Illinois Cliffs

Give me rocks to climb on

If you look at a map of the U.S., there’s a few routes that will get you from Pensacola FL to Wisconsin. They all have one things in common: they pass through Illinois. Unfortunately, there isn’t much camping in Illinois, and what camping there is… is generally not great. We’ve stated in small town city parks the last couple times through, which were nice enough for a night, but not someplace you’d want to spend any time1.

But nothing is all bad either. We call the route we take Maximum Illinois since it enters at the southernmost point and exits at the northern most. Somewhere in there we knew there were great places and we were going to find them damnit.

We considered some places on Harvest Hosts, but those are generally only for 24 hours. We needed somewhere to stay while a snow storm (hopefully the last!) dumped a foot or more where we were headed in Wisconsin. This is how we ended up at Ferne Clyffe State Park, which had never quite fallen at the right mileage point for stopping. This time we did an extra long day and made it. It’s good we did because Ferne Clyffe is without a doubt the nicest place we’ve been in Illinois.

namesake ferns and cliffs photographed by luxagraf
Namesake ferns and cliffs.

We pulled into a nearly empty campground, which was fortunate because we hadn’t even thought about making reservations ahead of time. I can’t tell you the last time we did that. I loved the place already.

It was still very much winter when we arrived the last week in March. The tree limbs were still leafless, skeleton arms scratching at the still-wintery sky. But Ferne Clyffe was lush with lichens, moss, and ferns growing in clusters wherever water leached out of the limestone cliffs and beautifully carved canyon walls.

After six weeks in the tightly-policed, don’t-even-think-about-climbing-it “nature” of Fort Pickens, the kids were eager to get climbing all over Ferne Clyffe. Happily there were no signs telling them not too, and no one around to tell them otherwise. We pretty much had the place to ourselves and climb they did.

There seems to be a fundamental human need to climb. I don’t mean technical rock climbing, I mean getting to the top of things. I have no idea why. To add to Edmund Hilary’s famous quote about climbing Everest, the best I can think of is, because we’re alive, and it’s here. But then asking why? rarely leads to interesting experiences, why not? is a more rewarding guide to life.

Whatever the case I’ve noticed that when there are rocks or trees to climb our kids are happy. Almost all their favorite spots, like Valley of Fire, Zion, and the place in Utah I never named among others, all have rocks or trees to climb.

Ferne Clyffe had a network of trails running through the various canyons (one main canyon with a couple of offshoots). It’s not a huge place, but it was enough to keep our days filled with hiking and climbing and birding.

I got the kids jeweler’s loupes for studying and sketching. The endless moss and lichens of Ferne Clyffe gave them a chance to use them. Studying moss through a loupe you quickly discover that the form of the surrounding forest is repeated in the carpet of moss. What we call moss is in fact tiny forests living on the rocks and fallen trees, living at a different scale, but nearly identical means. The smallest thing is in the biggest thing, the biggest thing is in the smallest thing.

“Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking,” writes Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Gathering Moss. “Straining to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filtering of all the noise, to catch the music. Mosses are not elevator music; they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.”

To be unhurried in our world has come to seem a luxury. It’s not. Anyone can do it, but it does take effort. It does mean being quiet, listening, taking the time to be calm, careful, and conscious of what you’re doing. I like to keep in mind something I read once that your power is proportional to your ability to relax. Do you have the power to relax right now? Use it.

The loupes are nice because they make it easy to shut out the rest of the world visually. They narrow your focus to a tiny part, which you can then carefully explore, watching it unfold into its own world. You can then stack loupes and narrow it down even more if you want.

We looked and listened, hiked and climbed.

It was a good week. Good enough in fact that when we all got sick toward the end of it, no one really minded. We spent a few days indoors recovering, and then headed north for the one state park in Wisconsin that opens on April 1.

  1. One of the things we figured our very quickly in our travels is you should never camp within 20 miles of the border in a state where marijuana is legal (like Illinois). This is where every meth head from the surround states will camp when they come to get their weed. The campgrounds will be run down, trashed, sketchy, and full of meth heads. Usually it’s more depressing than dangerous, but it always sucks. Rockford, Trinidad, Paducah, Illinois Beach, etc. 


Jack M June 16, 2024 at 2:41 p.m.

Southern Illinois has some cool spots. That seems like a better version of Starved Rock State Park. I’d never heard of Fern Clyffe (as an Illinois native), so thanks for sharing!

Scott June 20, 2024 at 12:39 p.m.


Starved Rock is bigger, and more dramatic, but it was also very crowded and developed, Ferne Clyffe is none of those things. There’s also Garden of the Gods, which is nice too: Technically a federal park, but in Illinois.

I’ve also heard of another place closer to the Mississippi that’s supposed to be nice, but it doesn’t have RV camping.


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