Blake Walsh

17 Best Things to Do in Shawnee National Forest, IL

  • Published 2022/11/25

Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois is a spectacular landscape of bluffs, vast wetlands, rolling hills, and rich bodies of water.

Situated between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the area is home to six ecological regions that host diverse animal and plant life.

With over 280,000 acres of forest land, it is the state’s largest public body of land, offering many exciting opportunities for hiking, camping, hunting, and exploring the wilderness.

There are also 11 lakes and 52 ponds across the area, providing opportunities for outdoor recreation on the waters, such as fishing and paddling.

With its mild weather, around a million visitors enjoy this rich nature area each year.

Here are some of the best things to do in Shawnee National Forest, Illinois, to help you get started on planning your trip:

Hike at the Garden of the Gods

Hiking trail leading to Garden of the Gods

Eddie J. Rodriquez /

Go on a hike at one of Shawnee’s most visited areas, the Garden of the Gods.

Among the state’s most photographed sites, this recreation area offers almost 17 miles of trails and breathtaking nature views year-round.

Hike along the observation trail leading to areas above the bluff, offering scenic views of the hills, sandstone formations, and the surrounding wilderness.

Rock formations and stone steps at Garden of the Gods

Oleksandr Koretskyi /

If you’re interested in geologic history, there are interpretive signs along this quarter-mile trail to enrich your hiking experience.

This area also has campgrounds and picnic areas.

The Garden of the Gods is near Herod, Pope County, and you can take Forest Road to reach the entrance road to the recreation area.

Spectacular view from Garden of the Gods

Danita Delimont /

Go on a Hunting Trip at Oakwood Bottoms

Gather your hunting party in time for hunting season at Oakwood Bottoms.

The area features a campground, hunting grounds, and fishing piers.

Ready your gear and hunt waterfowl with friends.

The area attracts over 10,000 waterfowl and thousands of other migratory birds.

You can also hunt deer or do some trapping.

The area also offers opportunities for bird watching and fishing.

You can find Oakwood Bottoms near Gorham, Jackson County.

Go Fishing at Bay Creek Lake

Head out to a relaxing day of fishing at Bay Creek Lake!

This 96-acre lake in Pope County offers a quiet and secluded spot to enjoy fishing and beautiful nature views throughout the year.

You can fish from a small carry-in boat you can launch from Bay Creek.

Ready your poles to fish for some largemouth bass and channel catfish in the lake.

There are also sunfish, crappie, and bluegill present in the waters.

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced angler, there are numerous brush-laden fishing holes to enjoy in the area.

Explore the Rim Rock National Recreational Trail

View of Rim Rock National Recreational Trail during autumn

Wildnerdpix /

Spend a day exploring the picturesque Rim Rock National Recreational Trail.

Designated as a national recreation trail in 1980, this trail traces the rim of a rock escarpment, offering opportunities to admire the flora and the interesting sandstone formations.

Visit in spring and enjoy the sight of spring woodland flowers as you traverse the trails.

Stone steps at Rim Rock National Recreational Trail

Wildnerdpix /

You can also learn about the area’s natural features and rich history through the interpretive signs you’ll encounter along the trail.

The area has picnic spots you can enjoy after exploring the trails.

You can reach Rim Rock National Recreational Trail via Karbers Ridge Road.

Landscape of Rim Rock National Recreational Trail

Wildnerdpix /

Climb Jackson Falls

If you’re a climbing enthusiast, exciting adventures await you at Jackson Falls.

Situated at the heart of Shawnee, this scenic area features sandstone rocks, wooded hills, and winding trails.

With high bluffs and rock faces, you or your group have plenty of opportunities to do some technical climbing.

Through the area’s trail systems, you can enjoy the trek to the bottom of the falls and the top of the bluffs.

The Jackson Falls trailhead is accessible via Glen Street Falls Road.

You can reach Jackson Falls from Harrisburg through Highway 145 and Vienna through Highway 45.

Camp at Pine Hills Campground

Unplug and unwind at Pine Hills Campground.

Under the Mississippi Bluffs Ranger District in the west, this campground near Wolf Lake features level campsites with grassy areas in between.

Set up camp with friends and enjoy the fresh air and the serene atmosphere.

The camp’s location is ideal for nature lovers, offering plenty of sightseeing and outdoor activities to enjoy around the area.

The site can also accommodate camp trailers.

You can reach the Pine Hills Campground from Jonesboro via Illinois 146 and Route 127.

See Ancient Rock Carvings at the Millstone Bluff Archaeological Area

Rocks at Millstone Bluff Archaeological Area

Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Glimpse into the past when you explore Millstone Bluff Archaeological Area.

Towering 320 feet above the valley, this bluff is a natural heritage site that was once home to the Woodland and Mississippian Indians over a thousand years ago.

Trees lined up at Millstone Bluff Archaeological Area

Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Learn about these ancient cultures as you trek along the 3/4-mile interpretive trail.

Along the trail, you can see Mississippian petroglyphs or rock carvings, such as a thunderbird and a spider.

You can also see remnants of ancient dwellings and stone forts.

Access to the Millstone Bluff Archaeological Area is via Highway 147.

Enjoy a Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour

Experience the beauty of the Shawnee forest from up above when you go on the Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour.

This one-of-a-kind adventure features eight zip lines and aerial bridges over spectacular terrains.

Enjoy an adrenaline rush as you soar through the trees across over 80 acres of the forest.

The course will also have you crossing a valley and creeks.

You can enjoy this outdoor adventure with your older kids as the tour allows participants eight years old and above.

Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour is located along Robinson Hill Road in Makanda.

Go Horse Riding at One Horse Gap

If you prefer enjoying the outdoors while horseback riding, don’t miss out on exploring One Horse Gap.

