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Shawnee National Forest: It’s A Walk In The Park

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

tree in fall at Shawnee national Park

Although I admit that I didn’t love the fact that my husband brought me to southern Illinois (sorry Illinoisans!) to live in 2019, one of the best things about the area was the natural experiences. It has some beautiful trails, bodies of water and climbing spots. The most popular site in this part of Illinois is the Shawnee National Forest.

woman hiking in Illinois in the fall

I remember one specific fall, my friends and I made plans to visit this park. It was still warm enough that we even shed our light jackets, and although nature was at the end of its transition, we were fortunate to be surrounded by shades of red, orange and yellow leaves. And if you know where to go, as we did, this is a forest where you can do some touristic sightseeing as well as more wilderness-type exploring.

This was my third time at Shawnee National Forest, which has 403 miles of hiking trails. I definitely did not have time to do all of the trails within those three trips, but I have a pretty good idea of what to expect of the park as a whole.

First, keep in mind that this isn’t the hiking spot you want to go to when you’re looking for a vertical adventure — aka, there are no mountains. There will be an uphill slope at times, but you won’t have to climb. There will be some challenging routes depending on your fitness level, but they won’t require navigation. All you really need are some tennis shoes that don’t mind aggressive walking.

Here’s how I would describe the hiking difficulty in short: If you want to get your body moving but don’t want to be so out of breath that you can’t even gasp out a response to the people you’re hiking with, then this is a park for you!

It’s also important to note that each trail varies. Their distances range from 0.6 miles to 160 miles. You’ll find some with dirt paths and others with stone or wooden steps. Some will have sites to stop and take in, while others continue through the forest.

garden of the gods in Illinois

The most touristic trail in the park, with an easy rock path and bathrooms, is the Garden of the Gods. Again, no, it won’t be a multitude of towering rocks like the one in Colorado, but there is a beautiful view of a tree-filled valley, boulders for kids and adults to climb on and through. And the big rock camel can be seen on one end of the long cliff.

When it comes to choosing my favorite trail in Shawnee, I have to pick the Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area. From this starting point, you’ll find color-coordinated trails that all go their own ways but also intertwine to create 8 miles of trail. The reason I like this hike better than others is because it’s a little more rustic. The paths aren’t paved, and you’ll truly feel like you’ve gotten away from the world.

small lakes in national forest illinois

Stone stairways lead to bouldering cliffs, and following the creek allows you to climb the Devil’s Backbone, a rock jutting out of the water. In the summer, small crowds stop at the Bell Smith Springs, a swimming hole. So, bring a lawn chair, wear a swimsuit and jump off the cliff into the water with a rope swing. From these trails, you can also make it to the Pomona Natural Bridge, a bit of a bizarre natural site.

While I can’t speak to this experience, many people also come to the park to camp. You really could make it a weekend with the variety of activities from zip lining and horse riding to picnic areas and Lake Glendale, where you can swim and lie on sand, feeling like you’ve found a small beach in the midwest.

And don’t forget the Garden of the Gods Outpost, right across from the Bigfoot statue. It’s almost like a general store (which I’m sure is really beneficial for campers) with an ice cream shop. In all honesty, I’ve stopped there after every all-day hiking experience I’ve had at the park. I always choose a peanut butter shake. And, it’s DELICIOUS, especially when you're worn out from moving for hours.

friends eating ice cream at outpost illinois

So what’s my synopsis of this adventure? If you live in or are passing through the southern Illinois area, it’s well worth your time to take a trip with your friends or family (or by yourself for some peaceful alone time) to the Shawnee National Forest. You won’t regret the moderate exercise and natural views.


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