Skip to Content

Hiking in southern Illinois: 12 EPIC hikes in southern Illinois

Hiking in southern Illinois offers a variety of trails immersed in varied landscapes, wildlife, and stunning views. Whether you’re an avid hiker or simply looking to enjoy nature, southern Illinois has a trail for you.

We’ve gathered a complete list of the best hiking trails in southern Illinois to help you plan the perfect outdoor adventure.

There is a really good chance that this post contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission (for which we are deeply grateful) at no extra cost to you.

In a hurry? These are the best places to hike in southern Illinois

Best hikes in southern Illinois

Here is an overview of the best southern Illinois trails.

Southern Illinois hiking trails

Location Distance Difficulty level Route type Highlights
Fall colors seen from the Garden of the gods in Shawnee National Forest in Illinois Garden of the Gods Observation Trail

Garden of the Gods Wilderness

0,25 miles

Easy

Loop The ancient unique rock formations.
A rockshelter at the Giant City Sate Park in Illinois Giant City Nature Trail

Giant City State Park

0,9 miles

Easy

Loop The series of rock formations along the trail are beautiful to see and fun to explore.
The Pomona Natural Bridge Pomona Natural Bridge Trail

Shawnee National Forest

0.3 miles

Moderate

Loop Enjoy views of the bluffs from the natural, 90-foot bridge.
Ferne Clyffe waterfall Illinois Ferne Clyffe waterfall trail

Ferne Clyffe state park

0,75 miles (1.3 miles as a loop together with the Big Rocky Hollow trail)

Moderate

Out and back / or loop if combined with Big Rocky Hollow trail The beautiful waterfall
Deer trail Loop

John N. Olin Nature Preserve

2.7 miles

Moderate

Loop This loop will take you past a waterfall along a perfectly groomed trail.
Stone Fort in Giant City State Park Stone Fort Nature Trail

Giant City State Park

0,3 miles

Moderate

Loop The hike leads to an abandoned prehistoric fort.
The view from Inspiration Point Inspiration Point Trail

Shawnee National Forest

0,75 miles

Moderate

Out and back   Enjoy panoramic views of the Mississippi River Valley and the Big Muddy bottomlands.
A trail in Giant City State Park Trillium trail

Giant City State Park

2 miles

Moderate

Loop Trillium trail is an ideal hike for bird watchers, wildflower enthusiasts, and nature lovers.
The Lick Creek in Panther Den Wilderness Panther Den Wilderness Quest

Panther Den Wilderness

2,5 miles

Moderate to difficult

Loop Panther Den is known for its hiking, equestrian activity, and bird watching.
Salt Lick Point Land and Water Reserve Illinois Salt Lick and Johnson Trail Loop

Salt Lick Point Land and Water Reserve

2,9 miles

Moderate

Loop Distant views across the plains along with an abundance of wildflowers in spring.
Beautiful fall colors and the Original Office building in the Pere Marquette State Park in Illinois Pere Marquette Outer Loop

Pere Marquette State Park

5,9 miles

Moderate

Loop Beautiful trail to spot wildlife like swallowtails and star spangled fritillary.
Trees with fall colors Red Cedar Trail

Giant City State Park

12 miles

Moderate

Loop Enjoy forests, wildlife, bluffs, and rock formations.

General hiking tips

Best easy hiking trails in southern Illinois

Whether you’re bringing along the whole family or just want to enjoy nature without the hassle of challenging terrain, these are some of the easiest southern Illinois trails.

Fall colors seen from the Garden of the gods in Shawnee National Forest in Illinois
Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest

Garden of the Gods Observation Trail

  • Location: Garden of the Gods Wilderness
  • Distance: 0.25 miles
  • Difficulty level: Easy with some steep up and down sections
  • Time needed: 30-45 minutes minutes
  • Elevation gain: 39 feet
  • Route type: Loop
  • When to go: This trail is open and accessible throughout the year
  • Dog-friendly: Dogs are welcome but must be kept on a leash
  • Highlights: The ancient unique rock formations

Short description of the trail

The natural beauty of The Garden of the Gods Observation trail is what makes this hike the most visited site in Shawnee National Forest. 7 fantastic rock formations, impressive viewpoints, and dramatic cliffs are all found along this short, easy hike.

