Artistic photo of hiking boots by the water surrounded by yellow, red, and orange, autumn leaves.

Exploring Shawnee National Forest, Illinois

Table of Contents

Autumn is such a perfect time to go on a trip to Shawnee National Forest. This beautiful national forest in Illinois is perfect for camping and hiking offering some very stunning views and gorgeous hiking trails. In this travel guide I will be going over the best things to do at Shawnee National Forest, the hiking trails we did, best places to visit in the forest, and much more. I will also be including a detailed itinerary and packing tips for this trip.

Photo of Shawnee National Forest - Garden of the Gods with overlay. Linked to Exploring Shawnee National Forest in Illinois travel guide.

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Thank you to my beautiful mom, Outdoor Pantry, and UV Paqlite for making this trip possible. 

About Shawnee National Forest

Shawnee National Forest is located between the Mississippi River and Ohio River in the southern region of the state of Illinois. This national forest is very well known for the wilderness area called ‘Garden of the Gods.’ People come from across the country to view these ancient cliffs and unique sandstone formations. You can also find some other unique nature points throughout the forest such as Devil’s Backbone, Pomona Natural Bridge, and Jackson Falls.

Shawnee National Forest Map

In the map below you can view all of the locations mentioned in this guide pin pointed. You can also save this map on your Google maps for safe keeping or to use for future reference during your trip or trip planning.

Day 1 at Shawnee National Forest: Camping and Hiking Trails at Bell Smith Springs Area

Early that morning my mom and I went to Illinois to head to our campground and set up. Our goal was to arrive early so we can make the most of our day. At the time I only lived about 2.5 hours away from Shawnee National Forest so we were able to arrive at a descent time to enjoy the entire day outdoors.

a tent set up at Redbud Campground at Bell Smith Springs in Shawnee National Forest, Illinois.

Camping at Redbud Campground at Bell Smith Springs Area

Once we arrived to Redbud Campground at Bell Smith Springs we set up camp. We picked one of the cutest spots we can find but near other people for safety reasons. The cost to camp here is $10 and the sites are first get first serve so make sure to arrive early. We went on the last weekend of October so there was not many campers in the area but it is still good to arrive early to make sure you get a spot and to take advantage of the trails nearby.

Details About Camping at Shawnee National Forest

Cost of camping is $10 (back in 2018) and paid in cash at the drop box. Make sure to arrive early to get a good spot but we didn’t have any issues finding a spot that we liked as it was fairly empty. Make sure to check their website here for any possible price changes.

A woman standing in front of the stones at Devil's Backbone at Shawnee National Forest

Hiking to Devil’s Backbone

The first trail we took at Shawnee National Forest was the white trail heading towards Devil’s Backbone (it is black on the map). As you descend down the mountain you will find a staircase. Go down the staircase and then follow the white trail marks heading towards the right. It’s a fairly easy and short hike. The view is absolutely amazing and the spring water is so clear and blue. The only down fall to this scenic spot was the graffiti that we found on the stones. It is sad to see other people vandalizing such beautiful iconic spots out in nature. The trail continues but we decided to turn around and head to the Natural Bridge instead.

Trail Details

Distance: Approximately 0.4 miles

Difficulty Level: Easy

Pomona Natural Bridge at Shawnee National Forest

Hiking to Bell Smith Springs Natural Bridge 

As we headed back we passed the staircase and continued to the Bell Smith Springs Natural Bridge trail. This is the yellow markings on the trail (and on the map). The trail is fairly easy and loops around to the top of the bridge and back around to the bottom of the bridge. You will cross the spring at a certain point. Once you cross the spring you can follow the trail to your right to head to the top of the Natural Bridge and do the loop or you can go to the left to reach the bottom of the Natural Bridge. If you want to shorten your trip you can go to the left, enjoy the bottom of the Bell Smith Springs Natural Bridge and continue the trail till you reach the top and then turn around from there.

