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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!

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.

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. You will know the spot 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.

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.

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

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

These trails are our favorites at the park, but there are so many we have yet to hike them all. 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.

Happy Hiking!


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