Discovering the Garden of the Gods in Illinois: An Underappreciated Gem

Illinois isn’t the first state you think of when it comes to outdoor adventure. Those who live in the Chicago area tend to drive to Wisconsin or Michigan to enjoy nature. As anyone who’s made the drive from Chicago to St. Louis can attest, the state is primarily flat—the second flattest in the country, behind only Florida.

But if you keep driving south to the far tip of the state, you’ll find a woefully underappreciated gem that busts Illinois’ nothing-but-farmland reputation.

The Shawnee National Forest consists of 280,000 acres between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and it’s much closer in resemblance to the Ozark Mountains in Missouri than anything else you’ll find in Illinois. The forested landscape features lakes, creeks, and rocky bluffs—all perfect for just about any kind of outdoor excitement. For hiking, camping, fishing, paddling, biking, and even rock climbing, this is the go-to destination in the state.

One of the most impressive destinations within the national forest is the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, located near Herod, Illinois. Here you’ll find a series of rock formations and outcroppings that look as if a supernatural being was playing with blocks—hence the name.


A Tale As Old As Time

Garden of the Gods in Illinois

The eroded rock architecture has been millions of years in the making. - Curtis Albert


The unusual formations resulted from the area’s unique geography. Southern Illinois sits on a thick bed of gray sandstone, which dates back more than 300 million years to when this part of the country was an inland sea. Through time, the sea disappeared, and the rock rose to create a sandstone plateau. So why doesn’t the rest of Illinois look like this? Glaciers would cover most of the state, which smoothed out the topography. But they stopped just short of the Garden of the Gods. Over the ensuing centuries, erosion by wind and rain formed the unique hoodoos and other sandstone formations.

The result is that visitors today get to see the impressive rock architecture rising above the surrounding forests. The area is also relatively accessible for most people via the quarter-mile Observation Trail. While it’s a relatively short hike, it does contain some steep grades and steps along the way. You’ll see the area’s most impressive sandstone formations, including Camel Rock, Table Rock, and Devil’s Smokestack.


Beyond the Beaten Path

Garden of the Gods in Illinois

The well-worn path of the Observation Trail is totally worth it, but there are plenty of other trails to experience as well. - Fritz Gellar-Grimm


The vast number of visitors come to hike the Observation Trail—and you obviously should as well—but it’s just a small part of the impressive trail system that covers the recreation area. In total, you’ll find nearly 17 miles of trails, plus access to routes that continue through the rest of the Shawnee National Forest.

The 1.6-mile Indian Point Trail is a good beginner/intermediate option that winds its way through pine and hardwood timber forest to a lookout point. The 160-mile River to River Trail, which stretches from the Mississippi to the Ohio River, runs through the Garden of the Gods recreation area, and it’s an excellent option for those looking for extended miles.

Visitors can spend the night in Pharaoh Campground, a first-come, first-serve camping area in Garden of the Gods, featuring 12 sites with tables, fire grills, drinking water, and vault toilets for only $10 a night. Other campsites (that do take reservations) are in the vicinity, as are several private cabin rental options.


What to Know, When to Go

Garden of the Gods in Illinois(Opens in a new window)

The Garden of the Gods bathed in sunset glow. - Daniel Schwen


Outside of Garden of the Gods are a lot more areas to explore in this part of Illinois. Four additional recreation areas are within the national forest—Bellsmith Springs, Pounds Hollow, Lake Glendale, and Johnson Creek, each of which offers various outdoor activities from boating to hiking. Jackson Falls is considered the top rock-climbing destination in the state, with bluffs and rock faces that require technical climbing skills. You have several choices for horseback riding and horse camping, and you’ll find fishing and paddling options in just about every direction. Visit in the spring to see waterfalls and wildflowers, while the fall colors usually provide a spectacular show in October.

While you’ll find crowds during the summer season, they aren’t overwhelming, especially if you venture beyond the Observation Trail. Take a trip during the week and you’ll have plenty of space to yourself. Garden of the Gods is about a five-and-a-half-hour drive from Chicago, four hours from Indianapolis, three hours from Nashville, and two-and-a-half hours from St. Louis. While there are places to grab provisions in the region, keep in mind that this part of Illinois is primarily a national forest and relatively isolated. Cell service can be spotty, so bring physical maps and pack what you need ahead of your trip—and pack it back out.

Yes, Illinois is better known for its skyscrapers and views of Lake Michigan. But don’t overlook the Garden of the Gods—it’s a stunning spot for a weekend adventure that’s still off the radar for far too many outdoor lovers in the Midwest.


Written by Jeff Banowetz for Matcha in partnership with Osprey Packs.

Featured image provided by Justin Meissen(Opens in a new window)