Southern Illinois: Shawnee National Forest

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Illinois is a very long state – about 8 hours from top to tip. So, despite living in Illinois almost my whole life, I hadn’t explored Southern Illinois (aside from a wild college visit to Southern Illinois University, but that’s another story!) For years, I heard amazing things about Shawnee National Forest hiking, so I finally had to see it for myself!

Bailey loves a road trip!

Trail of Tears State Forest Camping

I reserved a campsite at Trail of Tears State Forest, one of many state parks in the area. Since this campground was more rustic, the sites were only $8 per night, as opposed to more “luxurious” campgrounds nearby, which charge closer to $30 per night. The campground was actually really unique – two rutted dirt road loops with a few campsites scattered among them. Each site had an outhouse, fire pit and picnic table, but otherwise it felt a lot like backcountry camping as you don’t have any neighbors.

New tent!

Pomona Natural Bridge

The first morning, I drove north to Pomona Natural Bridge, a natural rock arch in a green leafy forest. The bridge was just a short hike from the parking lot, thankfully, given the gross humidity already building early in the morning.

Pomona Bridge

Little Grand Canyon

Next up was Little Grand Canyon, which I read about many years ago. We started the loop at the back end to avoid crowds, but after about 2 miles were told the trail up ahead involved some rock scrambling and I didn’t think Bailey was up for it. (Plus, it was getting pretty hot and there weren’t as many creek crossings as I had hoped.) We headed back to the parking and lot and hiked in a bit in the opposite direction where B was able to cool off in a stream.

Little Grand Canyon

Cache River Wetlands

After naptime and cool-down at the campsite, we headed back out towards Cache River Wetlands area. Unfortunately, it was closed by then so we were done touring for the day. The next morning, we headed back again to that area as I really wanted to see the Cypress trees. At our first stop, the trail was flooded so we waded in a bit, just enough to get a few photos.

Cache River Wetlands

We then headed to the Heron pond area, where there were some nice, shorter hikes in the shade. This park was straight out of the Bayou!

Cache River Natural Area

Cache River Natural Area

Cache River Natural Area

We made a quick stop at Burden Falls for some photography (on my next vacation I finally realized that timing is everything for waterfalls and mid-day, full sunlight is the worst possible time!)

Burden Falls

Burden Falls

Our last hike for the day was Garden of the Gods State Park in Shawnee National Forest. This place was packed with tourists, so we didn’t spend much time here, but it was fun to see the different rock formations and outstanding views above the valley.

Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods

I decided not to stay a 3rd night at Trail of Tears. While it was a lovely campsite, it was on the far Western end of the area. We explored that side on Saturday, and then the Eastern side on Sunday, so rather than drive all the way back, I decided to pack up that morning and take a chunk out of the 7 hour drive that night.

I stopped for dinner at the lodge at Cave in Rock State Park – they had a nice little patio overlooking the Ohio River into Kentucky. A few of the parks, including this one, have cabins in addition to camping, which is a nice bonus.

Cave in Rock State Park Lodge

Rather than jumping on the Interstate, I took 2-lane highway 1 north about 3 hours and ended up camping at Lincoln Trail State Park. Nice little tent site, with a shower house nearby.  The hiking trails here looked pretty nice, too – definitely someplace to return if I get the chance.

Lincoln Trail State Park

I would highly recommend Southern Illinois for a long weekend of exploring. Garden of the Gods and Giant City State Parks seem to be really convenient, central locations to all the attractions, as well as offering different types of lodging like lodges, cabins and camping.  For backpackers, the River to River trail also runs through here.

I don’t know if it’s age, or too many Midwest winters, or being spoiled by 3 mild Seattle summers, but unbearable heat and humidity seem to be a recurring theme for my trips recently and summer is quickly becoming a hibernation season for me. So, I’ll be sticking close to the A/C for the rest of the summer and hopefully get back on the trail again come Fall!

For all of my photos from this trip, click here!

Southern Illinois has great #hiking and #camping options! #EnjoyIllinois #getoutside Click To Tweet

And just for fun, a photo from my original trip to Carbondale in 1995.  Yeah, no hiking on that trip, lol!

Feb 1995 - Sarah and I took a road trip to Carbondale to visit Andrea at SIU.

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Southern Illinois


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4 thoughts on “Southern Illinois: Shawnee National Forest

  1. She is an Airedale Terrier – close to a Wheaten, but I could never have a white dog! Our high rise, deep soaking bathtub is not conducive to frequent dog bathing 🙂

    I think the snake was determined to be some sort of rattlesnake – water moccasin, I think?

  2. This is great, Leigh! Southern Illinois just recently came to my radar!

    Do you think this would be good hiking with kids? (i.e. am I gonna be screaming my head off because of steep ledges)?

    • I think you could find good hikes for the kiddos in the area, but the popular trails at Garden of the Gods had drop-offs that might be best when they’re a little bit older!

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