This beautiful area near Herod is known for the 26-acre lake popular among summer explorers and its over 30 miles of trails.

Enjoy horseback riding in this area named after a well-known rock formation—One Horse Gap—a natural gap between bluffs just wide enough for one horse to traverse at a time.

Check out the many spectacular views from the bluff areas!

Thousands of equestrians visit the area annually during the Nine Day Trail Ride.

Marvel at the Rock Formations at the Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area

Landscape of Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area

Wildnerdpix /

Enjoy the stunning beauty and interesting rock formations at Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area.

Designated as a national natural landmark, this recreation area encompasses clear, rocky streams, picturesque canyons, and towering sandstone cliffs.

It is also home to unique geologic features you can see as you hike along the area’s eight-mile interconnected trail.

Tall trees at Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area during spring

Wildnerdpix /

Don’t miss out on seeing the iconic rock formation called Devil’s Backbone.

You can also hike toward the 125-foot natural rock bridge, the largest natural bridge in Shawnee.

Beautiful oak and hickory trees, vividly colored wildflowers, and various birds await you on these trails.

Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area is located in Ozark.

Creek at Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area

Nicola Patterson /

Have a Picnic at the Lake Glendale Recreation Area

Head to Lake Glendale Recreation Area for a fun and relaxing day by the lakeside.

Gather with family and friends by the lakeshore and enjoy a barbecue picnic.

Centrally located within Shawnee, this lovely area has plenty of activities.

You can go fishing for bass, take a leisurely hike, and bike around.

You can also enjoy the scenery of hardwood forests and relax among the tall pine trees around the lake after your group picnic.

You can reach the Lake Glendale Recreation Area from Harrisburg, Vienna, or Metropolis via Highway 145.

See the Wildlife around Cedar Lake

Cedar Lake during sunrise

Jeremiah.jahn, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Explore the colorful and rich landscape of Cedar Lake!

With sandstone bluffs, hardwood forests, and cedar trees lining its shores, Cedar Lake’s tranquil waters and 16 miles of trail system offer plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing.

Get a chance to see a white-tailed deer or a raccoon as you traverse the trails.

Or catch a glimpse of a wild turkey and an occasional beaver around.

You can also go bird watching and enjoy nature views throughout the year.

You can reach the Cedar Lake trailhead via Highway 127 and Boat Dock Road.

Relax at Pounds Hollow Recreation Area

Spend a relaxing day enjoying the outdoors at Pounds Hollow Recreation Area in Karbers Ridge.

This picturesque site in the hills of Shawnee is home to the popular 25-acre Pounds Hollow Lake.

It also features a campground and lakeside facilities.

Have a quiet picnic by the lakeside while taking in the lovely afternoon views of the waters and the surrounding greenery.

Head to the fishing pier or the shoreline for some leisurely fishing, where you can catch channel catfish, largemouth bass, and sunfish.

You can also swim at the beach and enjoy boating on the lake.

You can reach Pounds Hollow Recreation Area via Karbers Ridge Road.

Paddle along Lusk Creek

Scenic view of Lusk Creek

Ken Ratcliff, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Enjoy a serene day on the waters as you explore the beauty of Lusk Creek.

Among the most scenic creeks in the state, it is a tributary of the Ohio River and a designated zoological area due to its ecological importance.

Paddle along and savor the pristine beauty of the waterways and the surrounding wilderness.

You can enjoy this adventure using your hand-carried watercraft, or you can check out the canoe and kayak rentals in the nearby areas.

Access to Lusk Creek is via the canoe and kayak launch point along Eddyville Road in the town of Eddyville.

See the Diverse Wildflowers at Simpson Barrens Natural Area

Marvel at the diverse flora of the Simpson Barrens Natural Area!

This rich ecological area is home to several communities of native plants, such as limestone barrens and dry upland forests.

It is a great area for viewing wildflowers throughout the year.

See lovely ephemerals such as pale purple coneflower, hoary puccoon, and bird’s foot violet when you visit in spring.

You can also enjoy the sight of various flowering shrubs.

Visit in the fall, and you’ll be treated to the mesmerizing sight of flowering grasses, woodland sunflowers, and elm-leaved goldenrod.

You can reach Simpson Barrens Natural Area from Vienna via IL 146 and 147.

See the Beauty of the Pomona Natural Bridge

Rocks under Pomona Natural Bridge

Wirestock Creators /

If you’re looking for a short but rewarding adventure, venture out on the trails to see the wonderful Pomona Natural Bridge.

A 0.3-mile trail in the township of Pomona descends a creek to an overlook showcasing the 90-foot sandstone arch commonly called a natural bridge.

Enjoy your short hike through the serene oak-hickory and beech forest.

Upon reaching the overlook, marvel at the natural wonder sculpted through millions of years of erosion.

The trail crosses over the top of the arch and loops back to the trailhead.

You can reach the Pomona Natural Bridge Trail via Pomona Road and Natural Bridge Road.

Check Out the Historic Illinois Iron Furnace

Learn about the American industry’s history when you see the Illinois Iron Furnace in Vienna.

Constructed in the 1830s, the structure is the only remaining one in the state.

See the remnants of the 32-foot sandstone and limestone furnace structure.

The site also features a picnic area you can enjoy when visiting.

In 1973, the site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its historic and engineering significance.

You can reach the Illinois Iron Furnace historic site via Highway 146 and Furnace Road.

Final Thoughts

Shawnee National Forest is a natural wonder rich in spectacular landscapes, culture, and history.

From colorful bluffs, stunning tree-lined lakeshores, diverse plant life, and wildlife to its historic and archeological sites, it is a destination worth visiting for its variety of exciting outdoor adventures and learning opportunities.

Plan your trip now and experience some of the best things to do in the Shawnee National Forest, Illinois.

© All rights reserved.