Day Trip,  Hikes,  Hiking,  Illinois,  Kids

Ferne Clyffe State Park – A Secret Oasis in Southern Illinois

Many people think of Illinois as “flyover country.” They believe the state is nothing but flat and boring farm fields as far as the eye can see. While much of the state is geographically monotonous, far southern Illinois is drastically different. This rugged area is known as the Illinois Ozarks. Rising bluffs, trickling waterfalls, and jagged rocks create a lush and varied landscape worthy of exploration.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

Tucked away near the bottom of the state, Ferne Clyffe State Park has been inspiring visitors for almost a century. In 1923 a tourism group even labeled the park the most beautiful spot in Illinois. The abundance of ferns and towering rock cliffs led to the park’s name. Trails wind through picturesque woods, dense vegetation, and interesting rock formations. Camping, hiking, rock climbing, and fishing are all popular activities.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

Ferne Clyffe State Park Hiking Trails

Eighteen different trails meander through the park, which is separated into three sections. There are hikes for every skill level and distance. The most popular and easiest hike in the park is the Big Rocky Hollow Trail. A flat and wide path leads to one of the best waterfall views in all of southern Illinois.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

Ferne Clyffe Big Rocky Hollow Trail

  • Length: 0.75 miles round trip
  • Difficulty: 1.5 out of 5. Short, flat, and wide path. You can take a stroller on this one. There are a couple of minor drainage crossings which could involve wet feet if the water is flowing high enough. There are some stepping stones to carefully cross.
  • Scenic Value: 5 out of 5. It takes a good rain for this waterfall to flow well, but when it does it is a sight to behold. Even when the waterfall isn’t flowing, this is a beautiful hike the whole distance.
  • Things to know: The parking area at this trail is small. This is the most popular trail and can get busy. There is a vault toilet nearby. Use caution in the area, the rocks are super slick.
  • It takes a lot of rain for the waterfall to flow as shown here. Try to time your visit right after a good rain of an inch or more in Goreville or Lake of Egypt. I like this site for knowing rainfall totals over the past 24-72 hour periods.

The trail starts at the right edge of the circle drive. The wide path follows allong a trickling stream. Beautiful bluffs rise over both sides of the trail. Dense vegetation and a variety of plant species give this hike a wild feel. You may have to remind yourself that you are really in Illinois.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

After passing over a couple shallow water crossings, a bridge comes into view. If you are here after a good rain, you will see and hear the roar of the waterfall as it tumbles from 100 feet above.

Ferne Clyffe State Park
Ferne Clyffe State Park

You can easily climb down close to feel the spray and splash in the water. Use caution as the wet rocks are super slick. The water just under the waterfall is also deeper due to erosion.

Can hiking get any better than views like this?

Ferne Clyffe State Park

Another waterfall may be in view off to the right of the main falls. The whole park is waterfall city after a good rain.

After taking in your fill of the falls, return to the parking area and cross the concrete stepping stones over the creek on the other side of the road to find two other short and easy hikes. The Hawk’s Cave Trail heads off to the left while the Rebman Trail splits off to the right.

Ferne Clyffe Rebman Trail

  • Length: 0.5 miles round trip
  • Difficulty: 2 out of 5. Short, flat, and wide path. Two water crossings that could involve wet feet if that is a lot of rain. Can be muddy in areas.
  • Scenic Value: 5 out of 5. Multiple waterfalls after a good rain. Scenic cliffs and rocks any time.
  • Things to know: Shares same parking area as Big Rocky Hollow. The parking area at this trail is small. There is a vault toilet nearby.

The Rebman Trail also starts down a wide flat path. It passes lush vegetation and towering boulders.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

After a recent rain, two waterfalls quickly come into view.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

Depending on the rain and water levels, the pool may be more green or a deep turquoise color.

Ferne Clyffe State Park
Ferne Clyffe State Park

Another waterfall is tucked off to the left but is harder to photograph due to large boulders in the way.

Cross the creek here carefully and take in the view of the waterfall on the right from the other side.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

The trail from here winds between more towering bluffs and rocks.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

Some of these rocks may have dislodged during the mighty New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 which were centered nearby.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

You will complete the loop by passing a final rock shelter and crossing the shallow creek one more time.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

Ferne Clyffe Hawk’s Cave Trail

  • Length: 0.8 miles round trip
  • Difficulty: 2 out of 5. Minor elevation gain. Mostly wide and easy.
  • Scenic Value: 5 out of 5. Trail passes two shelter bluff caves. One of them is huge. A few wet weather waterfalls trickle down the bluffs after a heavy rain.
  • Things to know: Shares same parking area as Big Rocky Hollow. The parking area at this trail is small. There is a vault toilet nearby.

The Hawk’s Cave Trail also starts on the other side of the stream from the parking area. It splits off to the left while the Rebman Trail goes right. From here is heads up a mild incline and then forms a loop. You can go either direction. We tend to head right to make the small uphill climb first.

You quickly reach the first shelter cave. The trail follows right along the edge of the cave. During wet weather, a waterfall splashed down from the top of the cave and you can walk behind it.

Just a short distance further, the Hawk’s Cave comes into view. This cave is huge and there is a lot too see and explore.

Ferne Clyffe State Park
Ferne Clyffe State Park
Ferne Clyffe State Park

Another wet weather falls may be trickling from above. From here, the trail continues the loop and crosses a pretty stream on a wooden bridge. Finish the loop and return to the parking area.

If you are up for more of an adventure, there is another amazing waterfall tucked away in a different section of the park. This one take a little more work to get to as you have to drive across the top of the falls first!

