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Thursday, May 30, 2013 12:04 pm

A guide to the Shawnee National Forest


Garden of the Gods at sunset.

At 280,000 acres, the expansive beauty of the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois can feel both breathtaking and intimidating. In fact, in April of this year, Saline County Central Dispatch assisted 5 Illinois residents who became lost in the dense natural playground – Illinois’ largest publicly owned parcel. Sheriff Keith Brown reminded the public to bring along bottled water, flashlights and other safety teams when planning a visit to secluded areas of the Shawnee National Forest. Another item suitable for a Shawnee-bound rucksack is the newly released 20 Day Trips in and Around the Shawnee National Forest.

The guidebook, written by Larry and Donna Mahan (a retired Springfield teacher), is now available from Southern Illinois University Press, and features entries right for “those without extensive hiking or camping experience.” Trips cover well-known Shawnee attractions like Garden of the Gods and Cave-in-Rock State Park as well as more secluded areas like the rugged Cedar Lake Trail System and its primitive camping sites.

The Mahans have crafted their manual in an accessible and tech-friendly way. Not only do entries include GPS coordinates, directions and lists of attractions and facilities – the book includes quick response codes. By scanning each accompanying QR code, a reader will receive each day trip’s starting place and points of interest on his smart phone or other portable electronic device via Google Maps.

Burden Falls
The writers share an appropriate blend of engaging description and informative history in each itinerary and have selected beautiful high-quality photographs, which will entice you to schedule several treks of your own. A bulleted “Just so you know” section lists hours, information, hints, attractions, trivia, websites and other information for each journey, making 20 Day Trips an especially convenient Shawnee companion. It’s a good alterative to wading through numerous crowded, advertising-driven, unofficial websites for the same information packaged in less helpful ways.

First-timers may wish to start out with Day Trip 5, which takes travelers to the renowned Garden of the Gods. The Mahans remind readers to glimpse Camel Rock, the sandstone formation chosen for the US Mint’s state quarters program (the Illinois quarter debuts in 2016). From the vista, continue to the 930-foot-tall High Knob, stop for a picnic lunch, and keep on to the National Trail at Rim Rock. The authors give their suggestions to make the day easier or more difficult, depending on your skill level.

A special addendum lists additional nearby attractions like the 160-mile river-to-river trail ranging from the Ohio River on the East, through Elizabethtown, and to the Mississippi River on the west. The Mahans suggest one common ritual – collecting Ohio water at your outset and depositing it into the Mighty Mississippi to celebrate a successful hike.

Burden Falls

The Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, open since the 1990s, offers locally produced wines made from Illinois grapes. The trail continues to grow in popularity, increasing tourism and creating a rise in local BNBs, campgrounds and cabin rentals. The wineries host music events and festivals and are developing their own beloved labels. “Pairing a quality local product with the majestic beauty of the geographical environment is an unbeatable recipe for success,” write the Mahans.

The book’s foreword, penned by Les Winkler, discusses the Mahans’ special expertise in writing the guide. They’ve spent many vacations of their own wandering through the park, developing a passion and appreciation for its diversity and wonder. With 20 Day Trips, they hope to share what they’ve found with the rest of us.

Zach Baliva is a media producer and filmmaker currently prepping a documentary on the student-loan debt crisis.

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