Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Little Grand Canyon Ecological Area, Jackson County, Illinois

     This strenuous hike will challenge even the most adventurous hiker.  In southern Jackson County, the Little Grand Canyon displays the most unique sandstone ravines in the state.  The trail is a 4-mile loop that is great from either direction from the parking lot.  Descending the trail at the north end, you will walk through a small pine stand and slowly hike down the ridge to an overlook.  After you round the corner, look for rue anemone, pussytoes, false dandelion, bee-balm, and other dry woodland plants.  Many rare plants exist at this site so please stay on the trail. 
Krigia biflora - False Dandelion
     The trail winds its way to a steep sandstone ravine that will take you to the bottom of the canyon.  Rocks steps have been created in the sandstone and are easy to follow.  Flowing water often occurs in the sandstone chute, so extreme caution should be exercised.  As you make your way into the canyon, look for dutchman’s breeches, toothwort, pale corydalis, squirrel corn, and spring beauty.
Trail into the Little Grand Canyon
     Some very interesting plants grow in the natural area.  During the Illinoian glaciation over 100,000 years ago, plants adapted to northern climates flourished here and when the glaciers retreated, these “glacial relic” species persisted in moist, shaded, north-facing, sandstone ravines like the Little Grand Canyon.  The characteristic example of this is bishop’s cap, and the tiny snowflake-like flowers can be seen in flowering spikes covering the sides of the cliffs along the creek.  Other relic species include partridge berry, shining clubmoss, and sphagnum moss.
Mitella diphylla - Bishop's Cap
Mitchella repens - Partrige-berry
     In the floodplain area at the base of the ravine is a rich display of spring wildflowers like liverleaf, bellwort, white trillium, celandine poppy, bloodroot, as well as many fern species.  
Hepatica acutiloba - Liverleaf
Stylophorum diphyllum - Celandine Poppy and Trillum flexipes - White Trillium
     Blue cohosh, Forbe’s saxifrage, doll’s eyes, dwarf phacelia, and wild leeks are uncommon plants that call this area home.  Flowering shrubs include pawpaw, redbud, and flowering dogwood.  At least one orchid has been seen along the trail and venomous snakes are known to inhabit the area. 
Saxifraga forbesii - Forbe's Saxifrage and Caulophyllum thalictroides - Blue Cohosh
Allium triccocum - Wild Leek
     The trailhead is located south of Murphysboro.  From Highway 127, follow Orchard Hill Road west to Hickory Ridge Road.  Go straight (west) 7 miles to the entrance road to the site.
The Little Grand Canyon