Vistas of cornfields and soybeans are plentiful in Illinois, but head south to the rolling hills of Shawnee Forest Country and you’ll find scenery that’s quite different. The Shawnee National Forest covers much of southernmost Illinois between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The area is well suited for an outdoor adventure any time of year. In fact, every season can offer something different.
The Shawnee National Forest offers hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing, fishing and some of the best bird and nature watching around.
Garden of the Gods is one of the best-known sights in southernmost Illinois, and for good reason. There are two main trail systems. The “Observation Trail” is a quarter-mile stone path featuring some of the most well-known formations. The view of the 3300 acres of beautiful old growth forest from this trail is breathtaking. Sunsets are especially beautiful. This is an interpretive trail that features an interesting history about the geology of this area.
The sediment rock in this area is over 4 miles deep and the fractured bedrock has created some interesting rock formations that represent various objects.
The Observation Trail passes along the top of a cliff, which affords spectacular views of unusual rock formations like Camel Rock and Devil’s Smokestack. They’re more than 300 million years old, sculpted patiently over time by wind and rain—so spend some time and enjoy the view!
Hungry or thirsty? Garden of the Gods Outpost right at the entrance of Garden of the Gods Road on Karbers Ridge Road is ready to serve you ice cream and to make your visit to Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee National Forest an extra special one! The Outpost offers souvenirs, including shirts, hats, mugs, shot glasses and postcards as well as a variety of snacks and soft drinks to quench your thirst after a day of hiking to spectacular views.
Kayak rental is available at the outpost, so you can paddle around Pounds Hollow Lake.
Located right across the street is Shawnee Forest Country’s own sasquatch. You won’t want to miss getting a photo with ‘Sassy’!
While not as well known as Garden of the Gods, Rim Rock/Pounds Hollow Recreational area is just as awe inspiring in its own way and consists of a wonderfully scenic trail of exceptional beauty and historic values. To early settlers this unique formation was known as “the Pounds” an old English term meaning “enclosure”. The trail leads past remnants of a stone wall built by prehistoric Native Americans, an observation platform and steps descending through huge rock formations, narrow rock passageways via stone steps to the floor below.
Ox Lot Cave, at the bottom, is a massive rock overhang where 19th century loggers kept their oxen and horses. At the back of the overhang is a natural spring, which never goes dry. Continue hiking to the beautiful 28 acre forest lake known as Pounds Hollow Lake, or through massive sandstone canyons back to the top of the escarpment.
This area is known for its spectacular show of spring woodland flowers along both its upper and lower trails. The upper trail is paved and less strenuous for hikers. The lower trail has a dirt surface and leads along the base of the bluffs before looping back to the parking lot. The lower trail really gives you a ‘wilderness’ experience, and as a perk, the base of the bluffs can be a little cooler, which is a benefit during warmer times.
There are other trails which interconnect for plenty of hiking. For those people who want even more extensive hiking River to River Trail enters the east end of the park from High Knob and proceeds south below the rock formations before bearing west again. River to River Trail is a trail system which stretches across Illinois from the Ohio River to the Mississippi.
If you would like some help on your adventure, Bart Lane’s Shawnee Guided Hiking tours can show you the way.
Relax by the river, take a ferry ride and explore the Cave. Cave-In-Rock State Park was created in 1929, but its history dates back several centuries. The 55-foot-wide cave, situated on the banks of the river, served as shelter for Native Americans as well as French explorers. Then later in the 18th century and the early 19th century, the cave was used by outlaws and river pirates. Later, it was used for revivals, town meetings, shelter and even as the backdrop for a western movie. Scenes from How the West Was Won were shot here. It took eight days to film Davy Crockett and the keelboat race. You can film your own adventure here using your video camera!
From Cave-In-Rock take 146 to Elizabethtown (locals call it “E-Town”). At the foot of the hill and on the Ohio River is a great catfish restaurant called the E-Town River Restaurant. This place is sometimes called the “catfish barge,” and you will walk a gangplank to enter. The portions are huge, so if you are not big eaters, share one order. You may want to go for the all-you-can-eat catfish dinner. Unfortunately, this great eatery is not open in winter (closes at Thanksgiving).
The nearby town of Rosiclare grew up around the discovery of large deposits of fluorite in 1843. It was the largest fluorite-producing area in the U.S. until Chinese imports put it out of business. The American Fluorite Museum is located in the former office building of the Rosiclare Lead and Fluorspar Mining Company. It features samples of yellow and purple fluorite, as well as mining paraphernalia and fascinating photographs of the miners.
Whether you want to participate in an outdoor activity, take in the gorgeous scenery, or explore small river towns seemingly caught in a time warp, this small section of Illinois has enough to satisfy on all counts.
This article was written as part of the Illinois Bicentennial 200 Years, 200 Stories project. Read more stories from the project.