The Bell Smith Springs Natural Bridge is a beautiful sight to see. It is remarkable to see how nature can create some amazing things for us to enjoy. The beauty is at the bottom of the Natural Bridge in my opinion. The sight was spectacular though being on top of the Natural Bridge was pretty cool too. I felt like I was at the top of the trees enjoying the view below.

Note: If you are with kids please be careful on the top of the Natural Bridge as there are no rails. The drop is very high and can cause a serious injury or worse.

Trail Details

Distance: Approximately 0.9 miles

Difficulty Level: Easy-Moderate

Boulder Falls at Shawnee National Forest

Hiking to Boulder Falls

Right off of the Natural Bridge Trail you will see a sign directing you to Boulder Falls. This trail is more run down the further you go in. Once we reached the Boulder Falls the trail was very hard to find so we turned around at this point and headed back out the way we went in. I am sure that Boulder Falls is beautiful when you see the waterfall actually flowing but sadly when we went the falls were very dry and all we found was drops of water dripping down. For a minute we didn’t even know it was the falls until we looked at the map more carefully. I recommend going after a strong rainfall to see the “waterfall.”

Note: In order to get to Boulder Falls you have to take Sentry Bluff Trail (blue trail).


Distance: Approximately 1.3 miles to the waterfall // 2.7 miles the entire loop trail but after we reached the “waterfall” the trail was very hard to find and we decided to turn around.

Difficulty Level: Easy – Moderate

Cave at Shawnee National Forest heading towards Garden of the Gods

Day 2 at Shawnee National Forest: Hiking at Garden of the Gods and Jackson Falls

This was going to be our last day at Shawnee National Forest in Illinois. We were determined to make the very best of it again and enjoy as much as we could from it. One of the must see spots that we didn’t want to miss out on was Garden of the Gods. Due to limited time we could only do the Observation Trail. We would love to come back to explore more of Shawnee National Forest and the various trails it has to offer in this area because it is absolutely beautiful.

Rock formations at Garden of the Gods in Illinois

Garden of the Gods: Hiking the Observation Trail

At Garden of the Gods we took the short Observation Trail where you can view the stunning sandstone cliffs and rock formations. You can find the trailhead to this trail right off the parking lot and it is a very short loop. Despite its short length, it took us a good hour or two to complete cause the scene was so beautiful. We kept stopping to take pictures of every stone formation, cliff overlook, and unique trees and scenery found along the way. It is a perfect trail for photographers.

Trail Details

Distance: 1/4 mile

Difficulty Level: Easy

Road surrounded by beautiful autumn trees in Illinois

Hiking at Jackson Falls

After completing the Observation Trail at Garden of the Gods, we decided to head towards the northwest region of Shawnee National Forest to an area called Jackson Falls. We had heard that there is a waterfall here but just like at Boulder Falls, it wasn’t flowing at the time. I recommend going after a strong rainfall to see it flowing beautifully. However, this area is perfect for rock climbers or to just enjoy climbing around the different rock formations in the area like a kid. Yes! I was definitely a kid at heart here climbing around the rocks.

Hiking Jackson Falls Trail

It is a short easy hike to the top of the waterfall. Overall I think it took us about a good 1.5 hours to complete, mainly cause we got lost for a little bit. The creek we passed and crossed at was dry so we didn’t realize we had passed it. The trail to get to the top of Jackson Falls is about 1/4 of a mile. The trail is easy following alongside the creek that opens up to the waterfall. If you see the creek not flowing much then you are most likely not going to see a good flowing waterfall but don’t let this change your mind. The trail that takes you to the gorge is very pretty too and surrounded by beautiful rock formations.

Trail Details

Distance: 1/4 mile

Difficulty Level: Easy – Intermediate with some climbing involved.

