I spent Memorial Day Weekend (2018) hiking at Shawnee National Forest with members of Women Who Hike – Illinois. It was great making new friends and knocking hikes off my Bucket List! Shawnee National Forest encompasses 280,000 acres of land in the southern tip of Illinois. It protects a wide variety of geological features you would not expect to find in the land of soybeans and corn. We accomplished a lot, but barely scratched the surface of what Shawnee has to offer.
Garden of the Gods Recreation Area
The group met Saturday afternoon at the Pharaoh Picnic Area to set up a game plan for the afternoon. We decided to do the Observation Trail and Indian Point Trail in the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area and the Rim Rock Recreation Trail.
The Garden of the Gods Observation Trail is one of the most popular and easily accessible spots of the Shawnee National Forest and as such is one of the most crowded areas of the forest. It is a 1/4 mile trail with great views and beautiful rock formations. There are many places where you can walk out on the rocks. Use caution when in the area and pay attention to your surroundings. I found out later that a teenage girl had fallen and was seriously injured not long after we had left the area for another hike.
After the Observation Trail we walked along the road to the Indian Point Trail-head. (I don’t particularly recommend walking along the road to the trail-head, but when I had driven past it on my way to the Pharaoh Picnic Area the parking lot at the trail-head was full.) The foliage along the Indian Point Trail is completely different than the Observation Trail. It’s lined with pine trees. About a quarter mile into the hike, our group ran into a couple who recommended just hiking to the overlook and back instead of completing the loop. We took their advice as we had more hiking to do that afternoon and it was starting to get later in the day. Indian Point has pretty views like the Observation Trail, but we had it all to ourselves for about 20 minutes.
Rim Rock Recreation Trail
Our next stop of the weekend was Rim Rock National Recreation Trail. Designated in 1980 as a national recreation trail due to “its exceptional scenic beauty and historic values.” Early settlers called the rock escarpment “the Pounds,” today the valley is known as Pounds Hollow. Rim Rock Trail is really cool because you get to walk through the narrow openings in the rocks. You also hike past Ox-lot Cave where loggers kept their oxen and horses in the 19th Century. It was a fun hike.
Little Grand Canyon
By far, the Little Grand Canyon is my favorite area that we explored in Shawnee National Forest! It is such a great hike! Really its more like an obstacle course finding the steps and handholds made by the CCC to navigate down a gorge with waterfalls, a hike through the valley, and then another obstacle course back up another gorge. I highly recommend hiking this trail counter clockwise as the gorge closest to the trail-head by the bathroom seems to be easier to go up than down. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes for this hike and to not do the hike when or after it has rained. The gorge gets very slick when wet. The observation point is not very scenic due to the brush growing up and blocking the view, but we heard that the national forest has plans to cut the brush back so visitors can enjoy the view again.
Spending the weekend at Shawnee National Forest was much needed and I can’t wait to go back and explore some more. Some items still on my bucket list include:
- Mill Branch Trail
- Natural Bridge Trail
- Pomona Natural Bridge Trail
- Panther Den Wilderness
- Inspiration Point