Piney Creek Ravine Nature Preserve is a bit of a secret hike. Visit this spot even on a summer weekend and you may still have the whole trail to yourself. So many don’t realize this dramatic and historic spot exists tucked deep in the farm fields of southern Illinois.
Not only does the preserve feature dramatic canyons and trickling creeks, but the main claim to fame here is the biggest display of prehistoric petroglyphs and pictographs in Illinois. You can view these impressive vistas in the cool comfort of the shade provided by groves of shortleaf pines. Piney Creek is one of only two places these towering evergreens can be found in the state.
Piney Creek Ravine
- Length: 2.25 mile loop
- Difficulty: 3.5 out of 5. Several elevation changes up and down the bluffs. Several areas can be muddy. Creek crossings are extremely slick, use caution. Several stream crossings could involve wet feet if the water is flowing high.
- Scenic Value: 4 out of 5. Portions of the hike are average forest views, but the bluffs, canyons, and creek are impressive. The prehistoric rock art is not to be missed.
- Things to know: Site is open sunrise to sunset. No restrooms at trailhead. Leashed dogs allowed. No collecting of artifacts, carving, or otherwise defacing the rock art.
- Address: 2248 Piney Creek Rd, Ava, IL
Driving to the trailhead through the rural countryside, you may wonder if you are in the wrong spot. Even once you start the hike from the small parking lot, the path starts off with ho hum scenery between two farm pastures.
Stick with it and the trail gets better. You will come across the sign board for the trail. Head right into the trees and cross a small bridge.
Soon the trail comes to the first creek crossing. While the water level here is normally low, the rocks are extremely slick at all times. Use caution making your way across the rocks.
Not long after the creek crossing, the split for the loop portion of the hike appears. You can go either direction, but we like to go left and hike clockwise in order to reach the main part of the creek and the rock art first. This creek crossing is the one that will be the deepest so we like to see first if we will be able to cross it if there has been heavy rains recently.
The trail will descend towards the creek. Off to your left you may hear the sounds of a tall waterfall plunging off a cliff edge. A sign warns of getting too close to look at the waterfall as the edge is steep, slick, and the site of several falls over the edge.
The trail follows along the edge of the bluff as it descends to the main part of the creek.
When you reach the creek area you may see a side trail off to the right. That is an unofficial trail that follows the creek and leads to a small waterfall. The marked trail crosses straight across the creek here. The rocks are not quite as slick here, but the creek can be ankle deep or more. When crossing, look for the sign on the other side of the creek marking the trail.
Before continuing on the trail on the other side, be sure to explore the creek area here. Off to your left, a dramatic bluff and overhang extend over the creek. You may see a couple of wet weather waterfalls in this area as well by looking back near the trail you just descended.
Taking in the view of the dramatic canyon here might give you another one of those “Am I really in Illinois?” moments.
After exploring the bluff overhang and creek, return back to the main trail at the creek crossing. After climbing the bank, you soon come to a fork. Off to the right is the spur trail to the rock art. Here a short trail leads past an enchanting display of prehistoric rock art and carvings.
A sign board helps explain the history and meaning of the symbols.
Sadly, people have vandalized the rock art over the years and much of it is difficult to see.
Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, this was a popular spot for people to add their own names and carvings into the rock. While those carvings would now be considered historic as well, it’s sometimes difficult to determine which carvings are ancient and which are from more recent history.
After observing the petroglyphs, retrace your steps back to the fork and continue on the main trail. The path meanders between the bluffs on one side and the creek on the other side.
Eventually the trail curves right away from the creek and makes a moderate climb uphill. Soon you will be on top of the bluffs and hiking upstream and parallel to the creek below. The trail stays far back from the edge so no dramatic views or fall dangers. The main thing to watch for here is poison ivy as the path is more narrow and slightly overgrown in a few spots.
The trail then starts to wind back down the bluffs to creek level again. The trail will cross across a large and flat area of exposed rock. Cross carefully as the rock can be slippery. The trail is a little hard to see here on the other side, but it continues up the hill and to the right on the opposite side of the creek.
Don’t cross too quickly as the creek is a beautiful spot to explore in this area. Small waterfalls and cascades tumble through the smooth rock.
This is also a fun spot for kids to splash and play. While none of the rocks have high drop offs, this area is super slick so use extreme caution. Tread very carefully while enjoying the views.
Once you cross the creek and climb back up the hill, head to the left to see the most impressive waterfall at Piney Creek.
Follow the trail a short distance and you should hear the water rushing over a sandstone ledge. After exploring this spot, retrace your steps to continue finishing the loop portion of the trail.
The trail wanders back through the forest to complete the loop. Retrace your steps back to the trailhead and marvel at the wonders you have seen in this secret ravine.