By Jennifer Young

Millenia of water and wind erosion, and the cataclysmic force of the 1811 New Madrid Earthquakes, gouged an open wound in the limestone bluffs along the Ohio River. Lurking at the southern border of Illinois and only miles from the southern tail of Indiana this wound would be named Cave-in-Rock.

Located in Hardin County, Cave-in-Rock refers to a village on the Ohio River, a state park, and a unique cave formation that remains a popular tourist attraction.

The limestone cave measures 55 feet in width and features deep recesses that made it an attractive refuge for bandits, but its position high in the bluffs overlooking the Ohio River also made it difficult to access unnoticed. Over time, it has been referred to by many names, including Big Cave, Rocking Cave, and House of Nature.


In the late 1700s, the cave became a natural outpost for outlaws and bandits that included counterfeiters, horse thieves, and robbers. It’s said that even killers and highwaymen took shelter in the cave.

Photo from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Division of Forestry. 1936

As an infamous hideout for outlaws, Cave-in-Rock remains an iconic symbol of the lawless ‘West,’ an example of the hard-living associated with the American frontier. The cave even provided shelter for the Harpe Brothers, a pair of psychopaths considered the first documented serial killers in American history. The brothers enjoyed kidnapping strangers, robbing them, then pushing them off the cliff above the cave to splatter against the jagged rocks below.

It was the site, for a time, of a brothel and a hideout for gangs who robbed river travelers before murdering them. The site’s horrific reputation grew.

As increasing numbers of pioneers moved westward, the area attracted more attention from law enforcement. The criminals and gangs that congregated in and around the cave were captured or driven out. The earliest known settlement near the cave dates to 1816, but the Cave-in-Rock village was not incorporated officially until 1901. In 1929, the state acquired more than 60 acres including the cave to create a park, known today as Cave-in-Rock State Park.

Its natural beauty and horrific history attracted the attention of MGM Studios, which chose the site as a pivotal scene in his 1962 epic How the West Was Won, starring…well, everybody in Hollywood.

Cave-in-Rock scene (Jimmy Stewart in middle)

This state park (and the neighboring Shawnee National Forest) attracts throngs of visitors who come to enjoy hiking, camping, and boating. Cave-in-Rock is a major attraction all its own. The hiking trail through the park and cave is considered one of the scariest in America, and is immensely popular during the Halloween season.

The village of Cave-in-Rock features many lodging accommodations and restaurants. Camping remains a popular pastime, particularly among visitors who are interested in the area’s notorious past.

Map courtesy of Illinois DNR

Are ghosts of the murdered afoot in the woodlands near the cave and its surrounding grounds? Who can say? Many souls have been murdered in the cave’s vicinity as well as in historic early inns that promised to shelter travelers and failed. If you’re looking for a spooky place to camp this fall or simply want to marvel at a glorious natural cave formation, consider visiting the cave site.

But it might be best not to travel alone!