time it had been far too muddy to hit any unpaved trails. This time was different.

The weather was set to be beautiful. Mid 70s, a little breeze, sunny, and most importantly, dry. I made sure to do my research before we left, because on my previous trip I had glimpsed how popular Castlewood is, and how crowded the parking lots can be. I wanted to make sure we knew exactly where we were going and which of the many trails we would  explore.

Our choice for this trip was Lone Wolf Trail.We didn’t know much about the trail, except it was a manageable couple of hours and had some pretty great views of the Meramec. When we found the right parking lot and made our way to the trail head, it looked pretty nondescript. However, as we stepped onto the trail and looked ahead, our necks craned, following the path upward.

The 1.5 loop began with a straight uphill climb on a gravel path.

Start of Lone Wolf Trail

Since we had already made up our minds to do the trail, there was nowhere to go but onward and upward. From that section alone, we can both heartily recommend wearing good tennis shoes or hiking shoes. Thankfully, we both were, otherwise some of the loose bits of gravel could have been problematic.

We couldn’t see what lay beyond the fortress-like hill until we nearly crested it. However, the view on the other side was entirely worth the climb.

Meramec River Bluff View

Our eyes were treated to the sight of the Meramec River, lazily flowing around a bend and into the trees. The sky was crisp, clear blue that crowned the forested bluffs and valley below. What a beautiful view. The photo above shows one of the first rocky outcrops we came across with such a view; it was just one of many along this section of trail.

Meramec River Bluff View

After the initial cardiac climb, the trail almost completely leveled out, simply tracing a path through the trees and hugging the bluffs. We imagined it might be a little crowded, but on that part of the trail, we were almost always within sight of people. Many others had apparently also thought it was a nice day for a hike.We came across other couples, both young and old, groups of friends, parents with small children. Nearly everyone was out to enjoy the day.

The River Valley from the Bluffs

When the sweeping vistas weren’t capturing my attention, I kept noticing other interesting, smaller scale sights along the trail. For instance, the neat ground cover pictured below. It seemed to love the shade provided by the towering trees. I wish I knew the name of it. At any rate, I couldn’t help but stoop and take a few closeups for future reference.

Ground Cover along Lone Wolf Trail

Along the trail, I also noticed a variety of wildflowers. I’m not sure my husband would have appreciated me stopping and photographing every one, but I did get one nonblurry shot of a pretty purple flower that popped up occasionally along the path.

Wildflowers along Lone Wolf Trail

Nathan Standing on Bluff

We hadn’t been hiking long when we noticed something funny about the view below us. If you peered over the edge, you could clearly see train tracks, running right through the state park. It’s not something I had seen before in other parks I’ve visited.

The Bluff, The Railroad, and the River

One time when we looked down, we saw a band of hikers following the tracks. Perhaps they were lost? We weren’t quite sure.

Nathan Standing on a Bluff

But, as you can see, I could not get enough of the views. Lone Wolf Trail solidly delivered on that point.

Nathan Standing on a Bluff

In the photo below, you can kind of see what appears to be a shallow cave in the side of the cliff. It’s the kind of scene that sparks my imagination.

View Down Meramec River Valley

After awhile of hiking along the bluff, we came upon a boardwalk that began a slight descent. Again, there were several places where hikers could pause and stare out at the valley, pondering the beauty and nature around them. It reminded me of some state parks in northern Illinois (namely, Starved Rock State Park and Castle Rock State Park state parks) that have similar boardwalk and bluff views.

The Boardwalk Begins

The wooden stairs also acted as a funnel. Hikers that had previously been (rather purposefully) walking a ways a part to give each group some privacy now had no choice but to enter the fray together. Soon, hikers going downward as we were all but disappeared. Instead, we kept coming across groups of hikers coming up. As you can see below, there wasn’t much room for two to walk abreast down the stairs. But they were solidly built.

Descending To the Floodplain

The Stairs Toward River Scene Trail

About halfway down, I was looking to my right and saw a few overgrown sets of concrete steps. Who knows when those were constructed, or when they ceased being used. A lot of history surrounds Castlewood as far as its prior use as a summer retreat and party haven (there’s even a website dedicated to sharing stories from that era of the park’s history).

Old Stone Stairs

As the stairs continued a sharp descent, it was clear that we were soon going to be on the floodplain, right next to the Meramec.

Heading Down into the Forest

However, we didn’t know we would go through a tunnel under the railroad tracks. Since the trail passes right through there, it’s probably how other hikers we’d seen from the bluffs had made their way to walking along the tracks themselves.The railroad is actively used, however, so I wouldn’t recommend following in their steps. We heard or saw at least two trains go through as we were hiking ourselves.

Tunnel Under the Railroad

Crossing under to the other side of the tracks was like entering a lost world. Here, the trees and their spread canopies dwarfed the trees growing on the rocky cliffs now a hundred feet above us. Some had trunks so thick, one could only imagine they might be a hundred or more years old.

The River Scene Trail
Trees and the Trail

Old Tree Trunk

The trail here was composed of fine-grain dirt. There wasn’t a single trail, but rather a constantly undulating network of wider and narrower paths. As soon as a few bicyclists passed by us, it was clear the multiple paths probably formed from both hikers and bicyclists trying to navigate around each other.

Also at this point, we started wondering if we were still on Lone Wolf Trail. Luckily, my phone had fairly good signal, so I quickly searched for an answer. We had, in fact, deviated from our original plan somehow and gone off onto River Scene Trail, an aptly named path that thankfully headed in the general direction of our parked car. Getting ourselves back to Lone Wolf Trail would have required ascending the dizzying flight of stairs, so we just kept going.

View of the Meramec from the Trail

As Lone Wolf had hugged the bluffs, so did River Scene hug tightly to the Meramec. We could often see clearly through the undergrowth and catch glimpses of various sandbars, embankments, and other curiosities at the river’s edge. I’m not sure how the river is for fishing, but a few years ago I went on a float trip down a section of it on a large raft (courtesy of Riverview Rafting). Although Castlewood is no longer used as a resort area, recreational use of the river lives on.

Crossing Under the Railroad Again

After around an hour and a half of hiking, we emerged from the woods along the floodplain. The trail didn’t quite end at our car, so we continued hiking along the road, back under the railroad (albeit at a less tunnel-like pass). The path before us was very clearly etched in the dirt. It reminded me of a rather unceremonious Yellow Brick Road.

Path Back to the Car

But lead us right back to our car it did, and so concluded our first major Castlewood hike. According to the park’s website and several area maps, it’s clear we’ve only scratched the surface of what the park has to offer. There are all kinds of trails, through woods, up steep slopes, overlooking the valley, and venturing into the valley itself.

We will definitely be back soon.

Tired and Happy Hikers

Know Before You Go

Address: 1401 Kiefer Creek Rd, Ballwin, MO 63021

Hours: 7 a.m. to one-half hour after sunset, year-round (park gates open and close at these times).

Facilities: Several shelters, uncovered picnic areas, and restrooms are available.

Trails: For a list of hiking trails and trail descriptions, the Missouri State Park’s website is a good source.

History: Also visit the Missouri State Park’s website for an overview of the park’s history and general information.