Adventuring in Shawnee National Forest

When most people think of Illinois, they either picture Chicago in their mind, or miles and miles of corn fields.  But there are some hidden gems, including the southern tip of the state where you’ll find Shawnee National Forest and it’s many special places.
We were looking for somewhere to go backpacking on this Mother’s Day weekend, May 7-8, but the forecast had rain and thunderstorms predicted for most of Indiana as well as Kentucky.  I had been interested in seeing the Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee N.F. for some time, and it just so happened the forecast there was sunny for this weekend.
Typically I do a lot of homework for new places we plan to explore, but honestly I couldn’t find a whole lot of information (trail maps, backcountry camping areas) for the Shawnee.  I printed out a simple map I found online for the Garden of the Gods Wilderness, and off we went.  From Lafayette, it was about a five hour drive, we arrived about 8am Saturday morning at the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area.  First thing we wanted to do was take a hike on the Observation Trail around the park’s main feature, sandstone outcrops that have been weathered in amazing patterns.  Getting out there so early beat the crowds, so we mostly had it to ourselves.  We love geologic formations out in nature, whether it’s the canyons and ravines of Indiana state parks, or the gorges and arches in Kentucky.  Looking upon such features and trying to comprehend the millions of years it took to form these layers of rock, the elements within them, and the erosion and weathering to create what we now see is truly awe inspiring.

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Camel Rock – Garden of the Gods

Observation Trail is only about a quarter mile long, not much of a hike, but there is so much to explore in and around the rock formations.  We spent nearly two hours weaving through the many crags, jumping from boulder to boulder.  The views out over the wilderness were simply beautiful.

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Robin – Garden of the Gods

We finally went back to the car, grabbed our backpacks, and hiked out Indian Point Trail to find a place to set up camp.  We passed by a few campers set up not far from the trail head parking, and passed a cool little pond full of lilly pads and lots of frogs.  Some were simple leopard frogs, other species were absolutely HUGE!  After awhile, the trail goes out on a ridge, and we spotted a campsite that was a few hundred feet away from the main trail.  We investigated, and to our delight, the site was empty (though previous campers had left a bit of a mess) and best of all, there was a large rock outcrop with an amazing view.  We had found our camp.

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Robin & Kaden hanging out at the rock outcrop at our campsite

After setting up camp and eating some lunch, we put on our daypacks and headed out into the wilderness for a hike.  Unfortunately, there are no trail maps onsite, not from the trail heads, nor from the informational billboards.  I had a small map I had downloaded, and thought surely that would be enough for a loop hike.  And it started out okay, we hit all the intersections we expected to at first.  We found the first landmark that was on my map, “H Rock”, which is an eroded arch high up on a cliff side that is indeed in the shape of an H.

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“H” Rock

However, that was about where the fun stopped.  The wilderness trail was extremely rugged, not from roots, not from rocks, not from ups and downs.  No, it was rugged because of the massive trail damage done by horses.  Shawnee National Forest is very popular with trail riders, which tears up the trails immensely, and making us constantly avoid the “road apples” left behind.  Like many national forests, there are many “unofficial” trails that veer off from the main trail, but with all the trail damage, it was nearly impossible to tell which trail was the right one.  I knew from my map that we had missed something, so we finally backtracked a bit and found a trail up the side of a hill that looked like it would take us where we were supposed to go.  It kind of did, we came out at an intersection with an actual trail sign (something they don’t have nearly enough of in this forest, nor trail markers).  The sign pointed left to go back to the Garden of the Gods parking area, so that’s the way we went.  However, after another hour of hiking, we found ourselves back at the same spot we had stopped at earlier!  It was like a scene right out of The Blair Witch Project, where they kept coming back to the same spot when they were trying to escape the forest.  Kaden thought we were lost, but I knew how to get back from this point, it just wasn’t the loop trail we had expected.  But after nearly 7 hours of hard hiking through rutted trails, we made it back to camp.  I would say this was the first time in all of our adventures that I couldn’t keep my bearings and find the proper trails.  One thing is for sure though, we got a heck of a workout, and spent a lot of time in nature, hardly seeing anyone else on the trails.

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Camp off of Indian Point Trail

We ate dinner and watched the sunset.  Though the wilderness hike was exhausting and disappointing, our spirits were still up, looking forward to a good night’s sleep and more exploring the next day.

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Sunset from camp

Sunday we got up bright and early, drank our coffee and ate breakfast, wished Robin a very Happy Mother’s Day, then tore down camp and hiked back out to the car.  The only downside we discovered with our campsite there off of Indian Point Trail were ticks, lots of small ticks crawling all over.  But that is the risk we take being in nature! On our way back, we took a few minutes to admire some butterflies and checked out the frog pond again, and then went back to the Garden of the Gods Observation Trail and did some more exploring around the cool rock formations.  Check out the highlights in our video:

That afternoon, we drove east to Pounds Hollow Recreation Area, and hiked the Rim Rock National Recreation Trail.  Also not a long hike, but heavy on history and features.  Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans lived on this hill, called the Pounds Escarpment, where there was only one way to the top.  The Indians built a stone wall at that point to safeguard their village on the hill.  In the 1800s, settlers moving west took the land.  Most of the hike around the top is an easy hike and has some excellent views from sandstone outcrops, but the best feature is a wooden staircase that goes down the backside of the hill, through giant fissures in the rock, down to the creek below, and “Ox-lot Cave”.  The cave is actually a huge rock shelter in which settlers fenced in and used as a stockade for their oxen, even with a natural spring in the back.  We played around on the rocks and cliff side, and cooled off in the giant cracks before heading back to the top and finishing the hike.

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A view from above one of the fissures in the cliff side of Rim Rock

Check out the highlights from our Rim Rock hike:

Afterward, we had a couple hours to spare before the drive back home, so we stopped at Pounds Hollow Lake where Robin and Kaden played in the chilly water.  This trip might have been more of a true “adventure” than most of our trips, as it was mostly done on the fly without too much planning or knowing what to expect.  While these areas were very neat to explore, we know there is much more to the Shawnee National Forest that we still haven’t seen, including numerous waterfalls, canyons, and more cliffs.  In Illinois, of all places!

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