Best Hiking Trails in Southern Illinois
Are you looking for hiking trails in southern Illinois?
Well, you’re in luck.
Between the Shawnee National Forest, multiple state parks and preserves, and the nearly 160 miles of River to River Trail, there are more hiking trails in southern Illinois than you can handle.
You’ll have plenty of weekend adventures if you’re from southern Illinois.
If you’re not from southern Illinois, you’ll have an excuse to come back and visit us.
So let’s get to the good part and see the best hiking trails in southern Illinois!
Best Hiking Trails in Southern Illinois in the Western Region
These southern Illinois hiking trails are located closer to Carbondale and St. Louis.
Little Grand Canyon
This moderately difficult loop hike deserves its spot on the best hiking trails in southern Illinois because of its uniqueness.
The loop is a couple of miles in length. There are scenic overlooks, waterfalls, and a lot of bluffage (that’s what I call bluffs, catchy, isn’t it?).
This hike requires you to hike down a waterfall cascade. It can be hazardous when wet. This is best for adventurers who like harder trails.
This might be one of the most unique roads in the world. Twice a year, snakes and other wildlife migrate across the road in the spring and fall.
The road is 2.5 miles from gate to gate. During the migration, only foot traffic is allowed. You’ll see more snakes on this road than anywhere else in the region.
Venomous snakes are present. Watch your step and use caution. Handling, touching, or collection is strictly prohibited.
Piney Creek Ravine
This hidden gem has more Native American petroglyphs than anywhere else in the state. This is because the area was once used by a very ancient Native American period.
This is a loop trail of just a few miles. Aside from rock art, there are overlooks, bluffs, and scenic creeks. Note that the rock art has security cameras watching it.
A creek crossing is required if the area has had a lot of rain. There are a lot of waterfalls during wetter times. Please use caution around wet and steep areas.
Cedar Lake has all sorts of opportunities for adventurers! You can hike a short or long trail. You can mountain bike. You can even kayak the lake.
Some of the best trails to check out are Cove Hollow, Cedar Lake Trail, Lirley Trail, and Wolfden Hollow. Most trails are out and back, but there are some loops.
There are all kinds of bluffs, waterfalls, scenic views of the lake, and more to see and do at Cedar Lake. The lake is close to Carbondale/SIU.
Pomona Natural Bridge
Pomona Natural Bridge is one of the easiest hiking trails in southern Illinois. The loop trail is less than an eighth of a mile.
It features a large natural bridge and waterfalls when the area is wet. There is a nice hiking trail that allows you to walk across the bridge and even go under it.
Please be careful around the edges of the bridge and cliffs. During wet conditions, the area will be even more slippery than when dry.
Giant City State Park
Giant City State Park has multiple trails for all types of users. There is an ADA-compliant trail for disabled users. In addition, there are easy to moderately difficult trails. There’s even a 12-mile backpacking loop trail with a primitive campground in the middle.
Giant City has waterfalls, bluffs, picnic shelters, a dining lodge, a campground, cabins, and even designated rock climbing areas.
Giant City State Park always has fun events going on, too.
Panther Den Wilderness
Panther Den is the smallest wilderness area of the Shawnee National Forest. There is a nice loop trail under five miles that you should hike.
There is a lot to see on the trail. You’ll see waterfalls when the area is wet. There are scenic creeks. There are bluffs and cave-like areas you can hike through.
There are no panthers! There are no bears! There might be a Bigfoot… But it is a wilderness, and safety and caution should be priority when hiking through it.
Best Hiking Trails in Southern Illinois in the Central Region
Let’s look at some of the best hiking trails in southern Illinois in the middle of the region.
Rocky Bluff Trail
Rocky Bluff Trail is a short loop trail in Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. During wetter seasons, there are nice waterfalls along this trail.
Aside from waterfalls, plenty of bluffs and natural shelters, scenic views of the creeks around the area, and other hiking opportunities.
You do need a vehicle pass to park at the trailhead. You can get those at the Visitor Center. Please use caution around the edges of bluffs and wet areas.
Ferne Clyffe State Park
Ferne Clyffe State Park has miles and miles of hiking trails. There are trails for everyone, from easy hiking to thru-hiking activities.
There is a lot to see at the park. It has some of the best scenic overlooks and waterfalls in the area. There is camping, horse trails, and even a lake.
Please use caution if accessing the area when wet. The park is known to close its roads during snow and ice events.
Heron Pond Preserve
Heron Pond Preserve gives you a glimpse of what southern Illinois looked like. It’s a swamp and wetlands area.
This easy hiking trail is under two miles. It features a boardwalk in the middle of a swamp, a state-champion oak tree, and more.
This is a swamp, so bugs are a little worse here. There are also snakes, and some are venomous. Put safety first and watch your step when visiting.
Camp Ondessonk has one of the tallest waterfalls in the state of Illinois. It’s called Cedar Falls, and there is a trail leading to it and other great hiking areas.
Camp Ondessonk is private property. You’ll need to get permission to access it before you visit. During the non-camping season, they encourage visitors who gain permission.
