The Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois is one of our favorite areas to explore. You forget anything you ever thought about Illinois’s flat landscape when you view the rugged bluffs, trickling creeks, and dramatic overlooks that can be found in Shawnee.
Shawnee has an amazing amount of scenic areas and parks to explore. There are trails available for all ages and abilities from a quarter mile easy trek to a multi-day backpacking adventure. It’s hard to pick our favorite trails, but there are a few areas we return to over and over for their natural beauty and family friendly hikes.
Cave-in-Rock State Park
Cave-in-Rock has a long and colorful history of harboring outlaws and river pirates starting in the 1790s. Pictographs also once graced the walls from even older civilizations in the area. Today the site is preserved as part of a beautiful state park.
Numerous hiking trails wind along the water and through the woods. Take the steps down to the water level and follow a short path to the 55′ wide cave’s opening. Another set of steps leads up on top of the bluff for a panoramic view of the river.
Ferne Clyffe State Park
Ferne Clyffe is a true natural oasis. The park features rugged bluffs, lush vegetation, and rushing wet weather waterfalls. This spot was once declared “the most beautiful place in all of Illinois.” A large network of trails are spread over multiple areas of the park making this one of the best hikes in Shawnee National Forest.
The Big Rocky Hollow, Hawk’s Cave, and Rebman Trails are all easy trails that lead from the same parking area. The waterfall at Big Rocky Hollow takes quite a bit of rain to flow well. If you can catch it after a good storm, it is a 100′ tall sight to behold.
Garden of the Gods Recreation Area
Garden of the Gods is the most popular and most photographed recreation area in all of Shawnee Forest. The magnificent rock formations and panoramic views are not to be missed. An easy 0.25 mile Observation Trail gives visitors an up close view of the rugged rocks and leads to dramatic overlooks. Other longer trails in the area give an escape from some of the crowds and more amazing views.
Use caution with kids here though as there are no guardrails and many steep drop offs. Try to visit early or on a weekday as the parking lot fills up early on weekends.
Giant City State Park
Giant City is one of the best state parks in the state. The stunning rock formations, large variety of trails, and recreation opportunities make this a perfect spot to explore the outdoors. There are trails that range from less than mile to a rugged 12 mile trek.
The majority of the trails are easy to moderate. Especially popular is the Giant City Nature Trail, home of the “Giant City Streets” – huge bluffs of sandstone that tower over the trail. Other easy trails include the Post Oak Trail, Devil’s Stand Table, Indian Creek, and Stone Fort Trails. Recharge from your hike with some delicious fried chicken in the rustic lodge built in the 1930s.
Cache River Natural Area
You can feel like you have headed to a southern bayou at Cache River Natural Area. This rare remaining example of a cypress swamp is a wonderful and easy place to explore. You can find several short and easy trails behind the Cache Rivers Wetlands Visitor Center. The Heron Pond Trail is the most popular trail in the area. A 1.5 mile trail passes over a scenic floating boardwalk and leads to the state champion Cherrybark Oak Tree.
Millstone Bluff is a unique historic site in Shawnee Forest. This archaeological site preserves the remains of a prehistoric village. A mostly easy 0.9 mile trail makes a steady uphill climb on a wide path to the top of the bluff. On the top of the bluff, you can follow a wooden boardwalk to view ancient petroglyphs and follow interpretive signs past the village ruins.
Illinois Iron Furnace
While not really a hike, one of the most unusual spots to be found in far south Illinois is the only remaining iron furnace structure in the state. Originally built in 1837, the 32′ structure as built with limestone blocks and is now listed on the National Historic Register. A village and post office were once located here.
The furnace was abandoned in 1887 and reconstructed in 1967 by the US Forest Service. Today the site is preserved as a picnic area with a picnic shelter, restrooms, and a small trail behind the shelter.
Pomona Natural Bridge
One of the shortest trails to hike in Shawnee, the Pomona Bridge trail makes up in might what it lacks in length. This is fun trail for all ages. The path makes a mild descent to a 90-foot long natural bridge. You can walk both below and across the bridge to make a 1/2 mile loop. Use caution with kids on the bridge, but it is wide enough to walk across safely.
Tunnel Hill State Trail
The Tunnel Hill State Trail is a 45 mile rails to trails path that cuts through portions of the Shawnee National Forest. This scenic trail passes ghost towns, quaint towns, and crosses dozens of bridges.
