Garden of the Gods Recreation Area is the crown jewel of Illinois’s Shawnee National Forest. Tucked away in the far southern part of the state, this area is full of stunning natural beauty. The ease of access and amazing viewpoints make Garden of the Gods the most visited site of the forest.
Garden of the Gods Hiking Trails
There are two main hiking only trails at Garden of the Gods. The Observation Trail is the most popular trail. This path is short and easy, but use extreme caution as there are cliff edges and drop-offs.
Garden of the Gods Observation Trail
- Distance: 0.25 mile loop
- Difficulty: 2/5. Mostly a flagstone path with a few wooden steps. More rugged if you explore off the main path.
- Scenic Value: 5/5. The best view in Illinois!
Reaching the Trailhead
The trailhead for the Observation Trail is located at the large parking area at the upper end of Garden of the Gods Road. There are vault toilets here as well. Although the lot is large with both an upper and lower areas, it can fill up on summer, fall, and holiday weekends. Visiting early in the day or on a weekday will give you a more peaceful visit.
From the parking area, you can start the trail either on the left side or the right side. We usually start on the right and hike counter-clockwise.
The trail starts on a flagstone path that is fairly flat.
It doesn’t take long to reach the first set of rocks and overlooks. Again, explore very carefully here and keep small children close in hand at all times.
The path then passes through some tall boulders. My kids always love to climb on this section.
The trail then reaches a short stretch of wooden boardwalk and steps. There are some really neat rock formations in this area plus an overlook.
Endless Views and Overlooks
From here the path passes by several short spurs to overlooks and giant rocks before returning to the parking area. Be very careful here and stay back from cliff edges. You can still get a great view without putting your safety as risk.
Fall is one of the best times to visit Garden of the Gods due to the stunning colors from the overlooks. We make a point to visit at least one each year in late October.
Keep an eye on your visit and see if you can find aptly named Camel Rock as shown below.
The Best Sunset View Around
Garden of the Gods is one of the best spots in the state to watch a sunset. Find a good rock, take a seat, and watch the show.
Garden of the Gods Indian Point Trail
- Distance: 1.6 mile loop
- Difficulty: 3/5 Minor elevation changes, a few rocky sections
- Scenic Value: 5/5 Not as many overlooks as the Observation Trail, but great view of rocks and bluffs from below.
If you want to escape the crowds on the Observation Trail or wish a longer hike, check out the scenic Indian Point Trail. This trail is part of the Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area. This is a moderate hike suitable for families with only one short section that leads past a cliff area.
Reaching the Trailhead
The trailhead for the Indian Point is located in the gravel Backpackers parking area on the lower portion of Garden of the Gods Road. (If heading towards the Observation Trail, the turn off is on the left.)
The trail makes a lollipop shape with a short spur at the start before beginning the loop portion. We opted to stay straight at the loop start and hike to the overlook first.
A Tunnel of Pines
The start of the trail is stunning year round. Pine trees tower over the trail. If you visit in fall, you can see pops of yellow and orange from other tree species intertwined with the pines.
The trail also passes by a small pond or marsh area. Even hiking during a drought, the pond was holding water.
About 0.2 miles in, another trail will branch off to the left. This trail cuts across the Indian Point loop. Stay straight to remain on the loop.
Reaching Indian Point
About 0.6 miles in, you will reach the Indian Point area with several overlooks. The path stays back from the cliff edges, but still be careful if you walk out on to the rocks for a better view.
From here the trail turns back north. The path can be a little hard to find in this area near the overlook, but keep an eye out for the white trail markers on the trees.
The trail passes a few more rugged rocks and then heads downhill slightly.
Caves and Rocks Galore
From here the trail is definitely more rugged than the first stretch from the parking are to the overlook. However, it’s also the most interesting section.
The path follows along the base of towering and rugged bluffs. There are also several small caves to explore!
I always recommend having a flashlight when hiking, and it can come in handy to take a peek inside one of the small cave openings on this trail.
Completing the Loop
The trail will pass another spur to the left. This is the same connector that runs across the loop. Stay right on the main trail to complete the loop and return to the parking area.
Other Activities at Garden of the Gods
There are 15 more miles of trails in the Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area. Many of these are multi-use trails open to horseback riding as well as hiking.
Just past the Observation Trail parking area is a picnic area.
If you wish to pitch your tent in the wilderness, there are first come-first serve camp sites available at the end of Garden of the Gods Road. The Pharaoh Campground has 12 campsites all outfitted with fire pits, picnic tables, toilets and drinking water. The nearest electric sites are available at Pounds Hollow.
Things to Know Before You Go
- You can print a park map and brochure on the Shawnee Forest website.
- Cell service can be spotty. Printing, buying, or downloading a map in advance is recommended.
- The Observation Trail and picnic areas are open 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. year round. Overnight parking is only allowed in the backpackers parking area and Hitching Post trailhead lot.
- Disposable food and beverage containers are not allowed on the Observation Trail.
- Vault toilets are located at the Observation Trail parking area, picnic area, and campground.
- Always pack out what you bring in and leave no trace.
More to See
If you are looking for more areas to explore in Shawnee National Forest nearby, check out the Rim Rock Trail. This is another good family hike full of interesting rock formations. Cave-in-Rock is another fun area to explore with a short trail to a large cave opening.
If you are looking for a bite to eat before or after your hike, stop at the Garden of the Gods Outpost for some snacks, treats, or souvenirs. The Red Onion in tiny Equality, Illinois offers a huge menu at reasonable prices. Cave-in-Rock State Park has a restaurant along the Ohio River bluffs.
Have you ever been to Illinois’s Garden of the Gods?