Discover the Tallest Waterfall in Illinois

Danita Delimont/

Written by Thomas Godwin

Updated: May 26, 2023

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There are plenty of waterfalls throughout Illinois, but there can be only one that’s the tallest. The award for the tallest waterfall in Illinois goes to Burden Falls in the Shawnee National Forest. The park itself is enormous, covering nearly 4,000 acres of real estate, and that’s only the Burden Falls Wilderness portion of the park.

The falls aren’t necessarily a straight drop. It’s more like a series of drops that add up to the highest drop in the state, a shade over 100 feet. To find Burden Falls, you have to head over to the eastern side of the park. Fortunately, like most national parks, you can purchase maps at the welcome center and locate the waterfall easily.

The only drawback to seeing Burden Falls is that the creek that feeds the falls frequently dries up during the summer months when the rain is less frequent. Of course, the timing is unfortunate since the best time to visit a waterfall is during the hottest time of the year.

Burden Falls in the Shawnee National Forest is the tallest waterfall in Illinois.

Burden Falls Wilderness

As mentioned above, this part of the park is essentially a park within a park. Known as the Burden Falls Wilderness, the 3,775-acre region is a part of the larger Shawnee National Park. The waterfall is surrounded by “second-growth” hardwood forest.

This waterfall, in particular, is very tiny in terms of the creek and the narrow stream waterfall itself. That’s despite being the tallest waterfall in the state. The entire area in which the falls exist was formed eons ago via erosion, mostly from glaciation to the north.

Illinois, for the most part, didn’t go through glaciation during the ice age. Nevertheless, the ice age played a role in the formation of Burden Falls, along with the surrounding area. The fact that the water that feeds Burden Falls is so narrow leads to dry creek beds when rainfall is no longer prevalent throughout the year.

A mini-drought is more than enough to dry up the waterfall until rain returns. Still, even during drier periods, the Burden Falls Wilderness is a gorgeous hardwood area with phenomenal hiking opportunities. The rocks over which the water flows are incredible to look at. When it’s dry, hikers get the opportunity to see the way erosion works and the overall impression it leaves behind.

Where is Burden Falls Located on a Map?

Burden Falls is one of the most stunning natural attractions in the Shawnee National Forest, located in Southern Illinois. The waterfall cascades down a rock face and into a serene pool below, making it a popular destination for nature lovers and hikers alike.

To reach Burden Falls from Carbondale, head south on IL-127 for approximately 20 miles until you reach Pomona Road. Turn right onto Pomona Road and continue for about six miles before turning left onto Forest Service Road 345 (also known as Burden Falls Road). Follow this road until you see signs indicating the trailhead parking area.

From there, follow the marked trails to hike down to Burden Falls – it’s only about half a mile away! Be sure to wear sturdy shoes or hiking boots, as some parts of the trail can be slippery or steep.

Overall, visiting Burden Falls is an incredible way to experience the beauty of Illinois’ natural landscape and immerse yourself in its peaceful surroundings.

Wildlife Around Burden Falls Wilderness

If you include birds and insects, there are a ton of animals that call Burden Falls Wilderness home. In terms of mammals, you’ll find gray squirrels, whitetail deer, pileated woodpeckers, bluebirds, turkeys, and the barred owl.

Those are the most well-recognized and frequently spotted animals throughout the area but there are certainly more. The barred owl is a beautiful bird of prey, and it’s also a haunting kind of beauty. Its wide eye-formation pattern (also known as its facial disc) is easily its most distinguishing pattern.

Its other features include soft browns subtly mixed with white plumage and large, dark eyes. Barred owls, like most owls, hunt during the night hours, often targeting small rodents, such as mice and rabbits.

Whitetail deer are not quite as common in the northern states as they are in the south, but their range tends to spread northward in a more central/eastern pattern, along with westward towards the Rockies. Whitetail are known for their distinctive, cotton-white fur on the underside of their tails. Whenever they become frightened or flee the area, they flick their tails up in warning, exposing the pure white underside.

The pileated woodpecker is one of the largest woodpeckers out there and features a strikingly red patch of short-cropped feathers on its head. It’s a very distinctive bird and easily recognizable, either by its patterns or by hearing it as it hammers away on a tree.

The gray squirrels in the area are very common, and the species that inhabit the Burden Falls Wilderness area are better known as eastern gray squirrels.

One of the hardest animals to spot is the wild turkey. Despite common misperceptions of turkeys, they are very skittish. If you want to spot one, it just about has to be accidental, such as stumbling upon one that is hunkered down in the undergrowth.

Female Pileated Woodpecker on Tree Trunk in Fall.

The pileated woodpecker is one of the largest woodpeckers out there and features a strikingly red patch of short-cropped feathers on its head.

Burden Falls Compared to America’s Tallest Waterfall

The total drop from the beginning of the Burden Falls waterfall to the moment it hits the bottom is 100 feet even. The tallest waterfall in the United States is the Olo’upena Falls in Hawaii. From top to bottom, the Olo’upena Falls is a staggering 2,953 feet.

That’s 29 and half times the dropping distance of the Burden Falls in Illinois. Of course, the tallest waterfall in Illinois maintains an ephemeral sort of beauty that you just can’t find very often. It’s a peaceful and quiet, rippling waterfall rather than the roaring, raw power of Olo’upena.

Final Thoughts

The tallest waterfall in Illinois is Burden Falls in Shawnee National Forest. It’s certainly not a monster waterfall like Niagara Falls or Yosemite Falls, but it’s still an amazing and beautiful waterfall on its own. Though it tends to dry up in the summer months, the park is always open year-round, and you can visit Burden Falls whenever you want.

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About the Author

Thomas is a freelance writer with an affinity for the great outdoors and Doberman Pinschers. When he's not sitting behind the computer, pounding out stories on black bears and reindeer, he's spending time with his family, two Dobermans (Ares and Athena), and a Ragdoll cat named Heimdal. He also tends his Appleyard Ducks and a variety of overly curious and occasionally vexatious chickens.

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