Panther Den is a southern Illinois hike that we had meant to do for years, but never got around to. I was a little wary about the trail reports I had read where people had trouble finding the trailhead or following the trail. Well, we finally made the trip and this Shawnee National Forest hike was easy to follow and amazing to see! Read on to learn how to hike the Panther Den Wilderness Trail.
Panther Den Wilderness Hike
- Distance: 3 miles total out and back to big rocks (1.5 mile each way). Longer if you make the full loop.
- Difficulty: 3/5. To the rock formations is fairly easy. Trail is rugged past first set of bluffs and can be overgrown.
- Scenic Value: This is a great trail with a lot to see!
Reaching the Panther Den Trailhead
The trailhead for the Panther Den hike is located along Panther Den Lane which turns off of Panther Den Road. (I’ve heard the similar road names can cause confusion!). Look for a small parking area on the right with a kiosk and sign. Respect the private property that is located across the road. There are no other amenities at the trailhead.
Starting the Panther Den Hike
The trail starts out by heading slightly downhill and through the woods. We found the trail to be wide and easy to follow.
Crossing the Creek
After a short distance, the trail crosses a creek. The creek was practically dry when we crossed but could potentially run higher after a good rain.
The kids enjoyed this area as it provided a nice place for rock throwing, bark boat making, and climbing on a downed tree.
There are some social trails in the area, but the official trail starts back up on the other side of the creek and parallels the creek continuing to head north.
About 0.6 miles in to the hike, there is a trail junction. The River to River trail continues straight while the Panther Den hike stays to the left. There is a wooden sign at this junction.
The trail gets a little narrower at this point, but it still was easy to follow.
The trail soon approaches the bluff line and that is where things start to get really interesting!
Exploring the Panther Den
Off to your right you will see towering slabs of rock. It is an impressive and photogenic sight.
There are several deep crevasses and shelter bluff areas to explore.
It almost appears that this area is a dead end. However, if you go all the way to the back and turn left, there is an opening in the rock you can scramble down to continue exploring. It’s not difficult or high, but small kids will need a little help.
You will then be in another impressive rock area.
Once again you can turn left when you reach the end of this passage and squeeze through a gap in the rock to continue the trek.
After passing through this rock passage you may feel like you have discovered the Garden of Eden. A lush, almost hidden area of rocks and vegetation great you.
The trail is a little trickier to follow here. But if you continue past the fallen log to the right, there are rocks to climb carefully down. It can be slick, especially if wet so use caution.
After climbing down the rocks, there are even more fun caverns and passages to your left.
Completing the Hike
The trail then passes by a campsite near where the River to River Trail or full Panther Den loop continues on northwest. Based on trail reviews, the path becomes more overgrown and difficult follow if you take the full loop option.
Keep following the bluff line to the left if you want the out-and-back shorter trail option.
After following the bluff line just a little more, the trail will pass by the start of the Panther’s Den again. Keep straight to retrace your steps back to the trail head.
I have included an image of our hike if that helps anyone with route finding. The image is from All Trails, but as you can see it’s not always perfect with showing all the trails or following the path exactly.
Things to Know Before You Go
- There are no restrooms or other amenities at the trailhead
- I highly recommend using the All Trails app or another trail app to keep on the right trail where the River to River trail splits off. Cell service can be spotty.
- We didn’t have an issue with ticks, but bug spray or repellent is always recommended in the woods.
- As this is a wilderness area, it is open 24 hours and there are no fees. Primitive camping is allowed.
- Remember to pack out what you bring in and practice Leave No Trace principles.
More to See in the Area
There are so many amazing hikes in the Shawnee National Forest area of southern Illinois. You can find a full list of our favorite Shawnee Forest hikes here. Giant City State Park , Ferne Clyffe State Park, and the Rocky Bluff Trail are all great options in the area.