Last updated on September 7th, 2020
Despite having lived in Chicago for many years, it is only as a recent visitor back to the state that I discovered the wooded beauty of the Shawnee National Forest and the Garden of the Gods Illinois. Who knew there was so much scenic wilderness in a state known for growing corn?
Where is Shawnee National Forest?
I discovered Shawnee national Forest on a Midwest road trip not long ago. I was traveling to discover new destinations in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
The southern tip of the state of Illinois is defined by the meandering Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Nestled in between these two major US waterways are 280,000 acres of federally managed lands that spread out across nine counties. In fact, Shawnee Forest is called the Land-Between-the-Rivers.
Within this vast acreage are seven designated wilderness areas that are protected and managed to preserve the natural conditions of the environment. This natural landscape provides an outdoor playground for urban residents in 30 cities that are within an easy 6 hour drive.
While most of the state of Illinois is flat with rich soil suitable for farming, the southern tip is covered in unique rock formations, river carved canyons and bluffs with scenic overlooks. During the ice age the enormous Laurentide Ice Sheet covered much of Canada and North America and was responsible for creating the Great Lakes. The southernmost edge of this two mile thick sheet of ice was in the area that now makes up Southern Illinois. While the retreating ice sheet flattened the terrain in its path, this part of Illinois maintained its rocky, water carved geography.
Exploring the Garden of the Gods Illinois
One of these seven wilderness areas in southern Illinois is Garden of the Gods – not to be confused with the park by the same name in Colorado. However, this Southern Illinois version also has interesting rock formations and scenic hiking trails through shady forests. If I didn’t know better, I would swear this wasn’t Illinois.
The easy and rewarding Observation Point trail took me through a deciduous canopy and past sculpted rocks and bluff overlooks with wide scenic vistas. I made sure not to miss the much photographed Camel Rock which also appeared on the 2016 America the Beautiful quarters series.
The trail is only 1/4 mile but I spent almost an hour exploring the nooks and crannies and going off the path onto some of the large boulders so I could see more of the distant views. I think this would be fantastic spot to see the fall colors when they peak.
More Shawnee National Forest Hiking
You can find information about all the hiking trails in the area at the Shawnee National Forest website. If you like backcountry hiking and camping look into 160 mile River-to-River trail. If long distance hiking is not your thing, there are also plenty of day hikes available.
Besides the Observation Point trail, I also tried the short 0.5 mile Rim Rock trail which has been designated a National Recreation Trail and which goes along the edge of a rock escarpment.
Along this hike I came across the crumbled remains of an ancient stone wall built by prehistoric Indians about 1500 years ago. The wall was almost 150 feet long and was strategically located to block the only accessible route to the top of the bluff where the Indian tribe lived. If it wasn’t for the interpretive sign, I would have thought this was just another random pile of mother nature’s stones.
Other things to do Southern Illinois
Cave-in-Rock State Park
As the name of the park implies, the focus at Cave-In-Rock State Park is a huge 55 foot wide limestone cave that was formed thousands of years ago. This landmark on the Ohio River became Illinois’ first state park. Today, the cave is an interesting sight and is easy to visit since it is not very deep. Local legends say that in the early 1800’s the cave became a hideout for the many river pirates and gangs of outlaws, including the infamous Jesse James, who preyed on the river commerce heading to markets as far south as New Orleans.
In more recent history, the Cave-in-Rock has been the backdrop for Hollywood. In 1956 Disney filmed Davy Crockett and the River Pirates here and in 1962 John Ford used the cave for a scene in his wild west epic movie How the West Was Won. The nearby Cave-in-Rock Kaylor’s Restaurant proudly displays photos from the cast of the Disney film.
Take a scenic ferry ride to Kentucky
You can drive IL Route 1 from Chicago all the way down to the town of Cave-in-Rock and then take a free ferry across the Ohio River to Kentucky and explore the local Amish community there. Or, you can just do a joyride on the river and go to Kentucky and then come back to continue your explorations of Southern Illinois, which is what I did.
There is not much to see or do in the town of Cave-in-Rock, but that has not stopped one of its residents from making sure the town looks pretty. She has taken old bicycles, spray painted them in bright colors and added coordinating flowering baskets. These home made art-sculptures add fun and whimsy as you approach the ferry dock in town.
