Exploring Shawnee National Forest in a Weekend

No disrespect to my home state of Illinois, but the prairie land is not the first place that comes to mind for diverse landscape. I was proven wrong this weekend when exploring Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Garden of the Gods at Sunset, Shawnee National Forest

There are two sections of the forest: east and west. We decided to make them separate visits since we only had a few days. Our winter escape this weekend covers the eastern section and has us asking when we can get back to experience more.

Come discover this hidden gem of the Midwest with us.

Day One – Garden of the Gods Country

Standing on top of a Stone Face

I’ve read about two other natural occurring rock “faces” that have left an impression on people: Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire, that collapsed over a decade ago and Great Stone Face in Virginia. Neither of which resemble a man’s face as much as the one down here in Shawnee, yet I had never even heard of it.

There are two trail options to hike to get to the viewpoint at Stone Face. One is three miles from the Tecumseh statue or the shorter option being only ½ mile (one mile out and back) from Stone Face parking lot. Since we wanted to get to other hikes, we took the shorter trail. The trail is rather steep on rocky ground at first (wouldn’t suggest on a wet day) passing through an arch made from a fallen boulder but opens up to a smooth path before reaching the carved face and beautiful overlook.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Stone Face, Shawnee National Forest

The Oh so Cool Rim Rock National Recreation Trail

One of our favorite hikes in Shawnee National Forest is the Rim Rock Recreation Trail. It is a moderate 1.7 mile loop that begins on a paved path through 200 – 300 year old oak trees. It continues around the rim of a rock ridge offering a few vantage points of the canyon below.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Rim Rock National Recreation Trail, Shawnee National Forest

The path leads to an intriguing staircase beckoning for the hiker to come down in the rock crevice and explore.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Rim Rock National Recreation Trail

After meandering through the towering stone walls, we are brought to a natural shelter, the Ox-Lot Cave. Talk about feeling small?! Standing below looking up at the enormous sandstone bluffs, you can feel the cool air drifting from the rock.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Rim Rock National Recreation Trail, Shawnee National Forest

Before heading to Southern Illinois, we discussed whether or not we should wait for a better time of year to visit. Winter may not have blooming flowers or leafy trees, but the area is dotted with moss-green covered rocks, unique formations, and stunning views.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Rim Rock National Recreation Trail

Catfish at Trails End Restaurant

We stopped for lunch at Trails End Restaurant attached to Double M Campground. The menu is simple with appetizers, sandwiches and hot entrees. The staff is extremely friendly and the fried catfish is excellent. A 1/2 lb of fish battered in a light seasoned breading served with hush puppies, slaw and fries. We ordered a piece of cobbler to go (fresh out of the oven) which was a great snack for later.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Lunch in Shawnee National Forest

Looking for Robbers in the Cave-in-Rock

A short walk along the Ohio River, you will find a 55-foot wide opening shaped like a giant cartoon speech bubble. Being the ultimate hiding place before it was well-known, it served as a stronghold for outlaws.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Cave-in-Rock, Shawnee National Forest

Garden of the Gods at Sunset

We heard the sunset at Garden of the Gods was a sight to see. Agreed, it’s a must-do when in the area.

If you were to only have time for one thing, I would say head to Garden of the Gods. The observation trail is only a half a mile loop on dramatic rock formations that provide incredible overlooks. Since our cozy cabin was nearby at Williams Hill Pass Campground, we took in its natural beauty on a few occasions.

*Tip: Don’t forget to look out for the unique shapes within the rocks: mushrooms, a camel, a monkey, and a turtle*

Read HERE about our first cabin experience at Williams Hill Pass Campground

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Garden of the Gods at Sunset, Shawnee National Forest

Dinner at Mackie’s in Harrisburg

Being from Chicago I’m always curious when someone says there’s a good local pizza place. I am happy to report we enjoyed Mackie’s thin crispy crust with sweet sauce.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.