Ferne Clyffe Bork’s Waterfall

  • Length: 1/4 mile or less if you take the direct way down. About 1.5 miles roundtrip if you take the full trail.
  • Difficulty: 3.5 out of 5. The shortcut trail is steep and can be slick in areas. The main trail is easier but longer.
  • Scenic Value: 5 out of 5. Bork’s Falls has a larger drainage area so it flows more consistently. It is a beautiful spot.
  • Things to know: No restrooms. Getting to the trailhead is tricky and there is only room for 2-3 cars here. It’s much less busy than the other waterfalls in the main part of the park.
Ferne Clyffe State Park

Bork’s Waterfall is located about a mile down the gravel surface of Regent Lane off of Goreville Road. No signs lead the way and phone signal may be spotty so best to have a map. The road condition is generally suitable for passenger cars, but it can have washouts which could make the road condition unsuitable.

You will know the spot of the waterfall when you get to it as there is a rough section of exposed rock to drive across. You want some water to be flowing here to have a waterfall but not to much in order to drive across safely. Do not attempt to cross if the water is high. It’s best in a higher clearance vehicle but we have done it several times in a sedan or minivan.

After crossing over the falls, there is a small parking area immediately on your left. Look to your left towards the waterfall and you should see a path that cuts down directly to the waterfall. It can be a little muddy and slick but our kids have done it without an issue and this is the route we usually take. You can also instead follow the wider official trail down the old road along the bluff until it comes to a gas pipeline. Turn left and follow the pipeline for a few hundred feet. Right before the creek you’ll see an unmarked trail on your left. Follow the trail back to the waterfall. This route is easier but longer and may be more overgrown.

Either way you take, Bork’s Falls is worth the extra work it takes to get here. The falls split into two streams as they plunge into a turquoise blue pool.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

Sometimes the water level is high enough for the two falls to become almost one.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

Fall is a beautiful time to visit as well with the contrast of the water against the yellow and orange leaves.

Ferne Clyffe Lake Trail

  • Length: 1 mile loop
  • Difficulty: 2 out of 5. Flat around the lake. Can be muddy
  • Scenic Value: 4 out of 5. Nice view of the lake, stunning in fall.
  • Things to know: The is a parking lot right next to the lake. Can start the hike on either end of the dam. Popular area for fishing.
Ferne Clyffe State Park
Ferne Clyffe State Park

The lake trail is a nice and easy path the circles the lake. It is especially scenic in fall. No route finding required as the path stays along the lakeshore and crosses over the dam.

Ferne Clyffe State Park
Ferne Clyffe State Park

Ferne Clyffe Blackjack Oak Trail

  • Length: 0.8 mile each way, out and back
  • Difficulty: 3 out of 5. A couple steep sections climbing up the bluffs
  • Scenic Value: 4 out of 5. Nice view of the lake, stunning in fall.
  • Things to know: This trail has some bluff overlooks and drop-offs. Use caution with children and pets.

Blackjack Oak Trail is a less popular trail in the park, but it is a nice one. This trail is an out and back and you can start on either end. One trailhead is located across from the parking lot by the lake. The trail will climb steeply and quickly to the top of the bluffs on this route.

We opted to start from the other end. This trailhead is located next to the playground near the Big Rocky Hollow/Rebman/Hawks Cave trailheads. There is a large parking area here on the right before you would reach the end of the road. A wooden sign is located at the trail start.

The path starts up wooden steps and switchbacks up the hill. It can be hard to find the trail at times, but just keep heading up and to the right. The AllTrails app can also be helpful for staying on track.

At one point along the way you will past a side trail leading left. This leads to the campground. Stay straight to remain on the trail.

Soon you will reach the first of several overlooks. Use caution on the bluffs and stay back from the edges. This view is especially great in fall.

More overlooks further along reveal views of the lake. There is a bench near one of the overlooks if you need to take a break. After taking in the overlook views, retrace your steps back down to where you started or continue down to the lake and walk along the road back to the parking area and playground.

Round Bluff Nature Preserve

The Round Bluff trail is a 1 mile loop. We keep forgetting to hike this trail, but from photos it looks great! The trail passes rock formations and rare plants. This is a nature preserve area so please stay on the trail.

Just after driving past the dam, turn left to find the trailhead for this hike.

Other Ferne Clyffe Trails

These trails are our favorites at the park, but there are so many we have yet to hike them all. In fact, the park lists 18 different trails! No matter which trails you visit, be sure to add Ferne Clyffe to your list of parks to see in Illinois. One visit and you may agree that this is most beautiful spot in Illinois.

Other Things to do at Ferne Clyffe

The park has both Class A, Class C, and Class D campground sites as well as campsites for equestrians and youth groups. Some campsites can be reserved online.

A paved bicycle trail connects the park to the nearby town of Goreville. Goreville also has gas stations and a few restaurants including pizza, Mexican food, and a Subway.

There are picnic areas and pavilions scattered throughout the park. Fishing and hunting are allowed per regulations and seasons.

Things to Know Before You Go

  • Illinois State Parks never seem to post operating hours. We have visited around 7 or 8 a.m. and the park was always open. During icy conditions, some of the park roads may be closed.
  • A park map can be found HERE and a list of trails HERE.
  • There are vault toilets located throughout the park.
  • Other areas to explore nearby include Giant City State Park, Panther Den Wilderness. You can view all of out favorite Shawnee Forest spots on this post.

Happy Hiking!

Ferne Clyffe State Park


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