Exploring the Shawnee National Forest
A guided tour of southern Illinois natural wonder
It’s the only national forest in our predominantly agricultural/urban state, and it offers a great escape from our daily routines.
Located down in the southern tip of the state, the Shawnee National Forest (SNF) offers unlimited recreational possibilities, ranging from day hikes, camping, nature photography, horseback riding, backpacking, fishing, boating, bike riding, exploring, or just plain getting lost for the day or for a weekend.
Covering more than 270,000 acres across southern Illinois, this unglaciated region offers great hills to explore, rock formations to scramble up on, and streams to cross. The SNF is also home to unique flora and fauna and there are seven designated wilderness areas to get out and explore.
Named after the native American tribe, the Shawnee, the area was home to numerous native Americans, who once lived, farmed and hunted in the region and roamed throughout the beautiful rolling hills. Today, visitors can see and visit a few native American sites found in the forest.
The SNF headquarters is in Harrisburg and is a good spot to obtain trail maps and brochures for your trek out in the woods. There are also two Ranger Districts where forest information may be obtained: Mississippi Bluffs Ranger District in Jonesboro (covering the western portion of the forest), and Hidden Springs Ranger District in Vienna (covering the eastern portion of the forest).
Let me take you on a short tour and highlight some of my favorite sites to visit in the SNF, starting from the east side of the Shawnee. These sites make a great weekend escape.
Start your trip at 1.Pounds Hollow Recreation Area. Pounds Hollow offers visitors a great quaint lake, hiking trails, a campground and picnic sites. On one of those hot humid summer days, visitors can even enjoy the lake at its beach.
Just west of Pounds Hollow, visitors can take a short drive or hike along the Beaver Trail to 2.Rim Rock Recreation Area and explore a blufftop Indian rock wall and make your way down a set of stairs through a narrow rock-lined passage to explore the Ox-Lot Cave shelter bluff, as well as other neat rocks and bluffs.
West of Rim Rock, visitors can make their way over to the 3.Garden of the Gods Recreation Area. This area offers a great quarter-mile observation trail snaking its way over 300-million-year-old rocks, while offering outstanding vistas of the Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area.
Spectacular rock formations such as the famous Camel Rock, Anvil Rock, Table Rock and others, make great photo opportunities. The wilderness area offers solitude for backpackers and horse riders, as connecting trails lead to the River-to-River Trail which winds it’s way through this wilderness area.
North of Garden of the Gods, visitors can make their way to the 4.Stone Face trailhead. This secluded site offers visitors a nice trail onto a bluff line offering scenic views of the area and great rock outcrops.
South of the Garden of the Gods, visitors can make their way down to the 5.Illinois Iron Furnace Recreation Area. This reconstructed iron furnace was used to produce pig iron in the 1800s. A visitors kiosk and a short trail along Big Creek is found here.
6. Lake Glendale Recreation Area offers visitors a campground, swimming beach and picnic facilities. A trail around the lake offers great fishing opportunities and a trail leads over to a scenic bluff.
North of Glendale, visitors can make their way over to 7.Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area. This one-of-a-kind outdoor natural playground offers a campground and picnic facilities and a spectacular 10-mile trail network that takes visitors into stream valleys cut into sandstone, high cliffs, shelter bluffs and to a natural arch. A seasonal waterfall is one of the area’s highlights.
Just north of Bell Smith Springs, 8.Burden Falls offers great photo opportunities during the wet season. A set of double falls and rock formations make this a great stop.
West of Glendale, along Illinois 145, visitors can make their way over to 9.Millstone Bluff Recreation Area and explore an ancient Mississippian village on top of a knob. A short loop trail takes visitors up on the knob where they will experience an ancient Indian wall, stonebox cemetery and petroglyphs. Depressions on top of the bluff convey a story of structures that once housed the first Americans.
On the western side of the Shawnee, be sure to stop by 10.Johnson Creek Recreation Area to camp, picnic, boat, fish or hike. A 15-mile trail takes visitors along the lakefront all the way to the 11.Lake Kinkaid dam. This is an excellent place to see the forces of water flowing down the dam that eroded the soft sandstone, creating great rock ledges and numerous small waterfalls. This stop offers a great place to get refreshed in the summer months.
South of Murphysboro, make the 12.Little Grand Canyon a stop on your Shawnee itinerary. This area offers a 3.5-mile trail through some of the neatest rock formations and canyons in the area. Shelter bluffs, sheer bluffs, and seasonal waterfalls make it a great place for exploration. Climbing out of the canyon, there are great views of Swallow Rock bluff and the Big Muddy River. Hiking down and then back up in slick sandstone eroded canyons, can be quite challenging — and fun.
Along Route 127, visitors can stop by 13.Pomona Natural Bridge and a get a great short hike over the top. The arch is 90 feet long and 25 feet above the forest floor.
Off Route 3, visitors can stop by 14.Oakwood Bottoms and take a short hike along a boardwalk along the Walk of Life Trail, a great place for birding enthusiasts. South of this area, visitors can make their way over to 15.Larue-Pine Hills Ecological Area. This is one of the most diverse ecological areas in the country. There are great views of the Mississippi River floodplain from a few observation stops at vantage points up along Pine Hills Road. Hiking trails can also be accessed off this road.
These are just a few designated recreation sites to visit in the Shawnee. For those wanting more solitude and to get off the beaten path, visitors should make sure to visit one of the seven wilderness areas in the Shawnee: Bald Knob, Bay Creek, Burden Falls, Clear Springs, Garden of the Gods, Lusk Creek,or Panther Den. Together these wilderness areas offer over 26,000 acres to explore.
In addition, the 160-mile-long River-to-River Trail is a great backpack trail for the hardy, from the Ohio River to the Mississippi!
This summer when you are sitting at home wondering what to do, make a plan, then load up the family and take a trip down to the Shawnee National Forest. You will be rewarded with some spectacular scenery, unique historical sites, outstanding geological features, and trails to breathtaking vistas. Head for the hills!
For additional information contact the Shawnee National Forest at 800-699-6637 or www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/shawnee. The summer months may be humid and insects can be a nuisance. There are numerous cliffs, bluffs, stream crossings and other hazardous conditions. Also, three venomous snakes inhabit the region: cottonmouth, copperhead, and the timber rattlesnake. Know your limits and be observant of family and friends while exploring, and you’ll have a great time.
Walt Zyznieuski has been exploring the SNF for more than 30 years and is a co-author of A Guide to Illinois Nature Centers and Interpretive Trails.