Bell Smith Springs is one of the more beautiful recreation areas the Shawnee National Forest. It contains a series of clear, rocky streams and scenic canyons bordered by high sandstone cliffs and an abundance of vegetation unique to Illinois. The trail system consists of about eight miles of interconnected trails featuring strange and wonderful rock formations, such as Devil’s Backbone, Boulder Falls and a natural rock bridge.
There are over 8 miles of trails here. From the main parking lot, a trail descends a set of CCC era stone steps. Take a right to at the bottom to head to the Devil’s Backbone on the white trail. This is the most well known formation here and also a popular swimming hole in the summer.
You can also make a right at the bottom of the stairs and follow either the yellow or blue trails. The blue trail leads to Boulder Falls. The yellow trail leads to the natural arch. Reaching the natural arch requires a stream crossing which can be high after heavy rain.
There are several routes to the arch. The first is a metal ladder of steps which is the quickest way on top of the arch but can be slick. You can also follow the yellow loop trail as it passes by the arch and then climbs over the top.
The Hunting Branch Picnic Area features the scenic Mill Branch Trail which follows past an old grist mill site and past a small gorge of seasonal waterfalls. This trail is marked in red. You can also connect the red trail to the other park trails for one long hike.
❓Things to know:
Distance: About a mile round trip just to Devil’s Backbone, several miles if you do full loop trails.
Difficulty: 3-4 out of 5. Devil’s Backbone requires descending stone steps. Other trails may feature steps and rugged terrain. During spring or heavy rain, the creek may be ankle deep or more. You can take a shortcut to the top of the natural bridge by way of a metal ladder which is slick and tricky or take the longer and easier way around.
Scenic Value: 5 out of 5. A must see.
Route finding can be a little tricky. The trails are marked with colored diamonds but intersections are rarely marked and numerous side trails are present. Printing a site map before arriving or taking a photo of the map at the trailhead is recommended. Summer weekends can be popular as this is a favorite swimming spot. Arrive early to avoid crowds and always remember to leave no trace.