Friday, December 7, 2018

River to River Trail across southern Illinois Day 5: Eddyville to Gum Springs Road

Today was another long day, but it was a good one on the trail.  I decided my dog Ruby needed some recovery time and I even seriously considered taking a rest day myself.  But I have a plan to keep and knew I would be alright.  I drove to the beginning of the next section of trail, which starts just outside of Eddyville, and soon I saw the natural area sign for Double Branch Hole Ecological Area.

At the start of the trail

Natural Areas sign for Double Branch Hole
I have only been to this site once before and it was just earlier this fall.  There are two sandstone chutes that come together in this canyon, hence the name.  However, the River to River Trail is designed for hikers and equestrian use and since horses are not allowed within natural areas, the trail largely avoids natural areas.  I can see the pros and cons of that. but personally I would like it if the trail went closer to more natural areas.  But for this thru hike, I wanted to stay on the official trail as much as possible.  But again in some areas, the trail was tough to see with all the downed leaves.

Obscured trail through the woods
There are a lot of ecological areas in Pope County and in this area in addition to Double Branch Hole is Hayes Creek Canyon and Jackson Hole (not to be confused with Jackson Hollow or Jackson Falls).  If one had some extra time they are all worth exploring, but I had a lot of ground to cover so I kept to the trail and it was exquisite.  A singletrack path traversed through the hardwood forest along a creek with sandstone boulders and outcrops everywhere.  I had not been in this area before so I enjoyed the new terrain and I hope to be back in this area come spring (to look at plants of course!).  I approached the crossing for Hayes Creek and it was magnificent.

Sandstone outcrops in the hardwood forest
The babbling brook was flowing and the sun was shining and it put me in a good mood.  But what really got me excited was finding some Rattlesnake Plantain Orchid (Goodyera pubescens).  I like to joke that I have “orchidar” that is, radar for finding orchids!  Goodyera is an evergreen species so it’s green year round, but it’s not very common so it’s a fun one to find.  I had a feeling I would see some so I kept my eye out and it paid off.

Rattlesnake Plantain Orchid (Goodyera pubescens)
Another cool plant that is common on rocky outcrops is pincushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum).  Fitting name isn’t it?!  Then I spotted another plant that likes sandstone outcrops, called Rock Polypody Fern (Polypodium virginianum).  It is related to the Resurrection Fern I saw earlier on the hike, but is more common.

Pincushion Moss (Leucobryum glaucum)

Rock Polypody Fern (Polypodium virginianum)
I took a break at the water crossing and then spotted some frost flowers.  Of course these are not actual flowers, but are ice ribbons.  They form when the air temperature dips below freezing overnight before the ground is frozen.  Capillary action is still pulling water up from underground up through the plants roots and when it reaches the exposed stem, the water freezes, expands, cracks open the stem, and exudes out in a delicate ice formation.  There are only 4 plant species that I know of that produce these works of art: Wild Oregano (Cunila origanoides), White Wingstem (Verbesina virginica), Camphorweed (Pluchea camphorata), and Frostweed (Helianthemum canadense).  The ones I saw were all coming out of Wild Oregano stems.

Ice ribbons
Soon after the intersection known as Petticoat Junction, the trail left this beautiful area and headed up and over the hills.  The trail linked up with a forest service road that was a muddy mess.  I tried my best to walk around the muddiest places and in between those sections I was able to walk a little faster.  I was ready for lunch!  But I did spot some Hairy Hawkweed (Hieracium gronovii) so I stopped to photograph it.  It is a very easy plant to identify but its green basal leaves with long stiff hairs.

Hairy Hawkweed (Hieracium gronovii)
Soon I was at Crow Knob Ecological Area and the trail passes right by it so it’s a good place to stop.  I walked up on top of the sandstone cliffs and took a break.  Crow Knob was a site that was used as part of the underground railroad, but it’s main significance today is a a natural area for rare plants.

