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Discover the lesser-known Shawnee National Forest Attractions.
Most often than not, people in Illinois actually do not spend their weekend getaway in Illinois. They go to nearby states like Wisconsin or Michigan.
But today, I will share with you our road trip to the Shawnee National Forest, together with some tips on how to have a fun frugal weekend getaway without going out of state.
You will be surprised how much things to do in Shawnee National Forest.
When you think about Illinois, you’ll imagine boring flat land with too much traffic. However, when you drive further down to the southern part, you’ll find that it’s not that flat after all.
During my birthday weekend, my husband and I decided to have a road trip and spend it exploring the southern region. I have always wanted to check out the Illinois version of the Garden of The Gods (the original is in Colorado) so I was so excited about this trip.
It ended up to be an awesome birthday weekend. The Shawnee National Forest has more to offer than just the Garden of The Gods. And to top it all, we even managed to stay under our budget, you can do it too.
So let’s dive in on how you can have a fun frugal weekend in Southern Illinois, particularly in the Shawnee National Forest.
Prepare For The Road
Before we go on a road trip, besides saving for a travel fund, we make sure we do some preparation, so we don’t end up wasting time and money.
Here are some things you can do after you book your accommodation.
First, do your research. List all the activities that you want to do and areas you want to check out.
Map Out Your Itinerary
Mapping out your itinerary ahead of time will save you gas and time. So, the next thing you will do is to plug all the locations on the map. I usually use google map. Then group each activity based on location.
Since Shawnee National Forest spans over 289,000 acres of land, it is recommended to group your activities between the east and west side. In our case, we spent our first day exploring the east and then west the next day.
Drive Your Most Efficient Car
If you happen to own more than one car, choosing to drive the more fuel-efficient vehicle can save you a lot of money. Sedans usually are more fuel-efficient than SUVs.
Some of the roads going to the state parks are rough roads, so make sure to slow down to make it easier for your tires and drive carefully.
Double-check your emergency equipment before you leave home, just in case you need them.
Use App To Save On Gas
If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that I love apps, especially if they can save me money. I drive a lot for work, so I have to find the apps to save on gas.
That’s why I got so excited when I found out about Gas Buddy. This app shows the cheapest gas near me. I love Costco gas, but I am not always near one, so Gas Buddy makes it convenient.
I don’t know about you, but I get hungry during road trips, and those snacks from gas stations are not cheap, they’re ridiculously expensive.
So, better pack as many meals as you can, you’ll thank your self later. You can also pack snacks for your hikes.
Long car rides are the perfect times for busy couples to catch up and have serious talks about the future. However, at some point, you’ll run out of things to talk about.
Audiobooks, favorite songs playlist, or podcasts can help make the drive seem shorter.
Things To Do In Shawnee National Forest
The southern region boasts some of the amazing southern Illinois state parks located in the Shawnee National Forest.
Here are some of the best places to check out during your visit.
Garden Of The Gods
This amazing geological formation is the most common reason why people visit the Shawnee National Forest. It is a short hike, about a quarter of a mile and it offers stunning views.
I would recommend going early in the fall to check out the changing colors. We went during the first week of October and we were able to see some.
Make sure you don’t miss to spot the camel among the rock formations. The Camel Rock is a part of the Garden of the Gods, and it’s not easy to miss.
Bell-Smith Spring Recreation Area
The Bell-Smith Spring Recreation Area is suitable for an all-day hike. It has a total of 8-mile interconnected loops, ranging from easy to moderate and marked as yellow, blue, white, orange and black.
We started late since we did the Garden of the Gods first so we were not able to hike all the trails. If we have to do it again, we would dedicate one full day in this area.
The highlights of this recreation area include the Boulder Falls, Devil’s Back Bone, and The Natural Bridge. Dut to time-constraint, we were only able to hike to the Natural Bridge and Boulder Falls.
Be aware though that the part of the road going to this recreation area is a rough road and can be hard on your wheels. Make sure to drive slow.
Some of the trails can start or end with you having to negotiate steep stairs so plan accordingly.
Some of the trails also cross over streams and shallow ponds. Waterproof footwear is a must if you want to venture through the woods.
