Weekend Trip to Shawnee National Forest’s Garden of the Gods

Last week, I took a two-night, two-day trip with my boyfriend to southeastern Illinois’s Shawnee National Forest. We wanted to hike and possibly car camp, but because of the record heat and because we were traveling with his dog Bo, we rented a cozy, fully-appointed cabin at Rim Rock’s Dogwood Cabins.

Our cabin was only seven miles from the Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area, where we wanted to hike. Best yet, we could bring Bo! While technically we traveled midweek, our trip could serve as a perfect weekend getaway for dog owners who live within  four or five hours of the area.

Garden of the Gods / Photo by the author / Creative Commons BY-NC

Shawnee National Forest and the Garden of the Gods are worth a visit even if you live farther away, though. Garden of the Gods is the most geologically and topologically unique place I’ve been to in the Midwest during the nine years I’ve lived here. According to the National Forest Service,

in contrast to the level, or gently rolling farm lands typical of most of Illinois, the Shawnee National Forest lies in the rough, unglaciated areas know[n] as the Illinois Ozark and Shawnee Hills. The geology is spectacular and divergent, with numerous stone bluffs and overlooks transcending to lowland areas. Topography ranges from the flood plains of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, at about 325 feet above sea level to 1,064 feet at Williams Hill in Pope County. The geologic processes that formed the landscape are partially responsible for the presence of important mineral resources, including some of national significance.

Overlook / Photo by the Author / Creative Commons BY-NC

These “geologic processes” were 320 million years in the making, and they created the area’s characteristic globular sandstone formations as well as the interesting designs that mark some of the rock face. In fact, when Backpacker magazine profiled the Garden of the Gods in 2010, they remarked not only on the distinctive beauty of the Garden of the Gods, but also on how it “defies preconceptions of the Midwest as a featureless lowland.”  Of course, living in and hiking the rolling hills of Southern Indiana has disabused me of that notion. Still, I’m glad I had a chance to visit this special area with two great companions before my move to South Carolina (one week and counting). I also crossed off an item on my “12 Backpacking and Reading Resolutions for 2012,” which made me happy, too!

Rock Swirls / Photo by the Author / Creative Commons BY-NC

If you are interested in a mini-Midwestern hiking adventure that is dog-friendly, keep reading after the jump for the details of what we did, what we packed, and why we might go back.

Who would like this trip

Dog owners. This was a trip designed to be taken with a dog. Whatever we did, Bo the dog would do. We weren’t going to leave him behind.

Bo with Backpack / Photo by the author / Creative Commons BY-NC

People who enjoy the outdoors, but for whatever reason, do not want to spend the night outside yet still want to be close to their adventure destination. We originally planned to spend three nights in Illinois; the first night, we would car camp at Pharaoh Campground, which is overseen by the National Forest Service and is located adjacent to the Garden of the Gods.  However, we were faced with day-time highs of over 102 degrees Fahrenheit, as the area was in the midst of an intense and bizarre heat wave–like much of the US this summer.

Garden of the Gods / Photo by the author / Creative Commons BY-NC

What we did

Rented a centrally-located, pet-friendly cabin for two nights. We were disappointed we couldn’t car camp, but eliminating that from our itinerary made packing (and purchasing!) for this trip much easier because we only needed to bring clothing, hiking gear, and our food; linen and kitchenware were provided as part of our cabin rental. We loved our stay at Rimrock’s Dogwood Cabins; it was everything we wanted in terms of location, amenities, and price point. (Really, a stellar deal if you ask me!)

Hiked in the morning and evening to escape the heat. In the morning, we hiked on the Wilderness Trail towards Anvil Rock until the heat became too dangerous, especially for the dog. Before we left, I quickly scouted the Observation Trail, which is separate from the Wilderness Trail, and I could tell right away it was not to be missed. We returned to hike the Observation Trail, a short loop, in the evening. Despite its brevity, there is a lot to see and explore, so if you’re interested in photography, I recommend not only taking the Observation Trail slowly, but also prioritizing it over the other trails in Garden of the Gods; its sandstone formations and views are spectacular.

