Hiking Illinois’s Stemler Cave Woods Preserve
Stemler Cave Woods Nature Preserve is another quiet spot of nature developed in part by Clifftop Alliance. This non-profit was developed to help promote the conservation, preservation, and protection of the Mississippi River bluffs corridor in Monroe, Randolph and St. Clair Counties of Illinois. We have explored several of the other preserves Clifftop supports such as White Rock and Salt Lick Point.
As the largest dedicated Illinois nature preserve in St. Clair County, Stemler Cave Woods contains 20 acres of oak-hickory forest and 75 acres of restored prairie. This rare old growth forest remnant is set in the sinkhole plain between Millstadt and Columbia. While the preserve does not contain any access to Stemler Cave itself, it helps preserve the sinkholes and watershed that feed into the cave system.
Stemler Cave Woods Hiking Trails
Stemler Cave Woods contains three different loop options, all part of the Homer F. Stemler Memorial Walking Trail. The shortest option is a 1.3 mile interpretive loop using the shortcut connector. The most popular trail is the full 1.7 mile long interpretive loop. The longest trail option is the buffer trail which makes a 2.4 mile loop trail. All three trails start and end along the same segment before branching off separately.
Route finding can be a little confusing as most intersections are not marked and there are additional side trails not shown on the map. I highly recommend using the AllTrails app or similar for route-finding. It’s not a huge area so you are not likely to get lost, but AllTrails can help avoid a wrong turn. We opted to hike the full interpretive loop, shown in green.
Stemler Cave Woods Interpretive Loop
- Length: 1.7 mile lollipop loop
- Difficulty: 2/5. Mostly flat, beginning trail can be muddy
- Scenic Value: 3/5. A pleasant walk in the woods with views of sinkholes and wildflowers
- Trailhead Address: 2200 Stemler Road, Millstadt, Illinois
Reaching the Trailhead
The trailhead for all three trail options is located at 2200 Stemler Road, about 0.5 miles from the turn off at Triple Lakes Road. A small gravel parking area with room for about four cars is located on the west side of the road right before the road turns hard left by a lake. There are no restrooms or amenities.
A Muddy Start
The first 0.25 mile of the trail is more narrow and can be muddy. We were fortunate to hike during a dry spell and had no issues, but I hear it can become a mess after a good rain. Stick with it as it gets easier!
The path soon passes a kiosk with a map and maybe even a handy walking stick to borrow.
After passing through some spider webs (if you hike early like we do) you will reach the start of the loop. We opted to turn right and hike counter-clockwise. This saves the large sinkhole for the end.
The Loop Portion
The trail is mostly mowed grass or dirt. It appeared well traveled and maintained when we hiked and fairly wide. There are some very minor hills, but for the most part the trail is an easy hike.
Most of the interpretive trail has some nice shade too, perfect for a summer hike.
There are different interpretive signs along the trail that explain about the topography, plant life, and more.
Keep an eye on that AllTrails map and watch out for random side trails to the right. You will also want to keep left when the Buffer Trail splits off to the right. I didn’t see a sign marking this intersection, so again the app was helpful to stay on the right trail.
Shortcut Loop Option
Another trail junction occurs at the connector option near the Prairie interpretive sign. A wide mowed trail to the left is the connector which shortens the loop to 1.3 miles. Keep going straight to stay on the main loop.
The path breaks out of the woods in to the sun for a short distance before entering the deep woods again.
Old Railroad Bed
The path makes a T-intersection where the Buffer Trail comes in from the right to join the main trail. This segment follows an old railroad alignment so the path is extra wide and flat here.
Turn left to stay on the loop or you can turn right on the Buffer Trail and travel a short distance to see a large pond. We made this extra little trek to see the pond before retracing our steps along the railroad bed to continue the interpretive loop.
You may even see some seasonal wildflowers along the sides of the old railroad bed.
The interpretive trail turns left while the Buffer Trail keeps going straight. Keep an eye out for a red sign that says “Out” on a tree at this junction.
After another stretch through the woods, the trail reaches a small open prairie. The trail makes a triangle path around an area of native plants and grasses. You can go either left or right here, but be sure to keep right at the next junction to stay on the main loop where the connecter shortcut path comes in from the left.
The path continues through the woods and makes a left again where the Buffer Trail rejoins from the right. A short distance later, a trail heads right and you can view a large sinkhole just a few steps down this side path.
Use caution here as the trail is eroding away and its a long and steep drop down to the bottom. This sinkhole has a cycle of filling with water and then draining away suddenly. Keep a close eye on kids around this sinkhole, the only real hazard along the hike.
From here, it is only a short distance to complete the loop portion and then the final narrower spur back to the parking area.
Additional Things to Know
- There are no restrooms here.
- Pets are not allowed.
- Bug spray is recommended although we had no issues with ticks.
- If you need a bite to eat after your hike, Tito’s Fresh Mex is just a few minutes away and has great food in a historic location.