Day Two – Shawnee National Forest

Trickling Water at Burden Falls

Burden Falls is considered one of the highest in Illinois at a whopping 100 feet. The series of waterfalls are not very high by many standards, but remember we are in the plains. The best times to view the waterfall is spring and fall when water is gushing down. Even though water is just trickling here in the winter the upper view was still picturesque.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Burden Falls, Shawnee National Forest

Clear Blue Waters of Bell Smith Springs

After our short stop at Burden Falls, we hiked the white trail in Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area. We wanted to see the natural arch (the largest in Shawnee) on the yellow trail, but opted to do the white one instead. We were told we’d have to wade through knee-high water due to recent rainfall which we were not dressed for. The loop is about 1.5 miles and follows a ridge line along a bluff overlooking the crystal blue water of the creek. It then descends into the canyon for a closer look at the scenic canyon.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area
Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Devils Backbone at Bell Smith Springs
Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area

Views at Triggs Tower

Step after step we climbed up the fire tower. We stood on the platform as forceful wind smacked us in the face, but it was worth it to overlook the beautiful Shawnee National Forest. We would love to come back for a visit in the fall when the leaves are changing.

After taking in the views we stopped at Shawnee Restaurant and Lounge for a quick bite to eat before heading to our next destination.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
View from Triggs Tower

Gators in Illinois? Cache River State Natural Area

You’d half expect to see a slow-moving gator head in the Cache River Area. The swampland reminds me of the landscape you see often in the southern states like Georgia or Louisiana, not Illinois. We were running out of daylight, shorter days is a big negative to winter trips. We took the walk on Section 8 Woods Nature Preserve Boardwalk to see the champion giant water tupelo tree. It’s 23 feet in circumference and may be nearly 1,000 years old. Can you spot the tree below?

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Tupelo Tree in Cache River Wetlands

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.

Next we drove to the Heron Pond trailhead to walk along a floating boardwalk hovering over a green marsh popping with bald cypresses and water tupelos. The trail is short but diverse: bringing us through a wooded forest, a wetland then back to the forest with a 100-foot high state champion tree.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.
Champion Cherrybark Oak

Delicious Dinner at The Diver Down in Golconda

For our final dinner in the area, we stopped at The Diver Down in Golconda. The restaurant is split in half with a bar on one side and a restaurant on the other. It was Saturday night and although it was busy, it wasn’t too busy that we didn’t get a seat right away. The service and food were fantastic. My husband is still talking about the crab and cheese stuffed mushrooms baked and topped with parmesan Alfredo sauce. The catfish was delicious and came with a delightful mustard-based tartar sauce.

Day Three – Indian Point Trail

It’s our last morning here so we decided to take one more hike near our campground. We headed back to the Garden of the Gods area at Indian Point Trail. The walk is 1.9 miles long and fairly easy. It starts out on top of bluffs overlooking the valley and curves back downward to the bottom of the canyon where there are a few caves to explore. It was a wonderful way to end our time in Shawnee. Now we just have to plan to get back to explore the west side. We would love to experience the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail and the other natural wonders the area has to offer.

⇓ Read below for tips on visiting the area ⇓

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.

Know Before You Go

  • Sprint coverage is sparse. We had to use roaming while in the area. I’m not sure about other phone services, but just be sure download Google Maps to use offline.
  • Do your research on things to do and see in the area beforehand. A good start for suggested itineraries and maps is at Southernmost Illinois Tourism Website. With limited resources at each of the trailheads and sparse phone coverage it will be helpful to have all the information regarding length of hikes, routes, and options for food.
  • Some roads leading to the areas above are not paved.
  • There are not many restaurants within the forest so plan accordingly or bring your own food. 

Do you know of any other must see Shawnee National Forest attractions? Tell us in the comments below!

 

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Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.

Southern Illinois is home to incredible landscapes of dramatic rock formations and stunning vistas. Here are the top Shawnee National Forest attractions.