Be safe when visiting Camp Ondessonk, and always watch your step. Some dangerous areas are on the edge of the top of waterfalls.
Tunnel Hill State Trail
Tunnel Hill State Trail is a 50+ mile rail trail that stretches through the middle of southern Illinois. You can hike it, run it, or bike it.
The best portions of the trail are around Karnak, Vienna, and Tunnel Hill. You can hike/bike through a long tunnel and several old railroad trestles.
If cycling, consider wearing a helmet for your safety. Please share the trail at all times. Be careful around the trestles. Stay in the middle of the tunnel if you feel dizzy.
Bell Smith Springs
Bell Smith Springs looks like it shouldn’t even be a part of Illinois. There are multiple trails and swimming holes in this area. It’s really popular during the summer!
You’ll see natural springs, iconic rock formations, the largest natural arch in Illinois, and scenic creeks throughout this area.
Bell Smith Springs is a wild place. Please practice safety and always watch your step. Please help keep the area clean by packing out what you pack in.
Sand Cave is a hidden gem of hiking trails in southern Illinois. It is a short out-and-back hike that features the deepest natural cave shelter you’ll see in the area.
Sand Cave is also very historic. It was a runaway slave resupply route during the Underground Railroad. There are quite a few Underground Railroad sites in the area.
Sand Cave is for foot traffic only. Off-road vehicles are prohibited from being on the trail. A horse Highline is provided for riders in the area.
Jackson Falls has something for everyone. There are hiking trails, waterfalls, horseback riding, and camping spots, and it’s a rock-climbing mecca.
The Jackson Falls hiking trail consists of a few miles. This moderately rugged trail requires climbing down a steeper rocky area.
Please use caution when in this area. Backboards and a helipad are available for climbers and hikers who become injured from falls.
Burden Falls has one of the best waterfalls in southern Illinois. It’s easy to view the waterfalls without too much hiking.
You can view the top waterfalls without leaving the parking lot. You can see the main waterfall better if you venture down into the canyon.
People have died here. There are fatalities and injuries at this location every year. Please put safety first and do not go past the safety barriers.
Millstone Bluff is one of the most historic hiking trails in southern Illinois. It is a short loop under a few miles in length.
Along this trail, you’ll see Native American culture. Features include petroglyphs, a Stonefort, a Native American cemetery, and depressions where their dwellings once were.
There is also an area where rock was quarried to create millstones. A millstone is located by the information sign. Please put safety first when visiting this area.
Best Hiking Trails in Southern Illinois in the Eastern Region
The hiking trails in southern Illinois on the region’s east side are some of the best trails in the Midwest.
Old Stoneface is an area located near Harrisburg, Illinois. This trail is a few miles out and back. It features a rock that looks like a head and face.
There are also amazing waterfalls and bluffs in this area. If you hike past the Stoneface, you’ll come up to one of the best scenic overlooks in the region.
Please be careful around the edges of bluffs in this area. During wet conditions, the rocks can be slippery. Always watch your step.
Garden of the Gods
If you’ve never seen Garden of the Gods, you’re missing out on one of the best hiking trails in southern Illinois.
This easy loop trail is less than a mile in length. It features some of the best rock formations that southern Illinois offers, including Camel Rock.
People fall here every year. At least one person dies. This is an area you should visit, but it’s where you should put safety first while visiting.
Rim Rock and Pounds Hollow
Rim Rock National Recreation Trail is an amazing hike with a lot to see. It’s next to Pounds Hollow, which also features a beach and camping.
This hiking trail has bluffs, amazing rock formations, natural shelters, running springs, maze-like areas, and even a Native American Stonefort.
Please use caution when hiking in this area, especially around the edges of cliffs. There are no lifeguards on duty at the beach.
Cave-in-Rock State Park
Cave-in-Rock is one of the best hiking trails in southern Illinois that you must visit. Try to visit when the Ohio River is below flood stage or the trail may be underwater.
This short trail features a large cave shelter next to the Ohio River. River pirates, murderers, and bandits once used this cave shelter.
If the river is flooded, the only way into the shelter will be by kayak or small boat. Please use caution around the edges and cliffs and the Ohio River.
The Iron Furnace is a picnic spot. There are no real trails, but the area is still worth visiting at least once or twice, pending the season.
The site features a reconstructed iron furnace that was once a popular trade in the area. There are plenty of spots for a picnic or BBQ.
Across the road is a creek people like to swim and wade in. There are no lifeguards here, so please use caution when swimming.
These have been some of the best hiking trails in southern Illinois. There are over 400 miles of hiking trails in the Shawnee National Forest alone. There are a lot greater trails to visit. If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others. Be sure to subscribe to my free newsletter for more guides like this one.
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Founder, Hiking with Shawn
Howdy folks! My name is Shawn Gossman and I founded Hiking with Shawn. I’m an avid hiker, cyclist and outdoorsman here in the Shawnee National Forest. I was born and raised in Southern Illinois and never want to leave. Click here to learn more about Shawn Gossman