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Jackson Falls Climbing: The Ultimate Guide (2023)

rock climbing in Jackson Falls, Illinois

Published on: 03/09/2023

Most people don’t believe me when I tell them there is high-quality and bullet-hard sandstone rock climbing in Illinois. Typically, they say, “there are no mountains in Illinois; how could there be climbing?” To which I say, “the best way to find out is to see for yourself.”

The reality is climbers tend to become obsessed with climbing meccas like Smith Rock, Yosemite, the Red River Gorge, and Joshua Tree. They forget about the in-between zones and the secret stashes.

I think the hidden gems deserve some love, also. Why? Because the climbing is just as good and the community is often better. So, keep reading to learn about one of my favorite climbing destinations of all time – Jackson Falls, Illinois.

Geological History of Jackson Falls

Jackson Falls climbing area
© Marshall King

The present-day landscape of Jackson Falls has been shaped over eons by plate technics and glaciation. The cliffs of Jackson formed as marine sediments deposited on the seafloor in the Devonian period over 300 million years ago.

Over time, creeks cut rock layers, and glaciers scoured the region. Finally, eroded and weathered large sections of tight-grained sandstone bluffs and boulders began to get exposed. Now, ancient sandstone escarpments dominate the region for the climber’s enjoyment.

Native American History of Jackson Falls

Beautiful trees and rocks in Shawnee Forest

The Shawnee National Forest is one of 155 National forests in the United States. It consists of approximately 280,00 acres of federally managed land. It is the largest publicly owned body of land in Illinois.

However, well before the area was designated a National Forest by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, the area was home to home to the Shawnee Native Americans.

The Shawnee are Algonguian indigenous people. Before they were forcibly removed in the 17th and 18th centuries, they lived in areas throughout the Northeastern and Midwestern woodlands, including Illinois.

How to Get There

Jackson Falls waterfall
© Marshall King

Jackson Falls is not considered an international destination and is not located nearby any major airport. In addition, due to its relatively secluded location within the Shawnee National Forest, most climbers drive there.

Driving directions to access the climbing routes at Jackson can easily be found on the internet by searching “Jackson Falls Waterfall” or “Jackson Falls Trailhead.”

A word of caution– the highway turns to gravel at the intersection of Trigg Tower Road and Glen Street Falls Road. Depending on the season and local weather, the road can be slippery and require multiple creek crossings after you pass the main parking area and Jackson Falls Trailhead, so AWD or 4WD is recommended.

Where to Stay

Rock climber leading a route graded 5.10
© Marshall King

Once you arrive in the Southern IL area, there are many cities and small towns where you can find a selection of lodging amenities. The closest larger city is Marion. But to experience local climbing culture and a cool college scene, stay in Carbondale, IL.

However, for the whole experience, camping is recommended at Jackson Falls.

Jackson Falls camping

Jackson Falls is open year-round for dispersed camping and is managed by the Shawnee National Forest Service. Camping is free and only permissible at the existing sites along the main gravel road at the top of the sandstone bluffs. Note that camping is not permitted in the canyon itself.

The camping is considered primitive– there is no drinking water and only one vault toilet located at the main parking lot. Therefore, visitors are expected to practice Leave No Trace policies– packing out everything they bring with them.

Teddy Dondanville leading climb
© Marshall King

Despite the primitive setup, camping at Jackson Falls allows you to walk to and from the crags and connect with other climbers. Campfires burn every night, and groups of climbers frequently socialize into the wee hours of the morning.

For other, more developed campsites with amenities, like picnic tables and fire rings, check out Ferne Clyffe State Park (1) and Giant City State Park (2).

Jackson Falls Rock Climbing

Jackson Falls sandstone canyon climbing
© Marshall King

The vast majority of climbing routes at Jackson are bolted sport climbs. However, there is some traditional climbing and the occasional boulder. So if you want a break from sport climbing, you can also pack a rack and a pad or two.

Style-wise, Jackson Falls is best known for its less-than-vertical friction slab climbing and almost perfectly vertical walls. However, Jackson Falls has multiple crags with steeper overhung terrain.

The entire area is divided into five main sections, each with smaller crags. Overall, there are enough climbing routes to keep even the strongest climber busy for a lifetime.

North Canyon

The rock climbing in the North Canyon is some of the best. Compared to other zones, the approach is longer. However, the hike is well worth it to experience a sample of Jackson’s best and hardest climbs at Railroad Rock, Big Star Beaver Wall, and the Mr. Jimmy Boulder.

Classic routes in the North Canyon

  1. Big Wall Greg’s Chicken Shack, 5.6
  2. Express Checkout Line. 59
  3. Wild at Heart, 5.11a
  4. Who Needs Friends, 5.12a
  5. Zen Arcade, 5.13c

West Falls

Climber on a trad route in Jackson Falls
© Marshall King

The West Falls area is home to some of Jackon Falls’ most traveled routes and comes in high demand. There is something for everyone in this sector–everything from jug hauls in the Gallery, improbable overhung terrain on Dynasty Wall, and classic sandstone slabs on the Battle Axe Tower.

