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A Nature Journal

Experience the natural world with east central Illinois master naturalists
sandstone bluff

Mystical, Magical Ferne Clyffe

Posted by Maddy Kangas -

I recently spent two nights camping and exploring the charmingly-named Ferne Clyffe State Park in southern Illinois' Shawnee National Forest. The tent camping is among the best I've seen, with large pads on secluded, heavily wooded sites, plus the requisite (adorable) scavenging raccoons. As you'd expect from the name, Ferne Clyffe features beautiful rock formations and an abundance of ferns, and in many areas felt more like a rain forest than an Illinois woodland.

My favorite trail, the Round Bluff Nature Preserve, is a one-mile moderately rugged hike that would be enjoyable for anybody, but particularly interesting to master naturalists and other nature lovers. Pick up a brochure at the trailhead and take a self-guided tour of the unique plant communities that thrive in a variety of habitats from bedrock glades to xeric sandstone bluffs. Moss- and fern-covered shelter bluffs provided cool breezes and echoed the forest sounds of birds and snapping twigs on an otherwise almost eerily silent hike. Densely tangled bare branches and roots of dead and dying red cedar trees also gave the trail a haunting, otherworldly feel. This trail is home to the State Champion Winged Elm tree, with a five-foot trunk circumference, but there are many other much larger trees on the trail. I assured them they were all champions to me!

If you visit, watch out for ticks and poison ivy! Also notice the invasive Oriental bittersweet vine that wraps around everything in its path and tries to choke the life out of it. Our old friends honeysuckle, autumn olive, and garlic mustard were out and about too. Despite the itchy pests and rampant invaders, early June was a great time to visit the Shawnee, as both mosquitoes and people were notably absent.

Ferne Clyffe, Giant City, and Garden of the Gods are all beautiful parks within Shawnee with spectacular rock formations and a rich diversity of plant and animal life. This part of the state was not leveled by glaciers, and doesn't look or feel much like the rest of Illinois. The rugged, rocky trails will give you a good workout, so wear sturdy boots and bring a hiking pole.


Winged Elm




Sandstone Bluff



Red Cedar

Hilary Valentine (MN 2011)




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