View FALL TRAVEL 2010: Shawnee National Forest in a larger map
The scenery at Garden of the Gods. For more photos, check out the gallery »
DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO: 335 miles
Towering bluffs, hidden canyons, primordial swamps: Yes, this is Illinois, though judging by the lack of visitors we encountered in Shawnee National Forest, few people seem to know about it. All the better for us—and you. We spent three days traversing the nearly 280,000-acre forest and kept pinching ourselves because this geologic gem—the remains of an ancient seabed nestled between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the Shawnee and Ozark hills of southern Illinois—was so delightfully deserted. To cover as much ground as possible, we opted for shorter (kid-friendly) hikes via trailheads accessible by car, though you could while away entire weeks off the grid exploring the forest’s seven designated wilderness areas or the region’s wine trails.
Folks looking to maximize outdoor time should set up base camp at Ferne Clyffe State Park, a verdant 2,400-acre reserve northeast of the town of Vienna (pronounced VY-inna) that offers blissfully private tent campsites, plus backpack and equestrian camping, and a pond flush with bass, bluegill, and catfish—our favorite of the six campgrounds we scouted. (Ask about the secret swimming hole; for indoor accommodations, see “Lodging.”) From there, roughly midway between Shawnee’s eastern and western halves, you can hit the forest’s highlights in two daylong loops by car.
If you are short on time, make the east side your priority and head to Millstone Bluff, a site first inhabited about 1,500 years ago by the Woodland Indians. Though we didn’t manage to pick out any of the celebrated petroglyphs, we did come across the remnants of a 1,000-year-old stone fort and cemetery, a rich reward for a half-mile trek. From Millstone, it’s a quick jaunt to Bell Smith Springs, where four hiking trails cross four bubbling streams, a natural sandstone arch, and barrens of exposed rock carpeted with lichen and skirt two giant rock slabs rising midpool like the prows of sinking ships. (Bonus: Burden Falls, one of the state’s highest waterfalls, is a stone’s throw away.) From Bell Smith Springs, continue on to Shawnee’s star attraction, a series of rock formations known as Garden of the Gods. Perched atop a vista high above miles of wooded hills—a prime spot from which to view the fall colors—this congress of massive sandstone outcroppings will take your breath away.
While Garden of the Gods reveals Shawnee’s dizzying heights, Rim Rock, a short drive down the scenic Karber Ridge Road, leads you into the forest’s shady depths. Follow the walking trail down a staircase and through a narrow stone pass and you will swear you are in an Illinois tourism commercial. Nearby detours include the Illinois Iron Furnace, a giant brick oven used to smelt pig iron for Civil War ironclads, and Cave-in-Rock, a former pirate hideout overlooking the Ohio River. At this point, you’ve earned your supper. Refuel at E’Town River Restaurant, a floating café on the Ohio in Elizabethtown, where fried catfish is king.
The next day, go west, starting with Heron Pond. Part of the sprawling Cache River State Natural Area, this swamplike wetland looks more Deep South than downstate. Venture onto the pond via a floating boardwalk, then head a quarter mile back onto dry land to see a 1,000-year-old cypress measuring 40 feet in diameter. From Heron Pond, bear toward the Mississippi through the twin towns of Anna and Jonesboro to Larue–Pine Hills Research Natural Area. There you will find the aptly named, if shiver-inducing, Snake Road. Twice a year—from March 15th to May 15th and from September 1st to October 30th—the scenic drive is closed to cars as 56 species of amphibians and reptiles (cottonmouths, skinks, and salamanders among them) migrate between the soaring cliffs to the east and the soupy marsh to the west. You can hike along the drive on foot year-round—if you dare.
From Larue, head north and follow the signs to Little Grand Canyon. The terrain is more hobbit shire than Arizona splendor, but we loved descending the steep hillside trail into the trickling creek bed, then clambering down through the canyon’s picturesque hollows to the valley floor. Cool off postclimb with a sarsaparilla, brewed in copper kettles, at the antler-lined Root Beer Saloon in tiny Alto Pass, or opt for ice cream in even teenier Makanda, where residents have turned a would-be ghost town into a mini hippie hamlet. Still hungry? Makanda serves as the gateway to Giant City State Park, the region’s most full-service facility, featuring horseback riding, fishing, air-conditioned cabins for rent, and a 1930s lodge locally famous for its Sunday fried-chicken special. Just be sure to schedule a shower if you hope to make it past the hostess stand.
The ideal way to see Shawnee is the River to River Trail, a roughly 175-mile hiking path that hits many of the forest’s natural wonders on its meandering route between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Contact the River to River Trail Society at 618-252-6789 or visit rivertorivertrail.com to request a guide. Information is also available at fs.usda.gov/shawnee.
Tunnel Hill State Trail Office 302 E. Vine St., Vienna; 618-658-2168, dnr.state.il.us
E’Town River Restaurant 100 Front St., Elizabethtown; 618-287-2333
Makanda Country Store 526 Makanda Rd., Makanda; 618-529-1783
Root Beer Saloon 4 Main St., Alto Pass; 618-893-1634, rootbeersaloon.com
Ferne Clyffe State Park Rte. 37, one mile south of Goreville; 618-995-2411, dnr.state.il.us
Giant City Lodge 460 Giant City Lodge Rd., Makanda; 618-457-4921, giantcitylodge.com
Historic Bell Hill 333 E. Poplar St., Cobden; 618-697-0326, historicbellhill.com
SIGHTSEEING & HIKING
Cache River State Natural Area 930 Sunflower Ln., Belknap; 618-634-9678, dnr.state.il.us
Cave-in-Rock State Park 1 New State Park Rd., Cave-in-Rock; 618-289-4325, dnr.state.il.us
Shawnee National Forest Supervisor’s Office 50 Hwy. 145 S., Harrisburg; 618-253-7114
SNF Hidden Springs Ranger Station (east side) 602 N. First St. (Rte. 45), Vienna; 618-658-2111
SNF Mississippi Bluff Ranger Station (west side): 521 N. Main St., Jonesboro; 618-833-8576
Photograph: Jennifer Wehunt