My friends and I took an early June trip to southern Illinois figuring we’d see the Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest, hike around, and relax in terrain that’s very different than the flatlands of the Chicago area. It turns out there are so many fun things to do in Southern Illinois! With a combination of national forest, national wildlife refuges, state forest, state parks, and nature preserves there are fantastic opportunities for hiking, biking, fishing, camping, and more. In just three days, we hiked, ziplined, and kayaked, and managed a quick visit to Kentucky. We also learned parts of the sad history of our state.
Bookmark this post for when you head down south for the April 8, 2024, solar eclipse. Make a whole trip of it and enjoy a few days down there instead of fighting traffic for a 12-hour drive back to Chicago!
What to do in Southern Illinois
Shawnee National Forest: Pick Your Side
The largest of these green crown jewels of Illinois is the Shawnee National Forest. There’s an east side and a west side. Each side has its advantages. Think carefully about where you stay because it will take you well over an hour to drive from one side to the other. We went in rather naively and spent a lot of time driving to and fro, but we enjoyed the lush, rolling hillside and wide-open spaces.
Lodging on the west side puts you closer to wineries, as well as ziplining, and kayaking. There are also many more lodging and dining options out that way given its proximity to the university town of Carbondale. In addition, St. Louis is only a two-hour drive away.
Golconda, Illinois (East Side)
If you want to get away from it all, staying on the east side of Shawnee National Forest is for you. We stayed in the more rural east side because that’s where I found lodging that met our needs. Specifically, we were in Golconda on the far east side of the region,
just a couple of miles from the Ohio River and eastern border of Illinois. The banks of this part of the Ohio River are green and unspoiled. I could almost convince myself that I was someone more exotic than southern Illinois. That said, there are populations of Amish people on both sides of the river, which is somewhat exotic if you come from the hustle and bustle of a major metropolitan area.
Golconda was also a stopping point on the infamous Trail of Tears. It was a frigid and deadly one at that. There are road markers throughout the region noting that they’re part of the National Trail of Tears Historic Trail, but we didn’t come across any explanations or interpretive exhibits.
Ghosts of the past aside, one positive aspect of staying in Golconda is relatively easy access to the Illinois Garden of the Gods, or Garden of the Goddesses, as we liked to call it to differentiate it from the park in Colorado and also, just because.
Another benefit was its distance from Cave-in-Rock State Park and Kentucky. Plus, our Golconda Airbnb had its own pond!
However, it didn’t have wifi. Note that reception throughout the region is spotty, even with Verizon.
But that pond!
Alas, due to time constraints, we did not hike to the infamous cave, which has its own sordid history, but instead, took the free Cave-in-Rock Ferry over to Kentucky. After 15 months stuck at home, going to another state was exciting, even if it was just a brief ride across the river. The ferry is operated by the Illinois Department of Transportation in conjunction with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. The free service runs seven days a week, from 6:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Once we hit the road in Kentucky, we drove to Marion. However, it was after six o’clock and the sidewalks had already been rolled up for the evening if you know what I mean. Marion looks more exciting (and Amish) on the town’s website than in reality. (No, I’m not obsessed with the Amish, but Marion’s dedicates a whole section of their site to them.)
A fun fact about Marion is that their high school had four graduating high school seniors in 2021 (as advertised on some signs). During our short stay in town, just long enough for dinner at Marion Pit BBQ and ice cream at 88 Dip, we befriended half of the graduates.
Garden of the Gods in Illinois: A Top Pick for a Visit to Shawnee
What happens when an ancient inland sea dries up? It leaves behind exposed bedrock that provides amazing views and fertile ground for plants and trees. Though only .25 mile long, I think we spent an hour on the observation trail at Garden of the Gods. The trail is so much less about walking (there is an incline and it’s rocky, not to mention slippery when wet) than it is about taking in the panoramic scenery.
There are a dozen(ish?) outcroppings that help separate the visitors. We’d cross paths with people much you might in a grocery store and you go up and down the aisles. In fact, there was a man with his son who passed us on the early part of the trail and remained one outcropping ahead of us. They seemed to be having such fun that I snapped some shots of them and when we caught up with them, I asked for the man’s phone number so I could send him the photos. Okay, this sounds a bit creepy and stalkerish, or maybe a really awkward pick-up line, but I assure you my intentions were good. He gave me his number and thanked me.
One day, I’ll review my phone book and wonder who “Garden Guy” is. Or maybe I’ll look at this photo and remember a truly wonderful trip with dear friends that followed an incredibly traumatic year.
At any rate, if you can climb stairs and manage the grade and you’re not worried about daring young kids running over the unguarded edges (I’ve been there!), this is a must-see part of your Shawnee Forest adventure.
It’s best to take this trail on a weekday when it’s less crowded. We visited late on a Thursday morning in early June and there were less than two dozen of us on the entire trail. This meant time to enjoy the unspoiled view and take photos without being disturbed or disturbing others.
That said, our silence was broken by a young adult man talking loudly and with deep concern about his investment in $AMC, the latest “meme stock” whose price was rising quickly, but not quickly or high enough for him. I guess you can never really get away from it all.
Rim Rock Trail
Nothing in the post is sponsored, including this plug for the All Trails app. It was recommended by a previous guest at our Airbnb in a little notebook that allowed people to share tips and highlights. This app made the difference between us having a nice hike and an unforgettable one.
But before I get to that, take a look at this interpretive sign at the trailhead. We saw this editing by the people for the people on a couple of signs and, frankly, I’m all for it. I don’t imagine the signs get updated or replaced very often. But hopefully, when they are, they will offer a fresher perspective.