Hiking to the Gorge of Jackson Falls GORGE OF JACKSON FALLS

Going to the gorge of Jackson Falls is a little trickier and more difficult. Reading the map, you will follow the trail to the top of Jackson Falls from the parking lot. This would be the red star on your map. You will then cross over the creek and follow the trail numbered 048C to the end. Close to the end you will cross a little bridge over another “waterfall” and then shortly after that find the end of the trail.

This is where it gets a bit tricky. Once you reach the end of the trail 048C you will then have to climb down the stack of boulders and stones to make your way down to the very bottom. Please proceed with caution. Only you know what your limits are so if you don’t feel comfortable combing down, don’t risk it. Signal is very hard to get and getting help down there will be very difficult. Just watch your step, your grip, make sure you are wearing the proper shoes, and proceed with caution. Take your time!

Unique hallway inside rock formations at Jackson Falls in Illinois

Now this is where we made a wrong turn. We took 049 the wrong way. Our issue was that I couldn’t reload my map on my phone after I accidentally closed the window so we had no map. Make sure to download it to your phone or screenshot it for safe keeping.

You want to take 049 heading towards the waterfall not away like we did. So once you climb down the rocks you are going to make your way through this beautiful stoned hallway, you will see it quickly to your left. Above is a picture of the other side. You will then make your way to the right once you stepped out of this hallway. Cross over the creek, or at least where there should be some sort of creek. It was dry when we went. Then follow the wall all the way to the waterfall. It’s like taking the same trail that you took on the top but on the bottom, if that makes sense.

Trail Details

Distance: Approximately 2 miles (Don’t quote me on this one as it could be less)

Difficulty Level: Moderate – Hard

A woman sitting on a log surrounded by Autumn trees in Illinois.

Other Hiking Trails and Locations to Add to Your Itinerary

This was the last trail we did at Shawnee National Forest. If you go to their website here you can find more day hike trails, backpacking trails, and even campgrounds for your to visit and plan your trip. Next on my list to visit at Shawnee National Forest is:

  • Burden Falls
  • Rim Rock National Recreation Trail
  • Millstone Bluff
  • Lake Glendale
  • Burden Falls
  • Cedar Falls
  • Little Pakentuck Waterfall Trail
  • Sand Cave
Two women at Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest

Packing Guide for Shawnee National Forest

Now let’s talk about the essentials that you will need for your camping and hiking adventures during this trip. I’m going to break these up into two sections. One checklist for camping essentials and a second checklist for hiking essentials.

When you subscribe to our newsletter below you will also get access to our Resource Library where you can find a Camping Trip Planner with packing checklists included along with many more resources, outdoor games, and travel tips for free.

Camping Packing Checklist

A woman hiking through Illinois. She is wearing a hiking backpack with a Kula Cloth hanging from it.

Hiking Packing Checklist

  • Comfy shoes
  • Comfy hiking clothes
  • A jacket
  • Extra wool socks
  • Flashlights
  • Map
  • Compass
  • Portable charger and phone
  • Wallet / ID
  • Lunch
  • Snacks – Check out my list of favorite snacks here.
  • Hydration
  • First aid kit
  • GPS
  • Knife
  • Small backpacking stove with small pot and fuel tank
  • Eating utensils
  • Wipes
  • Kula Cloth
A delicious instant oatmeal with nuts and blueberries from Outdoor Pantry made during a fall camping trip to Illinois.

Meal Plan for the Weekend

For food for the weekend we packed various meals. My mom brought a cooler that we kept in her car with fruits, small single serve soy milk, water, and tortillas. There was no reason really for the cooler as it was pretty cold outside to keep all of the food cold so we mostly used it as a storage container than anything else. For food those days we brought: 


Breakfast – coffee for me, tea for my mom, instant quaker oatmeal with walnuts and Outdoor Pantry blueberries, and some fruits from the cooler. I also added honey packets to my oatmeal that I had grabbed from the hotel. 

Lunch – Outdoor Pantry Vegetarian Bowl that we put inside our tortilla shells (tastes better when warm but you can eat it warm or cold) and water to drink. 