Where to start the Garden of the Gods Wilderness hike

The trailhead is located in the parking lot. There are restrooms within the parking lot as well. If you follow the road towards the campground, it will take you to a picnic area.

What people are saying about this hike

This trail has some very beautiful views of the forest. It is very gorgeous and just breathtaking

Beautiful hike with tons of photo opportunities!

Conclusion

Hiking southern Illinois’ Garden of the Gods is an extremely scenic adventure, so don’t forget to pack the camera or even a picnic since the short trail is filled with spots to sit and enjoy the beauty of the wildlife.

Wondering where to stay? Check out this list of  cozy cabins near the Garden of the Gods. 

A rockshelter at the Giant City Sate Park in Illinois
A rock shelter at the Giant City State Park in Illinois

Giant City Nature Trail

  • Location: Giant City State Park
  • Distance: 0.9 miles
  • Difficulty level: Easy
  • Time needed: 30-45 minutes
  • Elevation gain: 161 feet
  • Route type: Loop
  • When to go: This trail is open and accessible throughout the year
  • Dog-friendly: Dogs are welcome but must be kept on a leash
  • Highlights: The series of rock formations along the trail are beautiful to see and fun to explore

Short description of the trail

On the Giant City Nature Park Trail, there are countless opportunities to explore the natural wonders littered throughout the lush forest.

From small tunnels and interesting rock formations to Fat Man’s Squeeze and low-wall mazes, you and your family could spend hours uncovering the beauty of the area along this short, level hike.

Where to start the Giant City Nature Trail hike

Start the hike at the Giant City Nature Park Visitors Center off Giant City Road.

What people are saying about this hike

This was an easy enough hike for us to bring the whole family and we all really enjoyed exploring the rocks along the way.

Conclusion

This trail is an excellent spot to explore famous rock formations that characterize the southern Illinois trails. For more information about this hike, check out our post here.

Wondering where to stay when visiting Giant City State Park? Check out these cute cabins in the area.

Best waterfall hikes in southern Illinois

If you plan to go hiking in southern Illinois, make sure to add one of these waterfall hikes to your bucket list for a guaranteed memorable trek.

The Pomona Natural Bridge
The Pomona Natural Bridge (photo credits: Mrostrichman)

Pomona Natural Bridge Trail

  • Location: Shawnee National Forest in Pomona, Illinois
  • Distance: 0.3 miles
  • Difficulty level: moderate –there are some steep slopes
  • Time needed: 20 minutes to hike but you could easily spend an hour exploring the area.
  • Elevation gain: 69 feet
  • Route type: loop
  • When to go: open year-round
  • Dog-friendly: Yes but they need to be on a leash at all times.
  • Highlights: Enjoy views of the bluffs from the natural, 90-foot wide bridge.

Short description of the trail

Pomona Natural Bridge Trail is one of the best hiking trails in southern Illinois for families. This short trail winds through a beech forest where you’ll find a waterfall, views of the bluffs, a natural sandstone bridge, and a stream that the kids will love to explore.

Where to start the Pomona Natural Bridge hike

Right off Natural Bridge Road, you’ll find a parking lot and a well-marked sign indicating the entrance to Pomona Natural Bridge Trail.

What people are saying about this hike

This is an incredibly scenic hike and with the exception of a downhill at the beginning, the trail is quite level and great for everyone, including kids!

The trail is super well defined and easy to navigate, even if you decide to go a bit off-trail to explore the stream along the way.

Conclusion

For a scenic hike that is accessible to all skill levels, Pomona Natural Bridge Trail is the trail for you.

Read Also:

If you are looking for an overview Illinois cabin rentals, click here. 