If you are not a bicyclist, multiple spots are available to park and walk a portion of the trail. One of the most interesting segments is at the Tunnel Hill parking area. Here you can take a short and flat walk to an old railroad tunnel. Continue a couple more miles down the trail and you can cross an impressive bridge trestle.
Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area
I first saw an image of Bell Smith Springs tucked away in an issue of Midwest Living’s annual travel guide. That photo showed a glistening emerald pool with jagged rocks reaching towards the deep blue sky. When we first visited, I discovered this scenic jewel is even better in person.
A variety of trails wander through this scenic area. You can view a scenic overlook before stepping down a set of CCC era stone stairs and following the bluffs to the Devil’s Backbone rock formation. Other trails lead to a natural rock bridge or past an old mill site. The scenic springs and streams in the area add to the beauty of this off-the-beaten path gem.
Jackson Falls is located not far from Bell Smith down more gravel back roads. This is a trail popular with hiking, rock climbing, and rapelling. Like other waterfalls in southern Illinois, this one requires wet conditions in order to be running. While the top of the waterfall can be reached in about a 0.25 mile walk, it takes a bit more effort and time to reach the bottom of the falls safely.
This is a moderate hike that borders on difficult due to the scrambling required and poor markings along the trail. While doable with kids (ours did the hike at 3 & 5 years old), caution must be used as a portion runs along the edge of a bluff and some rock scrambling is required to get to the bottom of the canyon.
Burden Falls is a must do stop when exploring Shawnee National Forest. This beautiful place offers multiple waterfalls for viewing. While you can see the upper falls easily from the parking area, the taller falls are best seen on a one mile each way out and back hike. Like other waterfalls in the area, Burden Falls only flows during wet weather times of the year.
Rim Rock National Recreation Trail
Rim Rock National Recreation Trail is a scenic trail that leads around the rim of a rock escarpment. There are two options from the parking lot, the upper trail and the lower trail.
The upper trail is paved and easy. The trail passes remnants of a prehistoric stone wall, a CCC plantation and an observation platform. You can then pass down a set of wooden stairs between towering rock slabs to the lower, unpaved trail. This trail leads along the bluffs either back to the parking lot or has a spur trail that continues on to Pounds Hollow Lake.
*The stairs are currently closed in 2022 for repairs. The lower trail can be taken from the parking lot by turning right to access the caves along the bottom of the trail.
Rocky Bluff Trail
This beautiful and moderate trail is technically just outside the Shawnee Forest boundary. It is part of the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. The Rocky Bluff trail offers two different options, a 2.2 mile loop or a shortcut 0.5 mile loop option. Both travel past wet-weather waterfalls, rocky bluffs, and stunning seasonal wildflowers.
Panthers Den is an amazing 3 mile loop hike that includes rugged and towering rock formations. Explore this maze of bluffs and boulders along a 3 mile hike that also includes a creek. The trail is moderate and even borderline easy for much of the distance as it follows a wide and well traveled path. It takes a little more scrambling to explore all of the rock passages, but the views are worth the journey.
If you are looking for a unique and lesser known rock formation, check out the Stoneface hike. Located off Stoneface Road in the northeastern portion of Shawnee Forest, the hike to the face is only 0.5 miles each way. The path can be rocky in areas and sometimes overgrown, but it also passes some interesting small caves and overlooks along the way.
Little Grand Canyon
While the Little Grand Canyon in Illinois can’t compare to the size or depth of the Grand Canyon out west, this trail is still extremely scenic. This 3.6 mile loop passes an amazing overlook of the Muddy River and Mississippi floodplain before descending into a deep ravine.
The trail can be hiked both directions, but either route requires scrambling down slick and rugged rocks to reach the bottom of the canyon. From the canyon floor, jagged bluffs tower over lush vegetation. Use caution here, but this is a hike well worth the effort.
Things to know:
-Always check the website for the most update information on trail condition and any closures.
-Bug spray is recommended on any of the trails.
-Some of the trails can be crowded on weekends, try to arrive early if you can or a weekday. If a parking lot is full, pick a different area to explore.
-Pack out what you bring in and remember to leave no trace. Leave the natural beauty of the area just as you found it.
Maps can be found on the National Forest Service site HERE.
Have you ever visited this enchanting area of Illinois? If so, what was your favorite spot?
Whether you are looking for an urban adventure or an escape to nature, Illinois has so many great travel destinations to explore.