Shawnee National Forest is in southern Illinois, in between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The stunning landscape of the forest means hiking trails feature sandstone rocks and bluffs covered in moss as well as many creeks, lakes, and waterfalls. You can take several great hikes in the area and not one of them is disappointing. I want to introduce you to some of the top hiking trails in Shawnee National Forest to help you plan your trip.
Inspired by the Garden of Gods, I spent the end of October in southern Illinois at Shawnee National Forest. I hadn’t realized how huge the place was and how many other fantastic hiking places there were to discover. I was amazed at all of the interesting rock formations. Millions of years ago, this area was covered by a sea that deposited sand and mud along its shores that over time turned into sandstone. While the sea retreated, it left sandstone exposed to nature’s forces, leaving canyons, bluffs, and other rock formations behind.
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Garden of Gods Observational Trail
Garden of Gods is the most popular and most heavily trafficked spot in the Shawnee National Forest. It is only half a mile long and takes you from the parking lot to the bluffs, which offer many viewing spots. You can climb on the rocks and look at the forest from different angles. On a clear day, you can even see the hills of Missouri. Do not forget to check out the most famous rock – Camel Rock. Garden of Gods is also a good place for sunset viewing because the rocks are facing west. During autumn, you can admire colorful rolling hills covered in autumn foliage, but it tends to get windy. Bringing extra layers will come in handy. On the other hand, in the summer, the wind might add a nice breeze to a hot day.
Waterfalls of Shawnee National Forest
There are several waterfalls in the Shawnee National Forest. If you are visiting in autumn, keep in mind that Illinois, like most other Midwestern states, has hot and humid summers with little rainfall. This means there might not be much water flowing, making waterfalls low in volume. I hiked to two waterfalls in the Shawne National Forest: Jackson Falls and Burden Falls. Both waterfalls are situated right on top of their respective hiking trails. To get to the bottom, you must hike down the canyon.
Jackson Fall Trail is 3.7 miles long. It is not only a great place for hiking but also for rock climbing. I particularly enjoyed hiking to Jackson Falls, even though there was barely any water flowing down the falls when I got to the end of the trail. The trail itself was beautiful, leading on top of the canyon and passing many interesting rock formations. Getting down the canyon was a bit tricky. You must pass the wooden bridge before you notice a steep descent down that requires you to use your hands to hold onto rocks for safety. You will also pass a first aid kit, and then you know you are on the right track.
Burden Falls is a larger waterfall, and this 0.8-mile trail is a shorter and more straightforward hike. Even though lower in volume, the waterfall itself was clearly visible. Part of the trail leads by a stream, with many pretty viewing points along the way.
All trails are well marked. However, if you are visiting in late autumn, fallen leaves tend to cover the hiking trails. You need to pay extra attention to make sure you stay on the trail.
Rim Rock Recreational Area
Rim Rock Recreational Area is 1.7 miles long, and it is a loop. This moderate trail leads around the rim of a rock before descending to a cliff valley and taking you through massive rock formations. Before turning around, you can opt to walk alongside a river to Pounds Hollow Recreational Area, where you can enjoy swimming, fishing, boating, or other sports activities. Pounds Hollow Lake is a great place for family fun.
Cave-In-Rock is a village located southeast of Shawnee National Forest, right by the Ohio River. In addition, Cave-In-Rock is a 55-foot-wide limestone cave overlooking the Ohio River. It situated close to the parking lot of Cave-In-Rock State Park, so there is not much required to get there other than a few steps down. The cave was carved by geological force: wind, water erosion, and an earthquake that shaped it, giving it the look we know today.
Inspiration Point Trail
Probably one of my favorites along with the Garden of Gods, Inspiration Point is a must-see destination at the Shawnee National Forest. It is great for hiking and bird watching. This moderate, lightly trafficked 0.7-mile trail offers a panoramic view of the Mississippi River valley. The trail leads to a main overlook with a view of the road and the Big Muddy bottomlands. Outside of the main overlook, there are other cliffs along the trail with great views, and they are a bit more covered, offering protection from the wind. The cliffs are steep, so approach with caution. I recommend getting to the head of the trail by entering the Shawnee National Forest from the west so you can see the cliffs you’re about to hike from the road. However, beware that during heavy rainfall, the road gets closed due to flooding.
Little Grand Canyon
Little Grand Canyon is one of the most heavily trafficked hiking trails in the Shawnee National Forest. This moderate 3-mile hike takes you down the canyon through the creek bed. The stronger the flow of the creek, the more difficult the hike, but also the prettier, as the creek creates little waterfalls while flowing down. The water currents are not as strong in autumn as they are in spring. I suggest wearing comfortable, waterproof footwear for this hike. After descending the creek bed, the trail leads past massive rock formations and takes you to a pretty overlook.
Pumona Natural Bridge
Pumona Natural Bridge is a short but moderately trafficked 0.3-mile trail that takes you to a limestone rock that looks like a bridge. It is a truly short loop with some steep rocky sections.
Accommodation at Shawnee National Forest
There are several small towns located by the Shawnee National Forest where you can find hotels. The largest city in the area is Marion, and it offers the biggest selection of hotels. There are also Airbnb/VRBO-type accommodations in the area, as well as campgrounds and cabins in the forest. Since most of the towns surrounding the Shawnee National Forest are small, they get booked quickly, especially when you are visiting during a peak season like autumn.
Where you stay depends on what you are interested in doing in the area. Shawnee National Forest is quite large and spread out, with the hikes described in this article located at least 30 minutes away from each other. As my main interest was in exploring the Garden of Gods, I stayed at a cute Victorian-style hotel in Golconda that was 125 years old and full of antique furniture. The owners, who live on the property, are the nicest people. The hotel came with a restaurant that was only available to hotel guests and a great selection of both local and international wines and beers.
I was impressed with Shawnee National Forest. I enjoyed discovering new hikes, bluffs, canyons, caves, and all the other limestone formations scattered throughout the area. Even though I covered quite a few popular spots, I can see myself going back to discover more to add to my list of top hiking trails in Shawnee National Forest.