The Natural Bridge is part of the yellow trail, which is 1.5 miles. Along the way, you will pass ponds and some amazing rock formations. Don’t miss the rock that resembles a pyramid.
Southern Illinois, where the Shawnee National Forest is located is nicknamed “Little Egypt”. As you explore the area, you will notice that most places and landmarks are named after places or things in Egypt. Therefore, a rock that resembles a pyramid fits the picture.
The yellow loop continues and will take you to the bottom of the bridge, which I heard is a spectacular view. We did not continue on because we wanted to hike the blue trail to the Boulder Falls.
The hike to the Boulder Falls is a little more challenging than the Yellow Trail. At some point, we struggled to find the path. It is a longer hike so make sure you have enough water with you. I use this water bottle on all our trips. It maintains the temperature of the water for hours, which is perfect during the summer.
Much to our disappointment, we did not find any waterfall. It was pretty dry when we got there. Probably the best time to go there is just after a strong rainfall.
Cave-in-Rock State Park
Cave-in-rock is another stunning area to check out. It is located along the scenic Ohio River. As you walk along the trail, you will notice boats and other river sceneries.
The 55-foot-wide cave was carved out of the limestone rock by water thousands of years ago.
The Heron Pond is yet another awesome nature that is worth checking out. It is located in Little Black Slough, the largest state-owned natural area in Illinois. The drive to this area involves a graveled road of about 1.5 mi. It is a highlight of the Cache River State Natural Area.
Although the trails are not handicapped accessible, it is still a pretty easy hike. The trail is a mile round trip and has some informative signs along the way about wildlife and geomorphology of the area.
At the end of the trail, you will be rewarded with an amazing view of a wetland full of water tupelo and bald cypress trees. Some of them are actually among the oldest trees in Illinois.
The area has a floating boardwalk, which allows you to get up close to the swamp. You can keep a lookout for all kinds of wildlife like snakes, herons, frogs, river otter, rabbit and more.
We spotted a snake and some frogs while admiring the area. It was absolutely stunning and I admit it was one of my favorite trails.
When we got back to our car, it started pouring. It was the day we were driving back home so we decided to head home early since the rain will make it hard for us to check out the other places.
Other Landmarks Worth Checking Out
Ponoma Natural Bridge
The trail leading to this natural bridge is only 0.3 miles and considered to be easy. The bridge is about 90 ft long and is made entirely of sandstone.
Rim Rock Recreational Trail
Hiking the Rim Rock Recreational Trail will take you through an Old Indian Wall, rock stairway, a narrow passageway rough massive cliffs, and huge boulders.
The trail going to the fall is about 3.7 miles and is considered moderate. Aside from the beautiful waterfall, Jackson Falls also offers the best rock climbing spots for enthusiasts.
Best Places To Eat
Our hotel offers daily breakfast and we packed food for our hikes. So the only time we go out to eat was for dinner.
There are not many places to choose from but most of the places that we went to, serve really good food. And the best part is, they’re not expensive.
The Red Onion
This restaurant was the very first place we checked out for dinner. It was a cozy restaurant, and they were quite busy. However, we were seated relatively quickly.
They served our food pretty quick, and everything was delicious. All in all, it was a very satisfying meal for an extremely reasonable price. We even took home a good pie.
I think the portions were good, more than enough for a couple who hiked all day.
Another place that we checked out on our way home was Vienna Diner. It was quite a busy place on a Sunday. They have pretty good reviews on yelp on all of their food but I was craving for pizza.
And their homemade pizza did not disappoint.
Best Places To Stay
I think the best accommodation if you want to enjoy the outdoors to the fullest is camping. Shawnee National Forest offers a variety of camping experiences from primitive backpacking to a developed campground.
If camping is not for you, then cabins are great alternatives. There are quite a few to choose from, but the most popular one is the Shawnee National Forest Cabins. It is the closest to the Garden of the Gods.
However, if you are like me who is not much into camping but don’t want to pay a lot for accommodation, then you might want to opt for hotels or motels. I was able to find a hotel for a reasonable price through hotels.com. That is about 30 mins to the Garden of the Gods.
There you have it!
There are a lot of things to do in Shawnee National Forest and it offers great outdoor experience for the outdoorsy people. We were only there for three days and definitely it was not enough time to explore the whole area. We would definitely go back again.