Ferne Clyffe waterfall Illinois
The Ferne Clyffe waterfall

Ferne Clyffe waterfall trail

  • Location: Ferne Clyffe State Park
  • Distance: 0.75 miles (1.3 miles as a loop together with the Big Rocky Hollow trail)
  • Difficulty level: Moderate
  • Time needed: 45 minutes
  • Elevation gain: 207 feet
  • Route type: Out and back / or loop if combined with Big Rocky Hollow trail
  • When to go: March to October for the most impressive view of the fall. Come in summer and your kids will be able to play in the pond at the bottom of the falls
  • Dog-friendly: Dogs are welcome but must be kept on a leash
  • Highlights: The beautiful waterfall

Short description of the trail

As you probably guessed from the name, Ferne Clyffe Waterfall Trail is made popular because of the gorgeous waterfall found along the trail.

While the path to getting there can be rugged, the short distance and picturesque forestry along the way make it worthwhile.

Read Also:

Are you traveling with your significant other and looking for romantic getaways in southern Illinois, click here. 

Where to start the Ferne Clyffe Waterfall hike

The trailhead is located at Ferne Clyffe Campground.

What people are saying about this hike

Highly recommended but the trail can be confusing because it isn’t well marked.

Truly beautiful waterfall and trail. Make sure to pay attention to what time of year you visit though because it is seasonal.

Conclusion

All skill levels are welcome to enjoy the Ferne Clyffe waterfall hike and the prominent sights along the way.

Read Also:

Here is an overview of more state parks in southern Illinois.

If you are looking for more hikes in Illinois, click here. For an overview of the best hikes in northern Illinois, click here. 

Deer trail loop

  • Location: John N. Olin Nature Preserve near Alton, Illinois
  • Distance: 2.7 miles
  • Difficulty level: Moderate
  • Time needed: 1.5 hours
  • Elevation gain: 347 feet
  • Route type: Loop
  • When to go: April- December 
  • Dog-friendly: No Dogs
  • Highlights: This loop will take you past a waterfall along a perfectly groomed trail.

Short description of the trail

Deer Trail Loop runs through a beautiful forest setting where you’ll likely spot deer turkeys in the quiet setting.

There are tons of hills along the way that are perfect for kids to run up and down.

Where to start the Deer Trail Loop hike

Begin the hike at the Forest Park Nature Center where there are signs and maps for how to get started.

What people are saying about this hike

This is an excellent trail. It’s super quiet, well-marked, and beautiful.

This is the perfect trail for families. I loved how peaceful it was and my kids loved seeing the deer, rabbits, and beavers.

Conclusion

No matter the time of year, Deer Trail Loop is always an enjoyable loop and the perfect distance.

Stone Fort in Giant City State Park
Stone Fort in Giant City State Park (photo credits: Darius Norvilas)

Hardest hikes in southern Illinois

Experienced hikers are welcome to test their skills on any one of these challenging trails.

Stone Fort Nature Trail

  • Location: Giant City State Park
  • Distance: 0.3 miles
  • Difficulty level: moderate
  • Time needed: 30 minutes
  • Elevation gain: 82 feet
  • Route type: Loop
  • When to go: year-round
  • Dog-friendly: Yes but on a leash
  • Highlights: The hike leads to an abandoned prehistoric fort

Short description of the trail

The Stone Fort Nature trail leads to the ruins of an old military fort that is much older than the country itself.

While it may appear to some as a pile of rocks, this fort is believed to have been built around 600-800 AD.

Along the way to this historical site, you’ll find wildflowers, wildlife, massive boulders, and plenty of trees.

Where to start the Stone Fort Nature hike

The trail starts in the parking lot of Giant City Park Road, the parking lot is shared with the Trillium trailhead.

What people are saying about this hike

I loved seeing the sights but I wouldn’t bring young kids on this hike because the path is really narrow with quite a few steep falls.

Very rugged but definitely worth it!

Conclusion

Stone Fort Nature Trail is like no other trail because of its archeological significance in addition to beautiful water and rock features.

