November 1, 2021

A Settler’s View Remains – The Virgin Old Growth Forest of Beall Woods State Park

Photos by the author.

In the foreground is a creek emptying into a larger river, and a bank along the creek has trees and fallen logs. In the background is a line of trees against a bright blue sky.

Nestled on 635 acres in southeastern Illinois, just outside Mt. Carmel on the banks of the Wabash River, Beall Woods State Park provides the opportunity to experience one of the few remaining tracts of virgin old-growth forest east of the Mississippi River.

The magic and enthralling nature of the virgin old-growth forest resides with the park in Beall Woods Nature Preserve, a tract that has been enticing visitors, scientists, researchers and lovers of trees for more than a century.

“People from all over the world come here to see the huge trees,” said Jaque Cullison, Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Natural Resource Coordinator for Beall Woods State Park.

A man with a long gray beard examines a huge trunk of an ancient cottonwood tree in a lush green summer woodland.

Cullison went on to explain, “Edward and Mary Beall originally owned the property, with their last living heir, Laura Beall, passing away without a will. After a long, often contentious process, the state of Illinois purchased the land in 1965.

In 1966, 329 acres of old-growth virgin forest within Beall Woods State Park was dedicated as the fourteenth Illinois Nature Preserve by the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission (INPC).

The site is registered as a National Landmark and listed as the “Forest of the Wabash” in the U. S. Register of Natural Landmarks.

“Beall Woods is a great example of fulfilling the mission of the INPC, which provides the highest level of legal protection to exemplary sites representing our state’s natural heritage,” noted INPC Natural Areas Preservation Specialist Sami Childerson. “The work undertaken in 1966 has forever ensured that this place will remain for future generations to enjoy, study or simply stand in awe of.”

“The Beall family removed a few trees during the war effort, and occasionally one or two for what they needed on the farm, but basically everything was left intact,” Cullison said. “Because little harvest occurred it is considered virgin timber.”

It is the rarity of a forest of this age, and a tract that holds more more than 60 species of trees and many huge old-growth specimens, that draws visitors from all walks of life.

In the center of the graphic is a poem about a primitive woodland. Around the poem is a border showing a green summer woodland.

Cullison smiled as she fondly recalled one of those visitor encounters during her career at Beall Woods.

“I had a forester in his 90s come to visit the site,” she recalled. “He had traveled all over the United States, viewing magnificent forests everywhere. Forests were his life’s work. Accompanying him at the beginning of his hike on the Tuliptree Trail, he was nearly overcome with emotion and remarked how amazing it was to see trees of such size. He was struck by such a forest remaining east of the Mississippi.”

Over time amenities and additions have been developed at the park to enhance the visitor experience. In the late 1970s, a 15-acre lake was constructed to provide park visitors additional recreational opportunities. In addition to largemouth bass, bluegill, and catfish, anglers can fish for trout as the lake is part of the Illinois Catchable Trout Program.

A new Visitor Center was added in 2001. The immaculate and engaging center houses multiple educational displays about the native flora and fauna found in the park, as well as the history of the property.

A brown building is surrounded by trees. In front of the building is a sidewalk that connects with a mowed yard. In the mowed grassy area an American flag flies on a pole and a sign with the words "Visitor Center" stands to the right of the sidewalk.

The Visitor Center is the perfect first stop when exploring Beall Woods State Park and is conveniently located next to the trailhead for the Tuliptree Trail. The Tuliptree Trail makes a great start to exploring the Beall Woods Nature Preserve.

To insure that visitors have an opportunity to get the “full picture” of the virgin forest located within preserve, five established trails (see box) offer hikers varied and excellent views of Beall Woods’ renowned old-growth forest.

Beall Woods State Park and Beall Woods Nature Preserve are truly shining examples of the Wabash Border Natural Division. A visit to these sites should be on the “must do” list for anyone wishing to experience an awe-inspiring tract of true virgin old-growth forest and true national natural landmarks.

A graphic describing different trails in Beall Woods State Park. In the background is a subtle map texture.

Gretchen Steele hails from Coulterville, Illinois. Steele is a freelance outdoor communicator. Her award-winning work appears as a regular columnist and contributing feature writer for Heartland Outdoors, Illinois Outdoor News and several Illinois newspapers. She enjoys spending her time afield as a volunteer for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Delta Waterfowl Foundation, Retrievers Unlimited and the Illinois Federation of Outdoor Resources. She is currently Vice President of Missouri Outdoor Communicators and a former board member of Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers.

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Question: Was there a Sycamore tree there that died earlier last century that was supposed to be the largest tree east of the Rocky mountains?