Exploring Shawnee National Forest, Illinois
This fun-filled Autumn trip was inspired by a trip I took back in May with my dad to South Cumberland State Park. My mom saw all of the pictures and all the fun we had that she wanted to do a mother daughter getaway too. Off we went to plan and due to a loss in the family, dog emergency, and a few other setbacks we finally were able to make our way to Shawnee National Forest in Illinois for the weekend.
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DAY 1: BELL SMITH SPRINGS
My mom drove to my house in Clarksville, Tennessee and off we went that night to a hotel right outside of Shawnee National Forest to spend the night. We figured that to make the most of our weekend it was best to arrive early and travel less the day of our hiking adventures. That was one mistake I made when I went on my father-daughter trip back in May. We left the morning off and arrived later than expected. Our hike pushed our limits to arriving on time and we couldn't do the entire trail as planned. I didn't want to make the same mistake twice so we planned ahead. We left early that morning and headed out to Bell Smith Springs where we planned to camp that night.
CAMPING AT REDBUD CAMPGROUND
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.
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.
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Distance: Approximately 0.4 miles
Difficulty Level: Easy
As we headed back we passed the staircase and continued to the 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 Natural Bridge and continue the trail till you reach the top and then turn around from there.
The 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.
Distance: Approximately 0.9 miles
Difficulty Level: Easy-Moderate
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
DAY 2: GARDEN OF THE GODS
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 if we wanted to explore more of Shawnee National Forest and the various trails it has to offer.
At Garden of the Gods we took the short Observation Trail. 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 took pictures of every stone formation, every cook looking tree, and every angle found of the scenery. We really enjoyed this trail.
Distance: 1/4 mile
Difficulty Level: Easy
After completing our trail at Garden of the Gods we decided to head towards the northwest area of Shawnee National Forest to Jackson Falls. This was another Boulder Falls experience where the waterfall wasn't flowing as we were wanting so I recommend going after a strong rainfall to see it flowing beautifully.
JACKSON FALLS TRAIL
It is a short hike to the top of the waterfall and little more strenuous hike to get to the gorge. Overall I think it took us about a good 1.5 hours to complete, mainly cause we got lost for a little bit. 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.
Distance: 1/4 mile
Difficulty Level: Easy
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 little tricky. You will then have to climb down the stack of boulders and stones and make your way down to the very bottom. Please proceed with caution. Only you know what your limits are. If you don't feel comfortable climbing down don't risk it. Signal is very hard to get and getting help down there will be very difficult. Just watch your step and your grip and proceed cautiously. Take your time!
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. Duh Jess!!! 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.
Also if you are a rock climber, then this will be a perfect spot for you to go to. There were so many rock climbers in this part of the trail and they were all so friendly and willing to help us when we were lost.
Distance: Approximately 2 miles (Don't quote me on this one as it could be less)
Difficulty Level: Moderate - Hard
END OF DAY TWO
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, and any other location I can find that seems interesting.
We used my brother's Coleman tent. It is a very spacious tent and tall for easy standing and moving around. It was going to be cold so I also packed some fleece blankets, sleeping bags, and an air mattress to be comfortable after the long hike. I also packed some UVPaqlite to keep our tent illuminated throughout the night and also for easy access to our zippers in the dark (you can read more about it here). I also brought a headlamp, flashlights, extra batteries, etc.
The things I packed for the hiking trails at Shawnee National Forest were my backpack, Outdoor Pantry food to eat on the trail, lighter, portable camp stove, boots, wool socks, and a small first aid kit.
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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:
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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.
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.
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Well I hope this guide helps to inspire you to visit the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois. It is filled with beauty all around from giant boulders, natural bridges, clear blue springs, and even miles and miles of hiking trails.
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