Throughout Illinois’ rich farmland and towering forests are bluffs and rock bottom creeks that hold special treasures. The treasure isn’t gold or diamonds, but something ancient and beautiful. It’s called rock art. Most archaeologists believe it was created hundreds or even thousands of years ago, possibly by a group of people known as the Mississippians — the same group that constructed the prehistoric city of Cahokia, a World Heritage Site, known for its large and mysterious mounds.

While most people associate rock art with the Desert Southwest, few realize it’s found throughout the United States. In the Midwest, rock art sites can be found in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. In fact, 198-acre Piney Creek Ravine Nature Preserve, a 90-minute drive southeast of St. Louis in Illinois’ Randolph and Jackson counties, is one of the best places in the region to view prehistoric art.

Deep in the ravine, or more accurately, the canyon, archaeologists have rediscovered 200 ancient images. These consist of pictographs, which were painted on rock, and petroglyphs, which were pecked or carved into the sandstone walls. In many cases, such art is protected from the weather by an overhanging ledge or outward leaning shelter bluff.

Piney Creek petroglyph

Look but don’t touch.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), the pictographs at Piney Creek were created by grinding minerals and mixing them to create the desired colors.

Animal fat was added to make the mixture adhere to rock surfaces. Among the pictographs at the preserve are human figures and hands, deer, serpents, birds, and a canoe. The petroglyphs, meanwhile, were created by hammering a hard rock against softer rock, often sandstone. These “pecked” images include human figures, crosses, deer, and serpents.

In addition to inspiring awe in those who view it, rock art offers insight into prehistoric cultures beyond what is learned from artifacts such as stone tools and pottery. Pictographs and petroglyphs are windows into the mind and soul of the artist. IDNR staff believe many of the images and designs are linked to religious ceremonies, a conclusion based on human-like figures that were created with wings instead of arms or that have horned head dresses. Both signify spiritual power.

Planning Your Trip

There are several things to consider before visiting Piney Creek Ravine. The rural area around the preserve is home to a number of Amish families. Cell phone signals may be weak or nonexistent. Gas stations and convenience stores are limited in number.

Other than a gravel parking lot, there are no facilities at the preserve, not even primitive toilets. From the parking lot, it takes approximately 25 minutes to hike into the ravine. An interpretive sign at the main rock art site offers basic information about the images.

Piney Creek Ravine is also home to a number of rare plant species. By following a 2.2-mile circular trail, hikers can view short leaf pines (native to only one other place in Illinois), sphagnum moss, liverworts, and American agave. Wildlife includes a variety of birds, fence lizards, box turtles, chipmunks, and white-tailed deer.

Piney Creek Nature Preserve

Piney Creek has been placed on the National REgister of HIstoric Places.

Because Piney Creek Ravine is a nature preserve, hiking and sightseeing are the only activities allowed. It’s critically important for visitors to stay on the trail while admiring the ravine; do not take short cuts.

“This area is of high importance to historical preservation,” said Shawn Gossman, a local guide. “Surveillance cameras are in use to protect Native American culture, and the area is frequently patrolled by local law enforcement, conservation police, and nearby locals who will protect the area like it is their own property. Vandalism of any kind done here will be met with swift punishment, as it should be.”

Another reason to stay on the trail: The rock bottom creeks in the preserve are extremely slippery when wet. Following a creek bed downhill could result in a hiker losing traction and sliding over a steep drop off. Additional hazards include flash floods, venomous snakes, and poison ivy.

Getting There

Piney Creek Ravine Nature Preserve is located at 2280 Piney Creek Road in Campbell Hill, Illinois, west of Du Quoin and south of Steelville on the Randolph-Jackson County Line.

To get there, take IL Route 4 to Rock Crusher Road (in the town of Campbell Hill). Go west on Rock Crusher Road to Piney Creek Road. A sign for the preserve is located at the intersection.

Alternatively, you can take IL Route 3 to Hog Hill Road. Go east on Hog Hill to Rock Crusher Road and follow the signs to Piney Creek Road and the preserve.

Rock Art Etiquette

Here’s how to avoid damaging rock art:

  • Look, but don’t touch. Your skin leaves behind oils that damage pigments.
  • Never repaint or outline the art to make it more noticeable.
  • Don’t spray the image with water or try to make a rubbing of the art.
  • Do take pictures, but WITHOUT flash. Bright light can cause colors to fade.

 Other Area Attractions

Contact each site for updates on COVID-19 restrictions.

Shawnee Country Store, Ava: Operated by New Order Amish, the store has become a popular stopping point. Rumor has it they will make you a sandwich while you browse shelves full of Amish foods and products.

Fort de Chartres State Historic Site, Prairie du Rocher: The current stone fort is the fourth in a series of French strongholds first established in 1753. Museum, picnic areas, and restrooms.

Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site, Ellis Grove: Constructed in 1759, there are scenic overlooks of the Mississippi River, camping sites, a picnic shelter, and restrooms.

Randolph County Conservation Area, Chester: Lake, boat rentals, fishing, trails, camping, picnic areas, and restrooms.

Pierre Menard Home State Historic Site, Chester: Menard, a successful businessman and fur trader, built his 1815 home in the French Creole architectural style. Check for tours.

Author: Susan Barker is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Images: Susan Barker and Louann Brown.