Forget what you've heard about Illinois being nothing but flat prairie land. Tucked away along southern Illinois' scenic Wine Trail, the Little Grand Canyon offers a 365 foot climb from the canyon floor and a panoramic view of the Big Muddy River and the Mississippi floodplain.
The 3.6 mile Little Grand Canyon Trail, which can take 3-4 hours to complete, starts off as an easy-going asphalt/gravel path along Hickory Ridge, the southern lip of the canyon. The ground drops off sharply on either side of the trail, allowing visitors to peer down on the oak and hickory forest from above. Several benches along the path give park-goers the opportunity to relax and enjoy the scenery at leisure.
At the high-point of the gravel walking path, a short, slightly overgrown side-trail is worth the effort, giving hikers a sweeping view of the Mississippi and Big Muddy rivers on the far western horizon, and the majestic white face of Swallow Rock to the north. Sunsets over the wooded landscape make for an excellent photo opportunity.
From here, visitors can choose to turn back toward the parking lot, while more intrepid adventurers will want to continue along the rugged trail down into the canyon itself. Hikers can get up close and personal with the exposed sandstone walls of the canyon, which tower up to 100 feet overhead. Kids of all ages will delight in scrambling around the weathered ledges and grottoes that mark the descent into the canyon. Keep an eye out for the local wildlife, too. The canyon is home to deer, falcons, and is a popular hibernation spot for several varieties of snakes.
Follow the white diamond trail markers to the open north end of the canyon and up a natural stone staircase carved out by water over hundreds of years. The steps can be very slippery when wet, so look for the chiseled hand- and foot-holds added by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. At the top of the stairs, the asphalt path returns and climbs steeply back up to the parking lot.
The area surrounding the parking lot contains several picnic tables, an outhouse, and was once home to a CCC watchtower. The Little Grand Canyon was designated as a National Natural Landmark in February, 1980.
Summary: While some parts of the trail may be challenging for casual visitors, the stunning views and diverse wildlife make a trip to the Little Grand Canyon well worth the trip. Be aware that the canyon is prone to flooding during heavy rain, so be sure to check the forecast before loading up the car.