We may not always get a big snow in the winter, but it does seem that the "Polar Vortex" always makes at least one appearance. These Arctic blasts do offer one advantage: ice formations.
Waterfalls turn to massive columns of ice. Bluffs are covered in icicles. Rock shelters develop icy "stalagmites" and "stalactites" as water seeps through cracks, then freezes, thaws, and re-freezes.
The trick is to visit when the weather starts to warm, but is not too warm that the ice has thawed too much. Be careful because rocks covered in ice are slicker than snot, and dangling icicles can turn into falling daggers aimed right at your head.
The sandstone canyons of Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois are particularly good places to view ice formations. Here are some ideas on places to visit to enjoy a winter wonderland -- with or without snow.
Hickory Canyons Natural Area
Ste. Genevieve County, MO
This natural area features a pair of canyons, some of the deepest and most impressive sandstone canyons in Missouri. From the parking area, two trails lead in opposite directions, but either one will take you to frozen waterfalls. (Info and directions)
Pickle Springs Natural Area
Ste. Genevieve County, MO
Pickle Springs is best known for its gravity-defying rock formations such as Double Arch and The Keyhole, but this natural area also features bluffs that are perfect places for icicles to form. (Info and directions)
Highway 72 Roadcuts
West of Fredericktown, Madison County, MO
The deep roadcuts on Highway 72 west of Fredericktown are a popular field trip location for geology students. But ice often forms across the rock faces, so this can be a fun place for the non-geologist too.
Giant City State Park
Makanda, Jackson County, IL
Giant City features several waterfalls, although many are off the beaten path and not well known. However, one of the falls -- which is capable of freezing completely solid -- is located just a short hike past the rock climbers' wall. Look for Shelter #1 near the entrance road from Makanda, and follow the bluffline to the left (west) to reach the falls.
Ferne Clyffe State Park
Goreville, Johnson County, IL
The most popular attraction at Ferne Clyffe State Park is the big waterfall at the end of the Big Rocky Hollow Trail. Even in the coldest weather, this is still true, except the big waterfall is now a big icefall. When I visited during an Arctic blast a few years ago, the falls was only a few inches shy of turning into a solid column of ice.
Cove Hollow at Cedar Lake
North of Alto Pass, Jackson County, IL
The trailhead for the Cove Hollow Trail is located at the end of a paved road, which makes this a convenient destination during icy and snowy weather when other roads might be too treacherous. The first segment of the trail leads down to a rock shelter overlooking Cedar Lake and overtopped by a chunk of ice. (Info and directions)
Northwest of Eddyville, Pope County, IL
Burden Falls is considered one of the the tallest waterfalls in Illinois, and so it's a popular destination in cold weather. Located at the head of a canyon that spends most of the day in shadow, Burden Falls is quite capable of freezing completely solid. Reaching the bottom of the falls can be dangerous, however, as the rocks here can be deceptively slick. (Info and directions)
North of Vienna, Johnson County, IL
The Bulge Hole, a deep rock shelter, is the centerpiece of a sprawling network of sandstone canyons located within earshot of Interstate 24. Following a cold snap, the canyons turn into a landscape of ice formations around every corner. (Info and directions)
Piney Creek Ravine Nature Preserve
Randolph County, IL
Piney Creek Ravine is a popular destination during the fall and spring for its Native American rock art, but this canyonland also features a surplus of ice formations in the winter. The area can be particularly treacherous, however, especially near the tops of the bluffs and waterfalls. (Info and directions)