Anvil Rock / Photo by the author / Creative Commons BY-NC

Cooked our own meals. We brought food to make breakfast and dinner. I thought we’d be out hiking during lunch (turned out it was way too hot, especially for the dog), so I only packed items to eat “on the fly,” like Clif bars, beef jerky, and trail mix.

Watched satellite TV but unplugged a little, too. This was an outdoorsy getaway (read: active vacation), but we both needed a break. We didn’t have cell service for two full days, so along with reading (I brought Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s backpacking memoir), napping, and playing an entirely too complicated card game, TV was a nice way to unwind. (In fact, the TV show Who the [Bleep] Did I Marry? now could be my new guilty pleasure.)

What we brought

Plastic tub and cooler. To make our departures and arrivals lightning fast, we packed most of our belongings into a large plastic tub with locking handles and a large cooler. The cooler, of course, held our perishables, and the tub held our clothes, hiking gear, toiletries, and pantry items. Loading and unloading took less than 10 minutes.

Kurgo backpack for the dog. Bo is a working dog—part German Shepherd, part Australian Shepherd, and possibly part Border Collie. These kinds of dogs, as my boyfriend has explained to me, like being given a job; they relish the sense of responsibility.  Not surprisingly, Bo loved carrying his Kurgo Wanderer pack, and we noticed that while he was wearing it, he was calmer and more obedient (although he’s typically a very well-behaved dog anyway).

What I wish we could have done

Hike more, including the Rim Rock Trail. Our cabin was practically right next to the parking area for the Rim Rock Trail, which begins with an up-close view of a 1500 year-old rock wall! We explored a small part of the trail after our evening hike at the Garden of the Gods, but I would have liked to have completed more of it, especially after seeing the video below (check out the footage at 1:07!).

Backpack. Had we been more practiced in the art of “hiking with dog” and had we not been in the midst of a heatwave/drought,  we probably would have backpacked. There is dedicated parking at Garden of the Gods for backpackers, and the trail system intersects with the River-to-River trail, a 160 mile, long-distance trail. Oh, the possibilities for next time!


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7 comments on “Weekend Trip to Shawnee National Forest’s Garden of the Gods
  1. jerry dale says:

    Wonderful, engaging article, Amy Rubens. Thanks !!! Great read !!!

  2. Jordan says:

    I recently saw the Garden of the Gods flier at a rest stop on our way to the Grand Canyon. I started to research the area to plan for another hiking trip. This place looks awesome. Thanks for the informative article.

    • Amy says:

      Thanks for reading. I moved since I wrote that post and wish now that I lived closer to Garden of the Gods. I’d definitely go back.

  3. slywy says:

    I’m from the Chicago area, and a friend and I spent a week in the Shawnee National Forest area last May (PERFECT weather), and this year a couple of days, also in May. The eastern part is the less developed, but the western part has some great areas too. I took a lot of photos and wrote about it starting here: http://www.slywy.com/shawnee-national-forest-cache-river-road-trip/ (I still haven’t written about this year or posted photos). Day 2 was Garden of the Gods. There are lots of great areas, including Bell Smith Springs and Lusk Creek Canyon (also, we found out kind of late, known as Indian Kitchen — we’d have found it a lot sooner had we known). If you ever get back and you’re interested in wetlands, visit Heron Pond (Cache River) and take a canoe down the Cache. Magic! Here are some photos of Heron Pond. https://picasaweb.google.com/116270764387330615072/CacheRiverWetlandsCenterHeronPondOverlookDavieSchoolInn52514

    • Amy says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your post and pictures. I’d love to go back someday, but I’m in SC now (so quite a ways away). Love the idea of canoeing.

    • Amy says:

      Also — can’t believe the scenery from Heron Pond. Looks very similar to the swampy wetlands around where I now live (Pee Dee region of SC).

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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