Crow Knob Ecological Area
One of the interesting species that grows here is Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum).  It is a disjunct species in Illinois and is more common in the northern part of the state.  In southern Illinois it grows in acid seep springs and mesic sandstone cliffs.  It has the name Cinnamon Fern because the reproductive parts are borne separately from the photosynthetic sterile fronds on what are called the fertile fronds and they are brown like cinnamon.
Crow Knob Ecological Area
Crow Knob Ecological Area
Crow Knob Ecological Area
Crow Knob Ecological Area
Other cool plants occur here as well and the lichen displays are amazing, some of the best assemblages of Cladonia lichen I’ve ever seen.  I also photographed some prickly pear cactus (Opuntia cespitosa) and Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica).   I spent a half hour here eating, making a video, and exploring the area, but that meant I would have to pick up the pace to make it to my ride at the day’s end point.

Cladonia lichen
Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia cespitosa)
Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica)
From this point on the trail was not as fun.  There are some decent sections of trail through the forest east of the Cedar Grove Road crossing, but the trail mostly followed old rutted out and muddy roads.  On my way to Millstone Lake I saw a sign for Ruby Falls and later Ruby Junction.  That made me miss my hiking companion, my dog Ruby, who was sleeping on the couch back at my friend’s house.  I’ll have to come back to this area with her some day.

Map showing Ruby Falls and Ruby Junction
I'll have to bring Ruby back to hike this trail another time
I pressed on to Millstone Lake, which is named after the big hill nearby called Millstone Bluff, an archeological area that has settlements and petroglyphs from the Late Woodland period (500 to 1100 A.D.), as well as the remnants of a stone fortification from that time.  The lake is manmade of course, as are all the lakes in southern Illinois.  We have some natural ponds, but most of the natural wetlands in this area are shallow swamps.

View of Millstone Lake through the trees
Selfie at Millstone Lake
The washed out spillway at Millstone Lake was one of the first things I saw after moving to southern Illinois in March 2008.  The day I looked at places to rent, I drove over from Missouri through a crazy all day rain.  The storm dropped 13 inches of rain and Millstone Lake overflowed over the spillway and washed out the backside, creating a dramatic landscape.  One can actually drive up to this area.

Millstone Lake spillway

Southern Illinois slot canyon
After the lake, I made sure I found what is marked as “Hippie Bus” on the map.  It just looked like a school bus to me, not sure what made it “hippie” but it was a cool landmark.

School bus
Trail in between Millstone Lake dam and Tin Whistle
Just after that I passed under the railroad through what is known as “Tin Whistle.”  The trail after that to Trigg Tower Road was not very fun, uphill and an old muddy road.

Tin Whistle
After crossing Trigg Tower Road, the trail goes through beatup woods over to the Gum Springs area.  Unfortunately, Trigg Tower is too far out of the way, but that is what the road is named after.  It’s an old fire tower that people can still climb up, although just the base remains and it used to be much taller.  The trees have grown tall in this area now so the view isn’t spectacular, but it’s still a spot worth visiting in my opinion.  I’ve been up there many times.

I was able to text my friend who lives and works at Camp Ondessonk a couple times along the way and give him updates because he was going to pick me up at Gum Springs Road at 4:30.  I have research plots in the hardwood forest in this area and have seen some really nice woods, but the trail followed an old forest road that was deeply incised and muddy.  I just wanted to get to the end at this point so I slogged on.

Just keep walking!
Eventually I reached a gravel road and walked down it to the creek where my friend was waiting to pick me up, and with a cold beer!  It tasted good after a long day.  I got a ride to my car back in Eddyville and am staying another night at War Bluff Wildlife Sanctuary.  Today I hiked 17.4 miles in just under 7 hours.  And for the 5th day in a row, I did not see any other people.  So far, it has truly been a solo hike across southern Illinois.

17.4 miles in 7 hours
Today's section in green


  1. Nice report. You are very energetic. Enjoy following your trip. A few years ago, frost flowers appeared on the stems of (probably a cultivar) garden sage in the suburbs about 5 miles from downtown Louisville.

    1. Thank you for the compliment and for sharing your observation.

  2. 17.4 miles in 7 hours is an impressive pace!

  3. I have never heard of frost flowers or ice ribons before. Thanks for the lesson and photos!

  4. A couple of years ago I accidently drove on top of the limestone at Millstone Bluff in my van...I got out...looked around...and said, "You got yourself into have to get yourself down." I have to repeat this to myself quite often.