Weekending: Spring comes to the Shawnee National Forest
The Garden of the Gods may be the best-known feature of the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois, but it is important to know that this is just one of the many special treats in the vast region that displays the best that nature has to offer.
The forest is just south of Harrisburg, Ill., a small community about 130 southeast of St. Louis. When Harrisburg was hit on Feb. 29 by a destructive tornado, the forest, about 12 miles further south, suffered no apparent damage. In fact, a month after the storm, as the people of Harrisburg were working to repair and rebuild their homes and businesses, campers, hikers, horseback riders were busy enjoying the scenic beauty of the 279,000-acre forest.
The Pounds Hollow Recreation Area offers a welcome respite with its sand beach and 25-acre lake. On a late March day, visitors had to walk about a mile down a winding trail to reach the lake because the road leading to the beach was not yet open to vehicles. Since the April 4 opening of the road, guests can drive right down to the lake and set up to enjoy camping, fishing, swimming, picnicking or just relaxing on the beach. A ramp from the parking area provides easy access for anyone who needs to avoid the stairs that lead to the water’s edge.
Right next to Pounds Hollow is the Rim Rock National Recreational Trail. This scenic loop includes an explanation of the area’s geology and history. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps performed much of the work that lets visitors wander on paths that lead through sandstone cliffs that are surrounded by lush growth at every turn.
High Knob is another great place for a peaceful picnic, with a great view, as the name implies, and of course more hiking trails. Reaching the High Knob public area requires driving along a gravel road through a private campground of the same name.
Permanent campers and tourists can mingle in the area that offers a peek back into history with a General Store that was once a tavern, and other delights. Legend has it that Beatle George Harrison visited in the 1970s. The area has riding and hiking trails, and hunting, in season.
Other popular spots in the forest include the Stone Face Trail, Gibbons Creek Barrens and the River to River Trail, which hikers and horseback riders can follow from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, a distance of about 170 miles. The official website of the River to River Trail Society recommends against any but the most experienced hikers attempting to make the trek in one outing.
Some “hikers find that it takes at least 14 days to do the total trail,” the society website says. “It is our hope that more people will make several weekend trips rather than trying to do the whole trail at once.”
“The terrain varies from moderate to difficult. Although this trail does not have the long, sustained climbs that might be found in the mountainous areas, some of the grades are pretty rugged. You should never attempt to use the trail without a compass and adequate water,” the website warns.
No trip to the Shawnee hills would be complete, however, without a pilgrimage to the Garden of the Gods.
This recreation area is known for its unusual rock formations, including Camel Rock, which gets its name from its resemblance to a certain desert animal. The formation juts out distinctively and stands as an irresistible lure for thrill seekers.
Young people struggle to find hand-holds and steady footing as they scramble out to stand on the top of the camel’s head, only to find that the return to safer ground can be even more challenging.
Sometimes the risks come with serious consequences. On March 23, a 21-year-old Lewisport, Ky., man suffered major injuries when he fell about 25 feet, according to a report from WPSD-TV. The man was climbing rocks when he slipped and fell, the report said. Rescue crews spent two and a half hours to get the man out. He was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Evansville, Ind., the report said.
Last year, news reports of serious injuries included an 18-year-old man from Carterville, Ill., who fell on a trail near Camel Rock in October, and a 60-year-old man from Lake Bluff, Ill., who also fell near Camel Rock in November.
These accidents serve as a strong reminder that visitors should take extra caution when exploring the area. Parents should keep young children close and discourage them from running.
As for lodging, if tent or RV camping is not your style, fully equipped housekeeping cabins, such as the Rim Rock's Dogwood Cabins can be rented. Just be sure to bring along all your own food and drink. Harbinson's Country Market near Karber's Ridge will help you get by in a pinch. But the nearest full-service grocery store is back in Harrisburg.
For more comfortable and quaint accommodations, Elizabethtown has the lovely Rose Hotel, which was built in 1812, and the River Rose Inn, a bed and breakfast.
Elizabethtown, or E'town to the locals, also has the E'town River Restuarant, a bare-bones, floating establishment known for its catfish.
The forest is in full bloom this spring, with dogwood and redbud trees bursting with color and new life. And a bonus for early-season visitors has been the lack of pesky mosquitoes and ticks. For those who come later on, strong insect repellant is a must.
The Shawnee National Forest is a treasure for all nature lovers. As the brochure from the national Recreation Trails agency says, the forest is a great place to discover America.