Southern Illinois (SoILL) can brag about being a treasure trove of many things: magnificent rolling landscape, great freshwater fishing, the Salukis and big-hearted country folk. What it’s not known for is its beaches. And, no, I’m not about to reveal a pristine, sugar-white strand hidden right under our noses. Rather, the shoreline paralleling the Mississippi River holds something of a different secret, attracting adventurers of a special breed — those looking to rise above the sand rather than tan on it.
Roughly 2 miles north of Grand Tower (once dubbed “the unluckiest town in America” by Time magazine due to its location in a notorious flood plain as well as on the New Madrid fault line), resides a half-mile stretch of house-sized, sandstone boulders towering proudly over Old Man River. As if drawn from a rock-jock’s imagination, each stone features dozens of outstanding problems with smooth sandbar landings. This strip of climbing paradise, called “The Beach” by local enthusiasts, is where they flock whenever the Mighty Mississippi hasn’t swallowed it during high water.
Deep, Dark Hollow
Despite the present zeal I have for The Beach’s location and offerings, I confess that my initial experience was less than ideal. My close friend, Zach Rose, and I had decided to make a trip to examine the scene. At the time, we were completing our studies at different universities, so we decided to rendezvous at the end of Happy Hallow Road, which leads to the parking and camping zone for the boulders.
Due to traffic, I arrived about an hour behind Zach. When I arrived, I surprisingly found his car parked midway and asked why he hadn’t driven to the end of the road like the guidebook, “Sandstone Warrior: A Bouldering Guide to Southern Illinois,” suggested.
Zach adamantly exclaimed that he was never driving down the road again! It seems that at the end of the road, he had discovered a freshly gutted deer carcass and heard scrambling in the woods around him while he examined the corpse. Immediately afterward he became overwhelmed with jitters and consumed by a feeling that he would be the next victim of whatever had mauled the deer.
I laughingly shrugged off his anxiety and hustled him into my car to inspect the end of the road once more. As we steered down Happy Hollow on that gloomy autumn night, it did feel as if we were plunging into the belly of the beast with each bend in the jagged dirt road. Tree branches crept overhead, attempting to snatch us as we approached our goal. I felt apprehensive as we reached the turnaround. There was patch of blood-soaked earth where the deer had rested, but now its body had vanished and echoing in the distance were the faint thuds of something thrashing.
Zach didn’t need to say anything; we both knew we were sleeping elsewhere that night. Now, you can choose to dismiss this story as the over-active imaginations of two young men, but if you decide to sleep at Happy Hollow, remember these words and be forewarned.
The next morning we returned to a completely altered Happy Hollow. Maybe it was the morning light or the climbing itch in our fingertips, but the road suddenly appeared inviting and the blood from the deer had mysteriously disappeared. Thus, we unloaded our bouldering pads and proceeded to hike the four-wheeler path leading to the river’s edge.
Hiking to the first cluster of boulders nestled along the river’s banks is quite the trudge and can take from 20 or 30 minutes, depending on your speed. Later on, I learned from fellow climbers that Happy Hollow is actually the least accessible route to the boulders. Rather, if you follow Power Plant Road west off of Illinois Route 3, just north of Grand Tower, you can park at the end of the road. From there, it’s a scenic stroll following the river upstream along the Illinois-Missouri state line to the boulders, avoiding the bushwhacking and thorn bushes that accompany the trail adjacent to Happy Hollow.
Regardless of your elected approach, I promise your troubles will fade once you catch a glimpse of The Beach.
Highballs and Lowballs
Matt Bliss, the author of “Sandstone Warrior,” created a masterpiece with his guidebook but failed to capture the full scale of some of the boulders at The Beach. Seriously, some of them are monstrous! Don’t let this discourage your climbing hype. There are problems for those who fancy lowball as well as highball problems.
For climbers looking to stack bouldering pads and get some air underneath them, I recommend checking out “King of Smears” (graded v3) in “The Lunkers” area. If highballs aren’t your game, test your grip on “Dream Weaver” (graded v10) on the “Bootleg” boulder. Regardless of the problem you attempt, it’s going to be world-class, and having personally done most of them, I can say that every single one is a treat. Nonetheless, a trip to The Beach without trying a climb or two on the famous “Sex on the Beach” boulder is a wasted outing. This river-polished, lichen-free boulder holds incredible problems, ranging from v1to v10, but always checks your guard with its cruxy top-outs.
If you’re a grade-obsessive climber or only travel to locations where you can tick multiple hard sends in a day, The Beach might not be for you. While it does contain tough climbs, it isn’t the concentration of stiff grades that cultivates it into a notable destination, but the ambiance. I’ve been fortune enough to travel around the world, yet The Beach and the entire SoILL region consistently rank among my favorite destinations. (Please excuse my bias as a native Illinoisan.)
Just as was mine, your first bouldering trip to The Beach is guaranteed to be tale! The rest breaks and off-days are equally enjoyable. In between climbs, relax while boats steadily cruise on the water, or bring along some bait and tackle to dip your fishing pole in for a catch. As the sun dwindles, use one of the already fashioned fire pits to start a campfire, then unwind under the night sky and be charmed by the rippling of waves from a river that has served as the backdrop for some of America’s greatest stories.
After a day’s worth of hunger emerges, drive to Bottom’s Up Bar & Grill for a plate of fried chicken, which will compel you to never want to leave the rural nirvana of SoILL. Drive east over to Illinois Route 127 to grab a bottle of wine from one of several local wineries along this road. Trust me, a sip or two will help subdue your urge to return to The Beach until your next visit. Even now, as I live in England, the boulders at The Beach never escape my thoughts, and I yearn to be there every time the cold English wind howls against my window.
Get the Guide
“Sandstone Warrior: A Bouldering Guide to Southern Illinois” is billed as the region’s first exclusive bouldering guide. The 232-page paperback covers more than 450 problems at 12 different climbing areas and includes line drawings of boulders, directions and road maps, amenities and 60 full-page color photos. MSRP: $32; Lusk Creek Publishing; luskcreekpublishing.com
Author: A.K. Schaidle grew up climbing in Illinois
Image: Aidan Welby