47 Responses

  1. Chris Travels

    I loved your thorough review and beautiful photos of this area of southern Illinois. Hailing from northern Illinois myself, I would not have believed these huge and remarkable rock formations and “gator looking landscapes” are in our state of Illinois, the land of corn and soybean fields. Glad you enjoyed sunny days for your awesome weekend excursion!

  2. Carl Stewart

    Very nice write up. You were so close to Indian Kitchen / Lusk Creek Canyon. That’s the Jewel of the East Shawnee. Give it a shot next time. As for the west side Little Grand Canyon, Panthers Den Wilderness and the Bald Knob Cross are a must!!

    • We didn’t read or see anything about Indian Kitchen, but now we are definitely adding it to the list. Thanks! Excited to get back and explore the west side, great tips!

    • Patrick S

      Don’t forget Giant City State Park (a place I spent much of my childhood exploring), Larue Pine Hills (Inspiration Point), & Ferne Cliffe State Park on the western side of the Shawnee Forest.

  3. Gina Minor

    Indian Kitchen is a must see, along with One Horse Gap.

  4. As a nativ, I’d say you hit most of my favorite places. Add Jackson Falls/Hollow to your list. It’s sort of on the backside of Bell Smith.

  5. Great post. I second Indian Kitchen/Lusk Creek Canyon and Jackson Falls for your next visit. Also, check out Camp Ondessonk’s Cedar Falls area. Cedar Falls is the highest free-flowing waterfall in Southern Illinois and the area around it is spectacular. You get permission to enter by stopping by the camp office and obtaining a pass. Spring is a great time to visit. The waterfalls tend to dry up by late summer. Hayes Creek Canyon/Jackson Hole is another great spot to add to your list.

  6. Great write-up! Incredible hiking all around. Agree with hitting Jackson Falls next time, very cool and a climbers dream. There is a great lower loop around the left side of Rim Rock that is very cool scrambling along bottom of bluff and a nice creek area running below that and then also a nice hike over to beautiful Pounds Hollow Lake.

    • Thanks Steve. We were going to hike over to Pounds Hollow Lake (went halfway) but we felt like we didn’t have enough time with the other things we wanted to get to. What a gorgeous area! I guess we will just have to plan another trip back… oh darn.

  7. This looks beautiful! Would love to do some hiking in this area while in the Midwest.

  8. What a beautiful place your pictures are fantastic. I love it that you were able to spend a full three days exploring. I have never heard of this Park so thanks for sharing it.

  9. Steve Kaelin

    It’s been several years since I’ve been to Jackson’s Hollow. If still accessible, that is an absolute beautiful place to visit!

    • Thanks Steve! A few other people mentioned Jackson’s Hollow as well so I’m thinking it’s still accessible. We’ll have to check it out next time!

  10. Steve Kaelin

    It’s been several years since I’ve been to Jackson’s Hollow. If still accessible, that is an absolute beautiful place to visit!

  11. That looks so cool! Sometimes the best adventures are waiting for you in your own backyard:)

  12. This is a place I didn’t know much about, and yet I’ve immediately added it to my bucket list. I loved that you also added a map, it is such a useful thing to do, thank you!

  13. Now this is a place I want to check out. I love to go hiking and finding stuff en route. Great post and loving the photos 🙂

  14. Mandy stucker

    I am one of the blessed that gets to live only a few short miles from Bell smith springs and Burden Falls , my childhood is filled with memories of Rim Rock , iron furnace, garden of gods, cave in rock, Bell smith, these places were my playground and also became my children’s playground, hopefully my grandchildren will have that pleasure and blessing also

  15. Roxie Taylor

    Love Rim Rock. You might enjoy Millstone Bluff; there’s petroglyphics there. Also near Millstone Bluff is the largest sandstone cave in North America, Sand Cave.

