The Little Grand Canyon is somewhere I've been wanting to visit for a long time after reading about it in 60 Hikes in 60 Miles, and it did not disappoint! The drive there feels so out of the way that you can't imagine that other people will even be there (there were a few other cars, but we only saw two other people on the trail the entire time, heading back up to the parking lot)-- the road is so twisty and turny and full of farms and street names that don't exist. It was a very windy day, but sunny and still warm enough that I could get away with a couple layers (t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, and a fleece). We took the trail counter clock-wise as suggested by Steve Henry, and this was definitely the right choice. Not only did it save the views and the easier hiking for the end, but when climbing back up some of the rocks I couldn't imagine trying to go DOWN that way! At first the trail had me a bit scared-- it was paved, something I don't really enjoy while hiking. But within just a few minutes, the trail turns into rock and starts switchbacking you down into the canyon (or whatever you want to call it). Once you flaten out, you are faced with a pathway between the rocks jutting up around you, turning into a steep pathway that requires quite a bit of climbing to get down to the bottom. The rocks were very slippery too, from both water and from all the fallen leaves. There were a few steps cut into the rocks here and there, but it wasn't always the best way to choose. Dad and I had fun scrambling around the rocks, trying not to slip and fall, and treating it like a puzzle to be solved.
After hitting the bottom, you walk in the flatlands under the cliffs for awhile, stepping over creeks and admiring the sheer awe of the rocks rising up beside you. The trail is fairly well marked, but the leaves did often make the trail sometimes hard to follow at times. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous. Eventually you have to climb back up to the level you started at, and this was slightly more challenging than climbing down. Once again, the steps aren't always the easiest choice, and I did quite a bit of climbing on hands and knees as I slowly made my way up. After that you walk along the cliff edge for quite a big before being treated to a few really lovely views of the valley, with the Missouri bluffs less than 10 miles in the distance. The trail seems to climb uphill forever for awhile, and certainly makes you work at it! The end of the trail evens out into a long pleasant walk in the woods before panning back out into pavement before hitting the parking lot. Absolutely BEAUTIFUL hike, and though it was only 3.6 miles long, the trail has challenging moments that give you a work out.
Piney Creek Nature Preserve was a bit of a disappointment, but not a bad hike in the end. About 2.25 miles in length, it's a fairly straightforward trail with mostly woods, and a few rocky areas for a bit of diversity. During a different time of year, though, I know that there would be streams and waterfalls which probably would have made the tail much more exciting. The trail is marked somewhat well, but has certain areas that are hard to follow and where the signposts have warped (not to mention the leaves, as usual, making the trail hard to pick out under your feet). It was a nice cool-down hike after the Little Grand Canyon. What the trail does boast is the biggest display of prehistoric rock art in southern Illinois. The problem is that there hasn't been much preservation measures taken so that any prehistoric art is almost impossible to pick out-- not to mention that the face of the wall is so full of graffiti and name carvings that if you DO think you see a prehistoric pictograph, you have no idea if it is real or fake. As a history buff, I find this sad and disappointing. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the trail. It was a lovely little walk in the woods, and the knowledge that there had been ancient rock art here is a really cool thing to think about.