Bell Smith Springs - Mill Branch
GPS: 37.565807; -88.607482; Bell Smith Springs Rd, Ozark, IL 62972
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Bell Smith Springs Natural Area is a real gem in the Shawnee National Forest. We decided on “Mill Branch” (orange blaze) for a hike but there are a few others to choose from. Mill Branch is a two-mile loop that goes along a rocky gorge and then circles back to where you parked. There are big expanses of exposed rock and in October there was some water but not a lot, so we felt comfortable getting down in the gorge. Both the walk along the gorge and through the woods were magnificent. This is one of the most treasured family hikes I’ve ever done. The fall foliage made it beyond compare.
I recommend going counter-clockwise on the loop because if you don’t do the whole loop, you can enjoy the most rewarding part of the gorge and then simply turn back. It does get a little confusing towards the end if you do the whole loop. I forgot to download AllTrails which was a mistake. But here’s what you’ll do once you see an opportunity to go towards the white blaze (don’t) – veer hard to the left and you’ll go down towards a valley and then keep watching for orange blazes that will lead you back to your car.
From Harrisburg, take Highway 145 south 9 miles to Delwood. Take Forest Rd. 402 west 4 miles to Forest Road 447. Turn south on Forest Road 447, continue past Teal Pond to Forest Road 848. Turn southwest on Forest Road 848 for 2 miles to the Recreation Area entrance. From Vienna, take Highway 45 north to Ozark. Turn east and follow the directional signs to the recreation area entrance
Approx GPS coordinates N 37.565807 and W -88.607482
If you are going to Mill Branch, you will need to take a right BEFORE Redbud Campground. If you pass Redbud Campground, you have gone too far. Going past Redbud campground will take you to other trails, including “Natural Bridge” (yellow blaze) which we heard is also excellent. We had planned on checking out “Burden Falls” and “Jackson Falls” – both very close to Mill Branch, but the waterfalls were dry in October, so we decided to skip these additional stops and head back to Nashville.
Cell phone signals can be very limited and weak. Download any maps you may need in advance.
There is limited accommodation in and around the Forest. Plan or bring a tent or be prepared to drive to Paducah for a hotel.
Restaurants are limited in and around the Forest. Bring food and water with you.