The view from Inspiration Point
The view from Inspiration Point (photo credits: David Wilson)

Inspiration Point Trail

  • Location: Located within the Shawnee National Forest in Wolf Lake, Illinois
  • Distance: 0.75 miles
  • Difficulty level: Moderate due to steep areas and loose rocks
  • Time needed: Up to one hour
  • Elevation gain: 164 ft
  • Route type: Out and back
  • When to go: Accessible year-round
  • Dog-friendly: Yes but dogs need to remain leashed.
  • Highlights: Enjoy panoramic views of the Mississippi River Valley and the Big Muddy bottomlands

Short description of the trail

Shawnee National Forest offers the best hiking in southern Illinois and Inspiration Point Trail is one of the hikes you cannot miss.

The overlook at the top of the hike earns its namesake as truly inspirational and breathtaking.

Where to start the Inspiration Point hike

There are two trailheads: the lower trailhead at McCann Springs Picnic Area, and the upper trailhead across from Clear Springs Wilderness.

What people are saying about this hike

Truly breathtaking views from Inspiration points, probably the best view in the state, and the hike to get there was scenic and enjoyable.

Conclusion

If you’re on the lookout for gorgeous overlooks and breathtaking views, put Inspiration Point hike at the top of your list.

The sights are best enjoyed at sunrise or sunset.

A trail in Giant City State Park
Giant City State Park

Trillium trail

  • Location: Giant City State Park
  • Distance: 2 miles
  • Difficulty level: Moderate for its rugged terrain.
  • Time needed: 1 hour
  • Elevation gain: 164 Feet
  • Route type: Loop
  • When to go: Year-round
  • Dog-friendly: Dogs are welcome
  • Highlights: Trillium trail is an ideal hike for bird watchers, wildflower enthusiasts, and nature lovers.

Short description of the trail

Trillium Trail has it all: from blooming wildflowers and unique plant species to sandstone bluffs, rocky creeks, and unique ice formations (seen in the winter).

At times the hike can be a bit uneven and rugged which makes it even more interesting.

Where to start the Trillium Trail hike

The trail is located within Giant City State Park. The trailhead is located on Giant City Park Road.

What people are saying about this hike

I loved the rock formations and found the trail very scenic. The best part was that it was very doable with kids.

Great hike! Halfway through there are stairs that were pretty steep, but the rest of the hike was a breeze.

Conclusion

Trillium Trail is a gorgeous route, but hikers must be mindful as there are steep cliffs that can be slippery when wet.

The Lick Creek in Panther Den Wilderness
Panther Den Wilderness (photo credits: Meclimb4life)

Panther Den Wilderness Quest

  • Location: Panther Den Wilderness
  • Distance: 2.5 miles
  • Difficulty level: Moderate to difficult
  • Time needed: 3 hours
  • Elevation gain: 285 feet
  • Route type: Loop
  • When to go: Year-round
  • Dog-friendly: Yes but must be kept on a leash
  • Highlights: Panther Den is known for its hiking, equestrian activity, and bird watching

Short description of the trail

Panther Den is named after the den-like, rock cave located in the Panther Den Wilderness.

Along the trail, you’ll find steep terrain, huge rock formations, rolling hills, and some pretty spectacular spots for camping if you’re looking for overnight hikes in southern Illinois

Where to start the Panther Den hike

The Panther Den trailhead is located on Panthers Den Lane in Makanda, Illinois.

What people are saying about this hike

Even though there are lots of fallen trees and greenery, the trail is very well kept which made seeing the amazing rock formations all the more worthwhile.

Download the map before you go because the hiking trail can be confused with the horse trails!

Conclusion

Be mindful that the loose rocks, creek crossing, and oftentimes muddy trails can be very challenging but well worth it for seasoned hikers.

Salt Lick Point Land and Water Reserve Illinois
The Salt Lick and Johson Trail (Credits: Joann Fricke)

Salt Lick and Johnson Trail Loop

  • Location: Salt Lick Point Land and Water Reserve
  • Distance: 2.9 miles
  • Difficulty level: Moderate
  • Time needed: 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Elevation gain: 452 feet
  • Route type: Loop
  • When to go: This trail is open and accessible throughout the year but if you come during the spring and summer, you will be able to see more flowers and plants throughout
  • Dog-friendly: Dogs are welcome but must be kept on a leash
  • Highlights: Distant views across the plains along with an abundance of wildflowers in spring

Short description of the trail

While hiking the challenging Salt Lick and Johnson Trail Loop, don’t forget to look for remnants of the limestone quarry that used to sit on this stretch of land.

