Jackson Falls, Illinois, USA – The best (and really the only) rock climbing in Southern Illinois can be found at Jackson Falls in the heart of the Shawnee National Forest. The area’s potential was discovered in 1981 by Eric Ulner, author of the first guidebook for the location and the driving force behind initial climbing efforts in the area. For a place with such a humble existence, Jackson Falls is actually home to some seriously difficult routes, many of them developed at a time when such difficulty was scarce throughout the nation.
After a few hours drive to get to the Shawnee Forest National Park, we found ourselves in the small town of Ozark, Illinois. That’s as far as GPS will take you, because reception becomes extremely spotty once you turn onto the county roads and enter the forest. Following handwritten (and somewhat unreliable) directions into the pitch black of a rainy night, our crew of climbers finally made it to the Jackson Falls trail head where we set up camp for the next few nights.
It actually rained all night, so our climbing exploits were somewhat impeded the next day, but we took refuge at the Rainy Day Roof where the rock was still dry. We ended up risking the damp rock at Spleef Peak afterward, and we left with a few scrapes to remember our efforts. As we were getting ready to leave we discovered our car wouldn’t start! So we ended up hitching a ride with one of the locals we met, and he helped us arrange for a very long ride in a rather cramped tow truck. But we made it home anyway!
A few months later we took a second trip in drier weather and climbed in a few more areas including Hidden Peaks and Battle Axe Tower. Many of the photos here and in the gallery are from the second trip.
Check the weather
This is true for any climbing trip, but any rain at Jackson Falls means that 95% of the routes will be unavailable. It takes a day or two for most areas to dry, so if you’re staying a while you’ll be alright. But a day trip in the rain would be pretty crappy.
Camp further in
Don’t camp at the parking lot. It’s the area most likely to flood, and I’ve heard some pretty awful tales. Drive further in along the road to find campsites that are raised above the road level. (Note: Camping inside the canyon is prohibited. Stay up top.)
As my initiation into the world of outdoor sport climbing, Jackson Falls is a special place for me. It was where I learned that route difficulty ratings can be quite variable depending on where you are, and those ratings are pretty soft at the gym. Because of this, transitioning from the gym to outdoor climbing is a very humbling experience, and while Jackson kicked my ass on the first few climbs it was a place where I gained the knowledge and confidence I needed to continue growing into the climber I want to be.