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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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