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Garden of the Gods: Visiting Southern Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest

Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, Southern Illinois

Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest, Southern Illinois. Photo by Joel Plutchak.

After you’ve had your fill of white squir­rels, head south from Olney and check out the won­der­ful fall foliage of the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois. This huge National Forest is nes­tled between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and fea­tures rolling hills, forests, open lands, lakes, creeks and rugged bluffs.

Shawnee National Forest, once known as the Illinois Ozarks, was estab­lished in 1933 and became a major project of the CWA (Civil Works Administration) and CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) dur­ing the Great Depression.

Shawnee National Forest is divided into two ranger dis­tricts: the Mississippi Bluffs Ranger District on the West side and the Hidden Springs Ranger District on the East. What you do and where you stay will depend on what part of the National Forest you intend to visit.

What to Do

Scenic Drives

There are two par­tic­u­larly good scenic dri­ves to fol­low to take in the nat­ural beauty and spec­tac­u­lar fall col­ors of the area.

Bell Smith Springs, Shawnee National Forest, Southern Illinois. Photo by Dallas Clemmons.

Bell Smith Springs, Shawnee National Forest, Southern Illinois. Photo by Dallas Clemmons.

LaRue Pine Hills

LaRue Pine Hills road, located near Anna/Jonesboro, south­west of Carbondale, Illinois,  is a 35 mile round trip from Jonesboro. The wind­ing LaRue Pine Hills road leads you to the top of bluffs over­look­ing the Mississippi flood­plain and the world-renowned LaRue Pine Hills/Otter Pond Research Natural Area and Ecological Area. This scenic drive also accesses Pine Hills camp­ground, sev­eral pic­nic areas and lots of local attrac­tions, includ­ing antique shops, winer­ies, and orchards.

Ohio River National Scenic Byway

This byway wan­ders through three states: Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The Illinois por­tion is approx­i­mately 300 miles and ends at the con­flu­ence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in Cairo, Illinois. The Scenic Byway reflects the cul­ture and his­tory found along the rolling, hilly land­scape of the Ohio River Valley in Illinois. It passes through the east­ern por­tion of the Shawnee National Forest near recre­ation areas such as the Garden of the Gods, Pounds Hollow, High Knob, Rim Rock, Tower Rock, in addi­tion to Cave in Rock State Park and many small his­toric river towns.

Tunnel Hill State Trail

Bring your bike and enjoy the spec­tac­u­lar scenery along this 45 mile paved trail, which is a con­verted rail­road bed, that tra­verses the Shawnee National Forest. The high­light of the trail is a ride through a dark 540-foot-long train tun­nel. Tunnel Hill State Trail.

Rock Climbing

Rock climbers and rap­pellers can tackle the Jackson Falls area in the Hidden Springs Ranger District.

Canoeing and Boating

There are lots of places to take a boat and/or canoe out, includ­ing Devil’s Kitchen, Big Cedar, Little Cedar and Dutchman Lake. Or you can canoe the tran­quil Big Muddy River Canoe Trail or the Saline River.


There is so much to do at Shawnee National Forest, we couldn’t begin to cover it all! Check out the US Forest Service’s Recreational Opportunity Guides as a good start­ing point.

Where to Stay

There are 17 camp­ing areas within the park. The largest include Oak Point Campground, Pine Ridge Campground, Johnson Creek Recreation Area and Redbud Campground. For a com­pre­hen­sive list, check out the U.S. Forest Service’s list of recre­ation sites. Campsites are first come first serve, no reser­va­tions accepted.

Be sure to check out The River Pirates of Cave-In-Rock, the next arti­cle in our Fall Outings in Southern Illinois series!

For more images of Shawnee National Forest, see the gallery below.

Related posts:

  1. Fall Outings in Southern Illinois
  2. The River Pirates of Cave-In-Rock
  3. Southeastern Illinois’ White Squirrels of Olney
  4. Fort Massac and the Superhero of Metropolis
  5. Top 10 Ways to View Ohio’s Fall Foliage

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