In addition to a rich history, you’ll find towering rock formations, steep inclines, colorful wildflowers, and several overlooks with scenic views.

Where to start the Salt Lick and Johnson Trail Loop

The trailhead is easy to find, right off the Salt Lick parking lot. 

What people are saying about this hike

If you take the loop counterclockwise, the first half is really steep but the views from the top are absolutely amazing.

Love this hike. Once you’re past the first ¾ mile, the last section is flat and decorated with moss-covered boulders. One of my favorite hikes I’ve done.

Conclusion

Opt for a more challenging hike with the Salt Lick and Johnson Trail Loop. The steep climb leads to stunning overlooks and panoramic views of southern Illinois.

Beautiful fall colors and the Original Office building in the Pere Marquette State Park in Illinois
The original office building of Pere Marquette State Park

Pere Marquette Outer Loop

  • Location: Pere Marquette State Park
  • Distance: 5.9 miles
  • Difficulty level: Moderate
  • Time needed: 3 hours
  • Elevation gain: 990 Feet
  • Route type: Loop
  • When to go: Year-round
  • Dog-friendly: Dogs are welcome but must be kept on a leash
  • Highlights: Beautiful trail to spot wildlife like swallowtails and star-spangled fritillary

Short description of the trail

If you’re looking for some hiking places in southern Illinois to connect with the outdoors, Pere Marquette Loop trail is a great place to hike. 

The different sections offer unique experiences, such as interesting geology, McAdams peak, tall grass fields, and plenty of river overlooks.

Where to start the Pere Marquette Loop Trail hike

Begin the hike in the northwest corner of the Visitors Center parking lot

What people are saying about this hike

The hike was a bit strenuous but had many lovely overlooks

While the views of the hills are breathtaking, the hike can be pretty challenging. The trail has eroded quite a bit but is still worth the visit.

Conclusion

This hike is a bit challenging and not as well maintained as others but the nature is bountiful and the challenging hike rewarding.

Read Also:

Pere Marquette lies near Grafton.

Here is an overview of the best things to do in Grafton. 

If you are looking for wineries in Grafton, click here. 

 

Trees with fall colors
Fall colors in Giant City State Park (photo credits: nathanmac87)

Red Cedar Trail

  • Location: Giant City State Park
  • Distance: 12 miles
  • Difficulty level: moderate
  • Time needed: 1 day
  • Elevation gain: 1,263 feet
  • Route type: loop
  • When to go: Late fall to spring. The trail is closed during deer shot-gun seasons
  • Dog-friendly: 
  • Highlights: Enjoy forests, wildlife, bluffs, and rock formations.

Short description of the trail

Red Cedar Trail is one of the best places to hike in southern Illinois for an immersive wilderness experience. It’s the only trail at Giant City where there is a specific camping area for the trail.

Once hiking, you’re likely to spot a plethora of wildlife along the rugged, back-country route past bluffs, rolling hills, and rushing creeks.

Where to start the Red Cedar Trail hike

Begin at the trailhead which is located next to the parking area off the main Giant City Class A Campground. There are restrooms as well as signs indicating where to begin.

What people are saying about this hike

This trail is definitely not for beginners as it’s a pretty good workout.

Rough terrain but enjoyable.

Conclusion

If you’re a nature enthusiast looking for a rugged hiking experience, Red Cedar Trail is the route for you.

Unlike most of the other trails on the list, Red Cedar is not commonly walked on and not maintained, adding to the challenge of the trek.

Conclusion

Southern Illinois’ varied landscapes are beautifully showcased in each of these wonderful and unique trails.

There are hikes for the experienced and novice, young and old, as well as campers and dog owners.

Get outside and enjoy the outdoors on one of these beautiful trails.

See the web story that accompanies this post.

Read Also:

If you are looking for more fun things to do in southern Illinois, click here. 

In search of weekend getaways in southern Illinois? Check out this post.