Shawnee National Forest: An Illinois adventure worth the trip

Welcome to the Midwest. Corn country. Fly-over country, or so the folks on the coasts say. But they never bother to look closely. You can keep Manhattan, you can keep Seattle, we’ll take the Shawnee National Forest. More than 265,000 acres of pristine wilderness in the heart of the Midwest. And, nestled within that forest, Garden of the Gods Wilderness.

Some, perhaps many, MWO readers already know about this slice of paradise, but for those that didn’t grow up exploring its towering geologic formations, it’s well worth the trip.

Strap on your hiking boots and hit the trail
The key feature of the Garden of the Gods Wilderness is its Overlook Trail. Don’t groan. This isn’t a back-breaking slog through untamed wilderness, it’s a roughly 1/4 mile flagstone trail nicely maintained through towering rock formations and past sweeping vistas. My two-year-old daughter made this hike and timidly said “hi” to a 90-year-old woman with a walker. If you can stand, you can make this hike.

If you’re more adventurous, stray off the path to scale rock formations carved millennia ago by glacial action. Or, take one of the many miles of trails that run through the wilderness for an experience you’ll never forget. Whatever you do, camp.

Camping for real at Pharaoh campground
More and more frequently, campsites are being overrun. Wild spaces turned into what amounts to a short-staffed hotel. Many places, you can’t smell the wood smoke over the reek of RV exhaust or hear the wind in the leaves for the blare of portable stereos. Pharaoh campground is not such a place.

You can’t reserve it online, you can’t call a ranger station. There is no ranger station. You drive up there, far back in the sticks, crossing your fingers the whole way that there will be an open campsite. If there is, it’s 10 bucks a night. If there isn’t, well, that’s why they call it an adventure.

It is a drive-up campground, but it has several advantages over many modernized campgrounds. At Pharaoh, there’s no electricity (sayonara, stereos), no running water (pump it yourself, and bring a bucket), and, heavens-be-praised, there’s no dang Wi-Fi. Take that, screen addiction. Your bosses can’t get ahold of you for that rush project, even if they want to.

As an added bonus, Pharaoh campground is within relatively easy walking distance of most of the area trails. Including the all-important overlook.

When to go?
While any month is good, the riot of colors painted across the fall landscape will leave you breathless. Amongst the towering evergreens and the deciduous bedecked in their fall regalia, with the rock formations riven by unknowable ancient currents, you can almost feel like an explorer. Setting foot where no one has tread. Then you see the beer can.

Whenever you go, do your part. Keep the place clean. This natural wilderness exists only because we’ve allowed it to exist. It will remain beautiful only if we work to keep it beautiful. Pack your trash out. Pack anyone else’s trash out, too. As the 1964 Wilderness Act said, this is meant to be, “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Other opportunities in the area
It’s true, not everyone wants to travel potentially hundreds of miles to sleep in the dirt and look at big rocks. You wouldn’t put it like that, if you’d been there, but that’s not the point. There are other options in the area, as well, for the outdoors enthusiast.

Perhaps you just can’t get enough of hiking in any one spot or are looking for something to shake the prairie off your feet? If so, Rim Rock Trail and Giant City State Park (east and west of Garden of the Gods, respectively) both offer hiking opportunities that are worth checking out.

For the aquatically minded, about an hour to the northwest is Rend Lake. It’s noted for its bass fishing. Not that anybody would be interested in that, of course. Head southeast from Garden of the Gods Wilderness and you can check out Cave-In-Rock on the Ohio River. Or, get real ambitious and drive an extra hour or two to reach Kentucky Lake.

In season and with the proper permits, you can also hunt the majority of Shawnee National Forest.

A place with a touch of danger
Always, always consider taking a young person on any excursion into nature and out of their electronic world. But, at Garden of the Gods Wilderness, keep an exceptionally close eye on them. These rock formations and bluffs are no joke. Step wrong or—worse yet—don’t watch closely enough, and it could be an awfully long way down.

This isn’t to say that the National Parks Service hasn’t taken good care of the place or that it hasn’t done enough to make the place safe. It’s just that nature is viciously unforgiving.

A place to make memories
If people think about Illinois at all, they think about Chicago. But on the opposite side of the state is a broad swathe of the natural world waiting to be explored. It’s a place of majesty that will remain with you long after you return home.

Put the tent and cooler in the truck. Corral the kids or the grandkids. Go start a tradition that will last for generations in your family. Walk this place with friends and family and remember, once more, how sweet it is to live in the Midwest.