There are three options at the trailhead for Rim Rock. Take the one on the left. I hope to come back to this post and fill in the details. For now, we’ll stick with the one picture speaks 1,000 words theory.
Ziplining in Shawnee National Forest
I went ziplining for the first time in my life. Honestly, I’ve avoided this fun activity because I know a woman who died ziplining because her carabiners weren’t properly set. So I approached the Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour with a blend of anticipation + anxiety. Our strapping young guides did a thorough safety check and locked us into the line at every step. (Things were a bit more DIY back in the 1980s.)
With five zip lines, each more exciting than the last, our two-hour Chipmunk Canyon Run course offered just the right combo of excitement, fun, and duration. We started in “flight school” with a playground-style line about 20 feet long and only 10 feet off the ground. Flight school gave us a taste of the experience. It covered the basics like how to sit in the harness, where to hold on, the hand signals the guides would use to communicate with us, how to brake, and, most importantly, how to get going again if we got stuck.
If you have any trepidation about the experience that is not allayed in flight school, that would be the convenient time to drop out. We didn’t have any drop-outs. Nor were there any freak-outs or injuries during our experience. I felt very safe, despite my earlier fears. Everyone was clipped onto a line at all times during the treetop portions of the tour.
The course blends in with the geography. You start from up top a bluff, so there aren’t any stairs or ladders to climb to get going. The lines from tree to tree. Obviously, humans built the platforms and rigged the wires, but everything blends with the beautiful landscape. There’s plenty to look and listen for while waiting on the platforms dozens of feet up in the forest canopy.
Our experience culminated on a 1,100-foot long line with group members clocked in at an average speed of 38 miles per hour! Talk about flying high. It was an exhilarating experience. On the downside, given that it was my first time, I feel like I’ve set a high bar for future ziplining experiences.
The Southern Illinois Wine Trail
Thanks to a tourist guide in the delightfully air-conditioned Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour waiting room, I read up on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail. What started with a single winery in 1988 has grown to roughly a dozen wineries. We quizzed our guide and the receptionist on their favorites and ended up at the Owl Creek Winery for an apres-ziplining treat. A flight of their unique ciders, a ginormous hot pretzel with cheese dip, paninis, and salad on their shaded deck was the perfect way to cap off our afternoon.
Makanda: The Hippie Town that Time Forgot
Refreshed from our time at Owl Creek, we headed to the boardwalk of Makanda, a town known for artsy, hippie types (“the church bell rings at 4:20 each day”). I’d seen iconic photos of the boardwalk and assumed it was part of the downtown strip, but the five or so storefronts that make up the boardwalk are the downtown strip.
Everything was closed for the day when we arrived at 5:15. The hot sun beat down on us as we peeked into the shop windows to see what we might be missing. Handmade artisanal things, vintage resale items, cold ice cream. A handful of bearded (upper) middle-aged white men sat in a shady spot at the end of the small strip drinking beer and working hard to let us know our presence at best did not matter or at worst was not welcome. I wanted to see the Rainmaker’s Garden, which looked like it might be accessible but decided to skip town altogether.
Things are most lively in the town during Vulture Fest, which is held each fall pandemic years aside. Makanda would like you to know it will be a fantastic place to view the 2024 solar eclipse.
Kayaking the Cache Bayou
The 15,000-acre Cache River State Natural Area is open for canoeing and kayaking. Folks can bring their own, rent one from Cache Bayou Outfitters (March – October) or join a tour with that outfitter. We opted for a private tour based on our schedule as well as the sense that it would be worth the money. It was! Our guide, Sara, taught us about the flora and fauna we passed. She also told us about the history of the area, including well-intentioned efforts to divert water and the unanticipated consequences of doing so.
Tupelo trees line the waterways and Bald Cypress create interesting obstacles to paddle around.
An unexpected highlight of the trip was an up-close view of the oldest living thing in Illinois. This tree is estimated to be more than 1,000 years old.
This youngster is only a few hundred years old, but check out those knees. There are more than 200 of them. Knees are projections that grow from the roots of the tree. Botanists know what knees are, but struggle to understand why they are. I presume it’s also a mystery why this tree has so dang many.
Sara warned us that Asian carp, which have invaded the bayou, tend to jump, sometimes landing in a boat. Toward the end of our tour, one jumped over the bow of my kayak, just inches from landing inside.
I hope to catch one of a Cache Bayou Outfitters full moon paddle tour at a future date. Also on my list for my next visit to southern Illinois is the nearby Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge, a 16,00-acre area with floodplain forests, wetlands, and swamplands similar to the Cache Bayou. It’s a resting stop for migratory birds as well as home to diverse species including mink and bobcats.
I did not expect to plan another trip to Southernmost Illinois (at least, not before the 2024 solar eclipse), but there’s a lot more I’d like to see. Things we did not get to include:
- Ferne Clyffe
- Little Grassy Lake
- Biking the 45-mile Tunnel Hill “rail to trail” path
- The alpaca ranch
- Hiking the 152-mile river-to-river trail from the Ohio to the Mississippi River (aspirational, but still)
- Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge
- Bouldering or rock-climbing at Jackson Falls
If it’s your thing, Southern Illinois also has ample opportunities for fishing and hunting (deer and duck, I think). Clearly, if you like outdoor fun, you don’t have to worry about what to do in Southern Illinois, you have to worry about how to fit it all into one trip.
If you like outdoor fun, don’t miss my post about traveling out west to Wyoming, South Dakota, and Montana–from Yellowstone to the Black Hills.