Taking up much of the southern tip of southern Illinois between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the Shawnee National Forest contains more than 280,000 acres and some of the most scenic views in the state. You’ll find a wide variety of terrain, including rock formations at the Little Grand Canyon and the Garden of the Gods that look more like something you’d find out west than in the Prairie State. There are five different recreation areas within the national forest—Bellsmith Springs, Garden of the Gods, Pounds Hollow, Lake Glendale and Johnson Creek, each of which offers a variety of activities from boating to hiking.
What Makes It Great
Despite all the rock formations in the park, the national forest offers just limited opportunities for rock climbing and rappelling. Their primary goal is to protect the fragile ecosystems and prevent erosion, so there is no rock climbing in any of the 80 designated natural areas in the forest, including the Garden of the Gods Observation Trail and Rim Rock National Recreation Trail. But rock climbing and rappelling are permitted at Jackson Falls in the Hidden Springs Ranger District, as well as several areas outside of the national forest.
At Jackson Falls, you’ll find about 60 climbing areas, each with named routes on them, totally 500 named routes in all, most on sandstone bluffs in the range of 50-60 feet high. Most are sport routes, and you’ll also find some good bouldering in the area. Find out more about the climbing at Jackson Falls here.
Most of the campsites are organized around a body of water or scenic highlight of the park. The national forest service doesn’t offer any cabins for campers, but there are private vendors who offer cabins in the forest. You can find help in finding lodging here.
For campers, there’s everything from primitive backpacking to established campgrounds with showers and electrical hook-ups. There are even equestrian focused camping facilities at Johnson Creek.
As for the national forest, the highlight for most are the scenic attractions found at the Garden of the Gods, which is known by geologists as an uplifted sandstone plateau. Unlike the rest of Illinois, the glaciers never reached this far south to level the terrain. So we’re not blessed with these outcropping of rock that look as though precariously put together by, well, I guess gods if we’re to believe the name. It’s not surprising that Garden of the Gods is the most visited site in the national forest. But there are also more than 403 miles of equestrian and hiking trials to explore, including the River to River Trail, a 160-mile route that will take you from Battery Rock on the Ohio River to Devil’s Backbone Park on the Mississippi River. Hikers have been known to do the whole trail over several weeks, but you can also just pick a section for day hikes.
The national forest was created when the federal government purchased much of the land, which was mostly exhausted farmland, in the 1930s. President Franklin Roosevelt declared the area the Shawnee National Forest in 1939. Previous to that, members of the Civilian Conservation Core planted many of the pine and hardwood trees that make up the forest today.
Who is Going to Love It
Anyone who enjoys the outdoors. Rock climbers looking to get out of the gym. And those looking for a western-like rock experience in Illinois. It is a long drive from Chicago—as far as you can go without leaving the state. But for a multiday trip, it’s worth putting in the miles. For a list of scenic drives in the area, click here.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
The Shawnee National Forest is located at 50 Hwy 145 South, Harrisburg, IL 62946.
Many of the campsites are open all year, but some are seasonal. Click here for a list of fees and more information.