Illinois Iron Furnace
This restored example of the iron furnace used in the area during the 1800’s provides a glimpse into what was once a thriving industry in this part of the state. There are informative displays that describe the history and the process for making pig iron from the naturally occurring local resources. There is also a visitor information center and a picnic area at the site.
American Fluorite Museum
Fluorite (or Flurospar) is the state mineral of Illinois. The geology that has made this part of the state so scenic has also been ideal for the formation of fluorite which is the mineral name given to the chemical calcium fluoride.
Fluorite can crystalize in a variety of colors that include shades of purple, blue, green, yellow, pink and white. Local American Indians used the mineral for jewelry and ceremonial carvings. In the 1870’s it was discovered that fluorspar, which is the industrial name for fluorite, was useful in removing impurities during the steel production process. This created a fluorite mining boom in this region of Southern Illinois.
Fluorite is the primary source of fluorine which has many modern commercial uses including its use in fluoride treatment for cavity prevention and also in a number of common medical pharmaceuticals.
While fluorite is no longer mined in the US, the American Fluorite Museum remembers this important era of local history. Located in the former office building of the Rosiclare Lead and Fluoride Mining Company, this interesting little museum is a treasure trove of colorful mineral samples and various mining paraphernalia.
You can also dig to find your own sample of fluorite. And if you are in the area during the first week of October, check out the annual Hardin County Fluorspar Festival.
Shawnee National Forest Lodging
There are quite a number of lodging options in the Shawnee National Forest area. You can find a more comprehensive list on the Southernmost Illinois tourism site.
Shawnee National Forest Cabins
Shawnee Forest Cabins are the closest cabins to the Garden of the Gods. You can choose from one or two bedroom cabins that have all the comforts of home and come with a fully equipped kitchen, a fireplace and a fire pit outside. The one bedroom cabins also have a hot tub on the deck.
Timber Ridge Outpost
At Timber Ridge Outpost and Cabins gives you a variety of lodging options for cabins in Southern Illinois. You can stay in a cabin, a treehouse or a full sized house. All units come fully equipped with kitchens, campfire areas, firewood, camp chairs and are pet friendly.
After a day of hiking, enjoy refreshing ice cream at their Garden Of the Gods Outpost which also comes with a real old fashioned phone booth (remember those?).
Cave-in-Rock State Park Lodging
Cabins at Cave-In-Rock State Park are fully equipped with a kitchen and a private deck with wonderful views looking out over the Ohio River.
The Historic Rose Hotel Bed and Breakfast
Built around 1830, the Historic Rose Hotel Bed and Breakfast in Elizabethtown is the oldest hotel in Illinois and is another option for lodging in Southern Illinois. The hotel sits on a bluff looking out over the Ohio River and its large veranda takes full advantage of the views. Each of the five rooms is uniquely decorated and comes with a small fridge, microwave and coffee pot.
Where to eat in the Shawnee National Forest
Cave-In-Rock State Park has an on site restaurant which is known for its fried chicken and catfish. Enjoy a great meal sitting out on the deck looking out over the Ohio River.
Another spot on the river for daily fresh caught catfish is the E-Town Restaurant which is just a short distance down river from the Historic Rose Hotel. It’s not fancy, but you won’t find a better fried catfish dinner. This is also a great spot to catch the sun as it sets over the Ohio River.
I hope my experiences in Southern Illinois have inspired you to search for the great outdoors in the land between the rivers and to discover all the fun things to do in Shawnee National Forest.
From the Shawnee Forest area you can take a short drive to Paducah, Kentucky and visit the amazing National Quilt Museum. You can read about my Pilgrimage to Paducah to find out all bout this UNESCO designated Creativity City.
For another Illinois visit to my favorite city of Chicago that is easy on the pocketbook, you can read my Chicago on a Budget post.
On this trip, I continued my Midwest explorations in Indiana, discovering the artistic side of Indianapolis.
Please note that my visit was hosted by the Southern Illinois Tourism Bureau and by the Shawnee Forest Cabins. All content and opinions are my own.
Thanks for visiting