When people survey the climbing scene in mid-southern United States, the Red River Gorge in Kentucky is what usually comes to mind. Although the Red’s steep, pumpy sandstone routes draw thousands of climbers to the area each year, it is not the only notable area to sport climb in the region. Commonly referred to by locals as “Illinois’ Best Kept Secret”, Jackson Falls is often overlooked while searching for quality places to climb in the United States. However, mainly for it’s notoriously difficult, yet legendary slab sport climbing, Jackson Falls must be on every climber’s agenda should they be in search for some seriously fun and challenging sport climbing in the Southern Illinois area.
After seeing the obvious potential of the area, Eric Ulner began bolting Jackson’s first routes in the 1980’s. During this time, the sport genre of rock climbing was evolving into its current dynamic form, allowing climbers to make moves that are less possible on traditionally protected routes. Forty years later, it is now home to well over 100 sport routes, as well as a small amount traditional route opportunities. In regards to difficulty, a large portion of the routes in Jackson Falls are rated 5.10 and harder. There are a fair amount of 5.7-5.9 ratings. Although these are by far the most populated and busy areas to climb in the canyon, especially during the cooler Autumn months.
There is free camping within a 5 minute walk of the canyon, about 6 sites, but camping is prohibited in the canyon. The designated campsites will almost surely be occupied on an Autumn weekend, but are usually pretty open in the summer. Due to its southern location, Jackson Falls gets really hot in the Summer months, just like the Red River Gorge. So, although it’s busier in Autumn, that is the ideal time to be there, when you can comfortably climb in a long sleeve tee shirt or a hoody. Additionally, the rock is drier and stickier in the cooler months, with less humidity to deal with.
The canyon floor can be accessed by either rappelling off of the anchors of a route, or by hiking, depending on where you want to enter the canyon and climb for the day. There is an obvious rappelling opportunity immediately after reaching the canyon via the trail from the campsites, where many people choose to rappel in, being the chains to the anchor of Lovin’ Lizards (5.8), a route in the Main Pool area of the canyon. Additional access points are the Dogwalk Access, which is a natural staircase on the east side of the canyon, about a 20 minute hike from the campsites, the Southern Access point, about 700 yards south of Dogwalk, and the Northern Access, which is the farthest access point, being at northernmost portion of the trail. Although there are 4 total ways to reach the canyon floor, the most common means of canyon entrance is by rappel or by use of the Dogwalk staircase, which is what most climbers would probably recommend, due to it’s proximity to high-quality routes.
Big Wall Greg’s Chicken Shack, 5.6: This is one of the few routes for absolute beginners at Jackson Falls. It’s a perfect first lead, and a fun top out. It will probably be very busy, so be prepared to wait in line.
Luscious Babes, 5.8: A perfect taste of the slabby nature of the routes at Jackson. It begins in the shade and is usually always dry after a fresh rain.
Blue Spark, 5.8: This 5.8 feels a lot harder than a 5.8, fitting right into the Jackson Falls family. It’s tricky and sweet, requiring careful planning and navigation of its prominent crack.
Master Marley, 5.10A: A super fun 5.10 arete. Trust those feet and cruise.
Venom, 5.10A: Be careful on this slabby monster. 7 bolts long, this route is a super fun pumper to get those juices flowing.
Stinger, 5.11A: This four-star route is a must-do. Find the no hands rest, and you’ll be ready for the high crux that guards the anchors.
Frizzle Fry, 5.12B: This 5-bolt classic is sure to pump those forearms. Utilize the “good” holds and shake out as much as you can. A five-star must-do for the 5.12 climber.
Zen Arcade, 5.13B: A long, 9 bolt five-star route. Ascend the “easy” beginning until you reach the double crux before the anchors.
Rest days can be spent at the campsite, or exploring the small town of Ozark, Illinois. There is a small diner in the Ozark General Store that could be worth checking out, only being about a 20 minutes drive from Jackson Falls. However, if you are looking to see some civilization, after driving about 40 minutes southbound on Highway 45 you’ll reach Broomfield and Vienna, where there is a small selection of bars, restaurants, and gas stations for all your food and drink needs, especially if you are looking to buy alcohol, since there will be none available for purchase in Ozark. Most of the locals in town are super friendly and will be glad to help you out with directions. About an hour east of Jackson Falls is the college town of Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University. It’s a pretty fun town that is worth checking out if your crew is up for the drive.
The GPS coordinates of the parking lot and campsites are 37°30’32’.42” N, 88°40’54.75” W. Be sure to check the “Drive on unpaved roads” option on your GPS device while journeying to the locale. If you’re coming from the North, take I-24 East to Exit 7 toward Tunnel Hill and Goreville. Turn left and drive East on Tunnel Hill Road. After about 7 miles you should reach US-45, which you’ll want to take Northbound until Ozark Road. If you’re coming from the South, take I-24 West to Exit 14 toward Vienna. Turn right to go North on US-45 until Ozark Road. From the East, take I-64 West and continue along I-24 until Exit 130 for IL-1 and US-45 toward Garyville. US-45 will take you to Ozark Road. Once arrived at Ozark Road, turn onto it and take it for 4.5 miles. Turn left onto Trigg Tower Road and drive until you see a brown sign that reads “Jackson Falls 2”. Follow the sign, turning right into Glen Street Falls Road. This is the small gravel road that will take you to the camping area.
Jackson Falls is a must-do if you are a climber finding yourself in the Southern Illinois region. It has some unforgettable sandstone and some really challenging routes. Sure to confront and humble even the strongest climbers, the free camping and beautiful Autumn weather truly make it “Illinois’ Best Kept Secret”. Brayackmedia Publishing has a phenomenal guidebook authored by Yusuf Daneshyar that is incredibly detailed and helpful to any climber, local or foreign. Jackson Falls is definitely a bucket list destination for sport climbers of all experience levels and backgrounds.