Snacks – Outdoor Pantry Chocolate Mexican Cookies and Nature Valley granola bars with almond butter. 

Dinner –  Tuna sandwiches with juice. We also drank hot cocoa that night before going to bed to get a little warmed up. 

Burritos during a hiking trip made by Outdoor Pantry and stuffed in a flour tortilla shell.


Breakfast – same thing… coffee for me, tea for my mom, instant quaker oatmeal with walnuts and Outdoor Pantry blueberries, and some fruits from the cooler. I also added honey packets to my oatmeal that I had grabbed from the hotel. 

Lunch –  2 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with soy milk, a Nature Valley granola bar, and fruits. 

Dinner – Cracker Barrel on our way back home. 

Things To Do At Shawnee National Forest

There are many things to do at Shawnee National Forest including:

  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • Rock climbing
  • Photography
  • Bird watching
  • Swimming
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Explore nearby caves
  • Have a picnic
Artistic photo of hiking boots by the water surrounded by yellow, red, and orange, autumn leaves.

Frequently Asked Questions For Shawnee National Forest

I’m sure you have some questions about planning a trip to Shawnee National Forest. Below I’m going to answer some of the top questions as well as link to a guide where many more FAQ can be found on the USDA Forest Service website.

What is the best part of Shawnee National Forest? 

In my personal opinion, Garden of the Gods topped everything else. The rock formation were absolutely stunning to view and walk through. However, Pomona Natural Bridge was second in place followed by Devil’s Backbone. I’m sure there is much more to explore at Shawnee National Forest that will make it’s way to the top of this list as well.

Are there bears in Shawnee National Forest? What other wildlife may I encounter during my visit?

Black bears are very rare in Shawnee National Forest. To be honest, they are pretty much far gone. The animals that you will see most are: chipmunks, armadillos, raccoons, possums, groundhogs, skunks, squirrels, beavers, and small rodents.

How much does it cost to get into Shawnee National Forest? 

It is free to visit Shawnee National Forest. However, camping does have a fee. Check out their website for more details here.

A mom and daughter hiking through Shawnee National Forest by the Natural Bridge hiking trail.

Can you hunt or fish at Shawnee National Forest? 

Yes you can. During our time there we did see a few hunters. Our neighboring camper had just hunted a deer during his trip. As long as you are abiding by the laws of the state and national forest regulations then you should be good. This is what is stated on the Shawnee National Forest USDA website.

Hunting: Illinois State regulations apply on the Shawnee as well as some additional regulations specific to the Forest. Visit Hunting on the Shawnee National Forest to access Forest related hunting information. Visit Illinois Department of Natural Resources to access the state regulations or to view their Hunting and Trapping Digest. Leave No Trace ethics apply to all visits to the Shawnee.

Fishing: Fishing is free on the Shawnee for those 15 years of age and younger. An Illinois fishing license is required for anyone over the age of 15. Visit Illinois Department of Natural Resources to access the state regulations and information on how to purchase your fishing license or contact IDNR at 1-217-782-6302.

USDA Shawnee National Forest Website
A woman standing by the Shawnee National Forest sign in Illinois.

Shawnee National Forest Travel Guide Recap

Well I hope this guide helps to inspire you to visit the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois. Shawnee is filled with beauty all around from giant boulders, natural bridges, clear blue springs, and even miles and miles of hiking trails. While Garden of the Gods is the most visited, Shawnee definitely has a lot to offer and many landmarks to visit during your visit.

Hi, I'm Jessica!

I am a wife and mother to three amazing kids. A coffee addict and wine lover. I also have a huge love for the mountains and the the ocean. Through my blog I hope to inspire families to spend more time outdoors. 


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4 Responses

  1. The natural bridge at Bell Smith Springs is not the Pamona Bridge. The Pamona Bridge is in Pamona, Illinois which is over an hour away from Bell Smith Springs. It’s two completely different bridges. The natural bridge at Bell Smith Springs is the largest in Illinois.

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