One of my adventure bucket list items had been to visit the tallest free-flowing waterfall in the state of Illinois. We managed to check off that item recently by hiking to Cedar Falls and Phantom Canyon, both located on the Camp Ondessonk property.
Camp Ondessonk is the site of a Catholic summer camp in far southern Illinois. When summer camp is not in session, this private property is open to the public for hiking with permission. There are 25 miles of marked trails bordering Shawnee National Forest. This camp is an amazing and beautiful place to explore. Here is all you need to know about the two trails we hiked, Cedar Falls and Phantom Canyon.
Things to Know to Visit
Public Access Days
The camp is typically open to the public from mid-August through mid-May. In 2022, the camp will close to the public on May 23rd to prepare for the camp season. Public access will resume on August 13th. They also host other events when the site may be closed to the public. You can check their calendar for events. Calling ahead to confirm access is recommended.
You MUST obtain permission to hike. Do not take advantage of their kindness in allowing public access by trespassing. Please also be sure to practice Leave No Trace principles by packing out anything you bring in. Explore respectfully and responsibly.
If you visit Mon-Fri. from 8:00 – 5:00 p.m., you can check in at the main St. Noel office for permission to hike. (A sign will direct you.) On weekends and some holidays, you check in at the kiosk by the main parking area. All visitors must sign the log book or complete waivers.
While there is no set fee to visit, a donation of $3-$5 per person is recommended. No pets are allowed on camp property.
Parking to hike is limited to the main parking area and one other area off Pakentuck Road (explained below.) Hikers must proceed on foot from the main parking area, camp roads are for campers/employees only. A map of the trails can be found here as well as when you check in.
Like most waterfalls in Illinois, the waterfalls at Camp Ondessonk are weather dependent. Cedar Falls especially is best seen after a good rain.
Camp Ondessonk Phantom Canyon Trail
The Phantom Canyon Trail is a really hidden gem at Ondessonk. While the trail is rugged, it’s not very long and our kids loved it.
- Distance: About 1.75 total for lower canyon including distance from parking area to trailhead
- Difficulty: 4/5. Rugged and rocky
- Scenic Value: 5/5 Stunning bluffs and waterfalls
Reaching the Trailhead
Getting to the trail head does require about a 1/2 mile walk each walk along the park roads. Head straight back on the park road from the main parking area. The road will pass the Trading Post, lake, and other structures. When you reach a junction next to Showerhouse B, turn right. Look for the blue markers and Phantom Canyon trail marker on the right next to some cabins.
The trail right away becomes interesting as it weaves past giant boulders and towering bluffs.
Sometimes it can be tricky to see exactly where the trail is, but you really can’t get lost as the path goes between the bluffs and the road.
After hiking a short distance, you will pass an intersection for the canyon shortcut. Remain on the main trail as it winds closer to the creek.
There are several little pretty cascades in the creek. This is a good spot for kids to splash. While you may think this is the end of the trail, don’t end your hike here.
Off to the right, carefully continue to climb up along the creek next to the bluff. There isn’t a marked trail here and it is more rocky. However, after climbing a very short distance you will reach lovely Crescent Falls.
After admiring Crescent Falls, retrace your steps back down to the lower creek area. You can return the way your came, or cross the creek to hike the upper canyon and do the full blue trail loop which is about 2.5 miles.
We opted to return the way we came, however, when we reached the road we opted to turn right and follow the park road for a little while.
The road lead to a wooden bridge across the creek. We continued to follow the park road is it began to wind uphill. Soon, we came to a large suspension bridge.
We all enjoyed crossing this fun bridge which led us back to the park road on the other side. We followed the road back to the main parking area.
Camp Ondessonk Cedar Falls Trail
- Distance: About .6 miles each way from Pakentuck Road. 3 miles road trip from parking area at main camp.
- Difficulty: 3/5 from Pakentuck Road.
- Scenic Value: 5/5 View the tallest waterfall in Illinois
Cedar Falls is located in an area also known as Pakentuck. There are several ways to hike the Cedar Falls Trail which is marked in red. You can hike from the main parking area for a 3 mile round trip. This include walking along the camp road from the parking area to the trailhead for the red trail.
Reaching the Trailhead
We decided on the shorter and more direct option to the waterfall. After checking in at the camp, head back out on the camp road and turn right on Ozark Road. When Ozark Road makes a sharp turn to the left, take the road on the right which is Pakentuck Road. Continue down Pakentuck until you reach a gate. Park in the area off to the side.
Looking to the left, you will see a narrow path by the No Tresspassing sign. This is the shortest route to the falls. The path crosses through the woods and across what appears to be a new trail or old road. Continue straight and soon you will reach the top of the waterfall.
Explore carefully here as it is a long way down. Keep back from the cliff edges and keep a close eye on children.
If you turn left and head upstream a very short distance, you can view a smaller and lovely waterfall that cascades over an old dam.
The red trail can be a little confusing in this area as it seems to lead in all directions. You can carefully cross over the stream near the smaller falls for a nice view of the waterfall from above on the other side. Again, use extreme caution here.
You can continue along the red trail here heading east. It will eventually make a u-turn and descend down the bluffs towards the creek. However, we stayed on the west side of the creek (same side as the road) for the shorter route to the lower falls.
Returning to where the trail from the road reached near the upper falls, look for a red trail marker and arrow that says “Lower Falls”. This path heads south along the west side of the creek and waterfall to make a moderate descent to the bottom of the bluffs.
The trail stays pretty far back from the bluff edges. There is only one slightly dicey spot with a canyon along the edge of the trail.
As the trail descends, it will reach a 3 way junction. Turn left here to continue to the lower part of the waterfall.
The waterfall is quite an impressive sight to see from the bottom.
If you head to the left, you can cross behind some large boulders to explore the shelter cave behind the waterfall.
Waterfalls you can walk behind are always a special treat!
When you are finished exploring, retrace your steps back up the bluff and back to your car unless you wish to connect to other hiking trails.
- The camp is located at 3760 Ondessonk Rd. Ozark, IL 62972.
- Their phone number is (618) 695-2489
- Other hikes in the area include Bell Smith Springs, Burden Falls, and Jackson Falls.
We can’t wait to visit Camp Ondessonk again and explore even more of their beautiful trail system. Have you ever visited here?