Nearly 1 million people visit Shawnee National Forest each year, which serves as a retreat to Americans living in urban areas.
That’s not a surprise, considering more than 30 U.S. cities are within a six-hour drive.
“We’re nestled in Southern Illinois between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers,” said Brendan Cain, the forest supervisor for Shawnee National Forest.
“Shawnee boasts strikingly beautiful oak-hickory forests, flourishing wetlands, lush canyons, razorback ridges and unique geological features.”
The forest was a mere vision in the 1930s when Illinoisans hatched a plan to restore their lost forest, seeking help from the Forest Service. Early conservationists started with a patchwork of abandoned farmland, logged — and not reforested — lands and rare, diverse places.
Today’s Shawnee National Forest spans 289,000 acres, features vast blocks of forest and cool geologic features, such as Stone Face, much like Old Man of the Mountain.
Looking to explore its glades, barrens, prairies, streams, lakes, ponds, waterfalls, woodlands and rocky outcrops? You can camp, paddle, hike, horseback ride, photograph, swim, run, hunt, fish and picnic at Shawnee National Forest.
Check out these five spots, all within a short drive of each other.
Garden of the Gods
This is the most Instagrammed spot on the forest. People flock to Garden of the Gods to see its jaw-dropping rock formations — such as Camel Rock and Devil’s Smokestack.
Easily the most photographed location on the forest, this is the place to be photographed. Its flagstone trail makes hiking easy. Pack a lunch for the picnic area, or venture into the wilderness.
Its location along the Ohio River National Scenic Byway makes it an ideal stop for those who prefer to explore by car – not foot.
Hike through Fat Man’s Squeeze and a lush, cool canyon.
Hidden below Rim Rock is a canyon that is one of the most interesting places on Shawnee National Forest. Descend from the trail between huge slabs of rock – known as Fat Man’s Squeeze — and reach an enormous rock overhang that forms Ox-lot Cave. This is where European settlers once sheltered livestock.
The cool canyon offers respite on a hot summer day and sports a diversity of plants and animals.
If a cool dip is what you seek, then this trail ends at Pounds Hollow, No. 3 on our list.
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Its campground and lake are tucked among Illinois’ hills, making it an ideal place to relax and get away. Constructed in the early 1940s, the lake is a popular place to swim, camp, fish and hike.
So, after cooling off in the lake, grab a fishing pole and enjoy.
Get your history on, then snorkel in the stream. Check out Illinois’ only remaining iron furnace structure, where iron once was manufactured using the charcoal blast method.
Afterward, head to Big Creek. Its clear waters are a great place to snorkel with kids. They will delight in its tiny fish and rocks.
Bell Smith Springs
Rocks, water and birds – oh my! Nature geeks should head over to Bell Smith Springs – one of the most biologically diverse places on Shawnee National Forest.
It’s a haven for migrating songbirds, such as scarlet tanager or white-eyed vireo. Visit in the springtime when wildflowers flourish among a backdrop of massive sandstone bluffs.
Bell Smith Springs is beloved for its clear, rocky streams, scenic canyons and sandstone cliffs.
It features strange and wonderful rock formations, such as Devil’s Backbone and Boulder Falls. Hike its eight miles of interconnected trails, and check out its natural rock bridge.
Safety in the Outdoors
Planning and being prepared for outdoor activities should be part of getting ready for a trip to the Shawnee National Forest.
Simple tips like obtaining maps, letting someone at home know where you will be, packing proper clothing and footwear and learning potential hazards, are only a few outdoor safety tips to follow.
For details on what you should ‘Know Before You Go’ visit: www.fs.fed.us/visit/know-before-you-go.
About Shawnee National Forest
Shawnee National Forest is one of 155 national forests nationwide. As the only national forest in Illinois, the Shawnee offers numerous avenues for connecting with the natural world through its 280,000 acres of varied landscape.
Whether your interests lie more in outdoor recreational activities, such as hiking or camping, or include learning about the unique natural and cultural heritage of southern Illinois, the fields, forests and streams of the Shawnee welcome everyone.