Little Grand Canyon Loop Trail
By JD Tanner
This loop hike in the Shawnee National Forest features exposed bluffs, an erosion carved canyon, seasonal waterfall, and several rock overhangs, making it one of the most interesting areas in the entire region.
The Little Grand Canyon National Natural Landmark is a small, but dramatic, part of the 280,000-acre Shawnee National Forest. Located in Jackson County, IL, the deep box canyon has been slowly eroding over time and now boasts it’s exposed, majestic bluffs.
Visitors to the Little Grand Canyon area will witness typical southern Illinois landscapes. Rich oak and hickory forests tower above sycamore and beech trees.
Just south of Little Grand Canyon is a place known as “snake road.” Each year the road is closed down to accommodate several species of snakes, including Timber Rattlesnakes, Western Cottonmouths, and the endangered Green Water Snake, as they migrate to and from their winter hibernation spots, such as the Little Grand Canyon.
The Little Grand Canyon Loop Trail is a 3.6-mile hike that begins with a roller coaster like ridge descent to a scenic overlook. Hikers can stop, enjoy the view, and return to the parking lot or continue into the canyon below.
The trailhead is located (southwest) corner of the parking area, just to the right (west) of the outhouses. Begin hiking southwest on the obvious, gravel and dirt trail. Follow the trail as it traverses Viney Ridge through a thick forest of maple, oak, sassafras, beach, and tulip trees.
Pass several wooden benches before reaching a large scenic overlook on Chalk Bluff at 1.0 mile. Here you have a good view of the Big Muddy River to the west. At this point, the trail curves to the right (southeast) and begins to gradually descend the ridge. At 1.3 miles, the trail grows noticeable steeper and you enter the moss-covered, sandstone canyon. Carefully descend, alternating between following the trail and the natural drainage. Look closely and you will notice that steps have been etched into the rock in several areas, a work project completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. At 1.8 miles reach the bottom of the canyon and begin following the tail, now marked with white diamonds, to the east.
Cross a small creek at 2.2 miles and continue east, passing tall bluffs. At 2.5 miles, the trail curves to right (south) and into another slippery, sandstone drainage. Follow the drainage, again using caution and looking for steps as you pass several seasonal waterfalls. At the top of the drainage, turn left (east) and ascend the moderately steep trail back to the parking area.
Distance: 3.6 miles
Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
Difficulty: More challenging
Trail contacts: Shawnee National Forest, 50 Highway 145 South, Harrisburg, IL 62946; (618) 253-7114
Special considerations: Ticks, mosquitoes, and poison ivy are common during warmer months. Rocks along trail can be quite slippery following wet weather.
Finding the Trailhead: From Cape Girardeau, take the boogie bridge crossing over into Illinois. Turn left (north) onto IL 146/IL 3 and continue on IL 3 for 32.3 miles.
Turn right onto CR 5 Town Creek Road (look for the sign pointing to the Little Grand Canyon). Travel 6.6 miles to Hickory Ridge Road. Turn right onto Hickory Ridge Road and continue 4 miles to a four-way stop; turn right to stay on Hickory Ridge Road.
Drive 2.3 miles and turn right onto Little Grand Canyon Road. Follow Little Grand Canyon Road until it dead-ends in the parking area. The trailhead is located at the southwest corner of the parking area.