There are many hidden gems in Illinois' landscape, and one of the best is Bell Smith Springs. This site is a canyon area located in southern Illinois, in the Shawnee National Forest. It may be isolated, but it's definitely worth a visit.
There are many different interesting things in Bell Smith Springs, one of them being the juniper forests near the top of the canyon. These areas do not have any soil, so the juniper trees grow completely on the rock surface, accompanied by various species of moss and lichen. You might see something unusual there: prickly pear cactus. Surprisingly, prickly pear cactus is Illinois' only native cactus species, and it can tolerate areas like these because it does not need much water. If you're looking for animals, small lizards might live under rocks or logs in this area.
There are other habitats in Bell Smith Springs than just the rock faces at the top of the canyon. Many different kinds of trees and moss also grow along the canyon's slope, which has a bit more soil than the bare rock face at the top. There is also a stream habitat at the bottom, and various species of amphibian can be found here, including newts and frogs. There are also minnows and various invertebrates in the stream, and those are always interesting to see.
The neatest thing to see at Bell Smith Springs is the rock bridge. Near the juniper forests at the top, the trail leads along a rock bridge that goes directly over part of the canyon. Don't stray too near the edge! This rock bridge can be slippery and dangerous. It's a spectacular view, though, and below the rock bridge toward the back, there is a small cave area. There is also a trailer that goes up and down both sides of the canyon, but be cautious here, as well, because it is a very steep hike in rough terrain. These trails aren't paved, and most of the time, there aren't even wood chips.
Bell Smith Springs is a fascinating place. Give it a visit. The hiking will give you lots of exercise, and the experiences and vistas make the journey worthwhile.