Classic routes in the West Falls Area

  • The Dagger, 5.8
  • Earthbound Misfit, 5.10a
  • Group Therapy, 5.10c
  • Viking Blood, 5.12c
  • East of East Saint Louis, 5.13c

North Falls

North Falls sport route
© Marshall King

The North Falls area is the crown jewel of Jackson mainly because it has the largest waterfall and a beautiful watering hole. Besides the water features, it has fantastic climbs on gigantic free-standing boulders like Spleef Peak and the Lovely Tower and classic routes riddled along the canyon’s Northerly walls.

Classic routes in the North Falls Area

  • Deetle Dumps, 5.8
  • Through the Smoke, 5.9
  • Who Let the Snakes Out, 5.10b
  • Lovely Arete, 5.11a
  • Cro-Magnon Warrior, 5.12b

East Falls

Crag at East Falls
© Marshall King

The East Falls Area is sometimes a forgotten sector at Jackson. However, there is plenty to do, especially during rainy days at the Rainy Day Roof. Plus, the quieter crags in the East Falls are perfect for avoiding crowds and warming up, then moving zones to try something harder and less crowded.

Classic routes in the East Falls Area

  • Fat and Sassy, 5.9
  • Dolphin Friendly, 5.10a
  • Lightening, 5.10c
  • Zapped, 5.11a
  • Fred and Wilma, 5.12b

South Canyon

The South Canyon of Jackson Falls is a nice reprieve from the rest of the crags. Despite being loaded with classics, it typically feels quieter and more “out there.” It’s perfect for sunny afternoons and has everything from steep overhangs to one-of-a-kind Jackson slab climbing on slopers.

Classic routes in the South Canyon

  • Groovy Marcia, 5.9
  • Cheerio Bowl, 5.10a
  • Lasso the Vulture, 5.11a
  • Detox Mountain, 5.12a
  • Gangster of Love, 5.12c
Sport climber in Illinois
© Marshall King

Recommended Guide Books and Other Resources

The most up-to-date guidebook for the area is Jackson Falls: A Guide to Southern Illinois’ Best Kept Secret, written by Yusef Daneshyar.

However, older documentation of rock climbing in Southern IL and the Shawnee National Forest can be found in Vertical Heartland: a Rock Climber’s Guide to Southern Illinois, written by Eric Ulner.

For more information about climbing in Illinois and how to participate in conserving the climbing, consider joining the Illinois Climbing Association (3).

To hire a guide for Jackson Falls and surrounding areas, check out Vertical Voyages (4).

Other Climbing Areas Nearby

Giant City State Park, Illinois
Giant City State Park, Illinois

The more time you spend in Southern IL, the more rock you realize is available for climbing. So while Jackson Falls certainly is the crown jewel of the State, there’s plenty more to do nearby.

  • The Holy Boulders (5) is the premier location for high-quality sandstone bouldering, with hundreds of boulders ranging from V0 to V13.
  • Giant City State Park (6) is regarded by many as the birthplace of hard, progressive climbing in Southern Illinois, and it’s practically roadside.
  • Lake Kincaid (7) is the spot locals go to for deep-water soloing when the climate during the summer is unbearable for climbing.
  • Cedar Bluff (8) is a smaller, sleepier version of Jackson Falls, ideal for avoiding crowds and mixing things up.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Climber in Jackson Falls
© Marshall King
How difficult are the routes?

Jackson Falls has something for everyone. There are routes ranging from 5.6 to 5.13+, and even some unsent projects.

Should I hire a climbing guide?

If you are new to the area or to the sport of climbing, we recommend hiring a guide (9). By hiring a guide, you get to experience the best of what Jackson Falls has to offer and do so under the supervision of a professional guide trained to mitigate risk.

Are there any top-rope routes?

Many of the routes can be accessed from the rim of the canyon for top roping. All sport climbs have bolted anchors. Some are safer to access than others, so whenever building top ropes, protect yourself around the edge and always build a bomber anchor.

When is the best time to go sport climbing or bouldering at Jackson Falls?

Typically, the weather is most agreeable in Illinois between September and December. The Spring between March and May is enjoyable also, but it comes with more precipitation.

References

Ferne Clyffe State Park
https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/Parks/Camp/Pages/FerneClyffe.aspx

Giant City State Park
https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/parks/camp/pages/giantcity.aspx

Illinois Climbing Association
https://www.ilclimbers.org/

Vertical Voyages
https://verticalvoyages.com/

The Holy Boulders
https://www.mountainproject.com/area/108116766/the-holy-boulders

Giant City State Park
https://www.mountainproject.com/area/106612569/giant-city-state-park

Lake Kincaid
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rooJByABmM&ab_channel=discoveruradventure

Cedar Bluff
https://www.mountainproject.com/area/110006177/cedar-bluff

Vertical Voyages
https://verticalvoyages.com/

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