Trails: Sentinel and Sunset Trails
Hike Location: Mississippi Palisades State ParkGeographic Location: north of Savanna, IL (42.12740, -90.15642)Length: 2.1 milesDifficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)Last Hiked: May 2019Overview: A pair of short but steep loops climbing rocky bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.Park Information: Route Map:
Directions to the trailhead: From Savanna, take SR 84 north 2.4 miles to the south entrance for Mississippi Palisades State Park. Turn right to enter the park, then park in the first perpendicular parking lot on the right. This parking lot serves a picnic shelter and the trailheads for this hike.
The hike: The steep, rocky bluffs and towering stone spires that sit beside the Mississippi River near the mouth of the Apple River have been attracting visitors for centuries. Birds migrating up and down the Mississippi River perch on these bluffs, and American Indians used some of the same routes up and down these bluffs that hikers use on the park’s trails today. The area was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1973, the same year the 2500 acre park was established. The palisades’ scenic blufftop overlooks, many of which are accessible by car, form the park’s main attractions. In terms of amenities, the park offers a 241-site campground, fishing and boating on the Mississippi River, 6 picnic shelters, rock climbing, and 15 miles of hiking trails. The hike described here uses two short loops that start from the same picnic shelter near the park’s south entrance, and they provide a good sample of the hiking the park has to offer while passing the park’s most famous rock formation: a thin stone spire known as The Sentinel.

Trailhead for Sentinel Trail

This hike starts with the Sentinel Trail, which begins at a signed trailhead behind the picnic shelter near the National Natural Landmark plaque. The trail crosses a creek on a high stone and wood bridge to reach an intersection, where you need to turn left to head for the bluff. The option going right here goes to the base of the bluffs near SR 84.

Climbing on the Sentinel Trail

The trail climbs a wooden staircase to reach the intersection that forms the loop portion of the Sentinel Trail. To get to The Sentinel quickly, this hike will turn right and use the left trail as its return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise. The narrow trail climbs moderately with the bluff to your left and a steep drop-off to your right. Some rocky areas need to be negotiated, so take care where you step up here. At 0.4 miles, you reach the platform that overlooks The Sentinel. The Sentinel is a thin grey rock spire that stands separated from the main bluff. The Mississippi River forms the background of this view, and it was near flood stage due to recent rains when I came here. Birds including goldfinches and indigo bunting flew past my head, and this park would be an excellent birdwatching destination during the fall or spring migrations. This overlook may provide the best view on this hike, so take some time here to see what you can see.

The Sentinel

The Sentinel with Mississippi River as backdrop

The now wider trail heads away from the overlook on an eastbound course that goes directly up the spine of the ridge. At 0.6 miles, the Sentinel Trail’s loop turns left on a narrower trail marked as “Main Shelter.” The wider trail going straight leads to a blufftop parking lot on the main park road. The narrow trail winds its way downhill through a forest carpeted with ferns. Trillium in bloom brightened my path. A couple of downed trees need to be negotiated, but overall the trails at Mississippi Palisades are well-maintained. At 0.85 miles, you close the loop. Descend the wooden stairs and return to the picnic shelter to complete the Sentinel Trail.

Trailhead for Sunset Trail

If you are getting tired or running out of time, then you can return to your car now having hiked the park’s most popular trail. For hikers with more time and energy, the Sunset Trail can be accessed from a signed trailhead located across the road from this shelter. The Sunset Trail starts by climbing a long wooden staircase to reach the intersection that forms its loop. To make the climbing easier, this description turns left and uses the right trail as its return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.

Climbing on the Sunset Trail

The trail climbs on a gradual to moderate grade via a narrow route with a steep drop-off to the left. Part of this climb uses some rough stone steps, so as with the Sentinel Trail you need to be careful where you step. After a broad switchback upward through a ravine, you reach an unnamed blufftop overlook at 1.25 miles. Although no rock spires can be seen, the view from here is broader than the view at The Sentinel, and it includes US 52’s Mississippi River bridge near Savanna and a riverside BNSF railroad track. Enjoy the view, but be careful where you step: there are no railings at this overlook, and a fall down the bluff would be injurious if not fatal.

View downstream from unnamed overlook

Continuing on the Sunset Trail, a few hundred more feet of hiking bring you to Lookout Point, the Sunset Trail’s main developed overlook. A nearby parking lot ensures this overlook gets more traffic than the one you just passed, but the view is very similar. Past Lookout Point, the trail drops on a steep grade almost all of the way to the base of the bluff before crossing a stream on a wooden footbridge, curving right, and climbing equally steeply to cross the park road that leads to the Lookout Point parking lot. If you want to avoid these steep areas, you can simply walk up the road from Lookout Point and look for the Sunset Trail sign on the right.

View from Lookout Point

The rest of the Sunset Trail is a gradual to moderate descent back to the picnic shelter. Some black plastic has been buried under the trail in an attempt to stabilize the trail surface, but some of the plastic has risen to the surface and is quite slippery. At 2.1 miles, you close the loop. Descending the stairs and walking a short distance on the park road returns you to your car to complete the hike. If you have more time, the park has many similar trails that wait to be explored, and the park’s roads lead to many blufftop overlooks offering similar excellent views.