  16. We love taking people to Makanda! Very unique place with local artists and an ice cream shop. If you time it just right, an arts and crafts festival.

  17. Shawnee National Park comes across a treasure trove of wonders, each more intriguing than the other. The rock face that looks like a man is incredible. Another place that caught my imagination was the place where the robbers hid. The area assumes a heavenly halo at sunset. Truly a place that seems out of this world.

  18. Great post, and it seems like a great place! That rock crevice is really intriguing. Can you imagine stumbling across (or falling into?) that way back when? The diversity is impressive, too. Definitely the sort of area we’d like to hike around for a few days. Thanks for putting it on our radar!

  19. Elizabeth

    You nailed so many great sights! I agree with so many of the suggestions above. I’d add that if you make it to the One Horse Gap, continue on to Rocky Top. The view is wonderful! Also, if you go back to Cave in a Rock, take the free ferry across the river and follow the road a little bit (I know it’s Kentucky but it’s not too far of a drive). You’ll come to Yoder’s General Store in Amish country. That’s a fun stop to make. If you make it to Makanda, go do the zip line! What a blast! It’s also a great way to spend more time in the Forest! Definitely check out the wineries! There’s also an interesting place to grab a meal around Anna. It’s called the Rootbeer Saloon. They have a website. Enjoy Southern Illinois!

    • Thanks for the great tips Elizabeth! We wanted to take the ferry this time around, but didn’t get around to it. Next time for sure! Oooh and a zip line… we went zip lining for the first time this fall and loved it!

  20. I love your write up about this area. When I was in the cave, we saw a barge go along the river, which was very cool to see. I’d love to return to Garden of the Gods at sunset. A large rainstorm blew through on the evening we were scheduled to see sunset. Seriously, one of the most hidden places in southern Illinois that a lot of people are missing out on.

  21. I grew up in the Midwest and always enjoyed exploring the area. I think I went here years ago and repelled on the cliffs and spend the night in a cave, but I’m not 100% sure. Great to see all the photos. If I’m that way again, I’ll keep Shawnee in mind.

  22. Looks like a great area and so many different hikes to choose from. I love hiking around the US, so many different places to see.

  23. It looks like a great place to explore with some great trails and hikes. I love the carved rock face too – I can’t believe how unknown it is in comparison to other sights!

  24. You’d find me by the rim rock trail!
    And I’m surprised that the face rock actually looks like a face! I’ve seen so many “face-called” formations and I hardly see it.

  25. I did a similar trip last spring – it was already too hot by Memorial Day, so we didn’t do as much hiking as I’d hoped. It is a great area to explore, just wish it were a few hours closer!

    • Agreed Leigh! We came from the St. Louis area so it was only a little over two hours for us, perfect for a weekend getaway. From home (Chicago burbs), it’s a 5 hour drive. Still not bad, but would make it a three day weekend at least. Shoulder season, spring and fall, are probably the best times to visit. I am not a fan of hiking in high temps either 😊

  26. Burden falls , ferne clyff park, pounds hollow are some other great ones here in little egypt( southern illinois) and dont forget about lake glendale.

  27. Wow, I would feel super small too! I had never even heard of Shawnee National Forest before reading this. Thank you for putting it on my radar! There are just so many beautiful places to explore in this country 🙂

  28. Carol Colborn

    Love Cave-in-the-Rock and those tupelo trees. Thought this was Virginia. But it’s Illinois!

  29. Wow, I had no idea this existed in IL either! I love the lookout point, the waterfall and the staircase into the canyon. So cool! I pinned this for later. Would be a great weekend trip from MN!

  30. Terri Steele

    Dang Travelers,
    We would love to have you come and visit us at TK Ranch Campground. We border One Horse Gap. Gina Minor is right, it’s a must see. There are many trails offering breathtaking views, rock formations, an artesian well, and One Horse Gap Lake just to name a few of the places to check off your list while exploring Shawnee National Forest. Terri Steele

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