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The Jaw-Dropping Shawnee National Forest Scenic Drive You Gotta See to Believe

Tonya Prater, Owner

If you’re looking for scenic drives in the Midwest United States, you have to check out Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois.

At the southern tip of Illinois where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi River, you’ll find lush forests, swampland, limestone rock formations like bridges and arches, and tons of fun places to stop along the way.

Shawnee National Forest Illinois

These are some of the best spots to visit in and around Shawnee National Forest

Carbondale, Illinois

Located just on the edge of Shawnee National Forest is the town of Carbondale, home to Southern Illinois University.

While most of this Illinois road trip focuses on the natural attractions of Shawnee National Forest, you may wish to explore the beautiful campus of SIU during your road trip. You’ll find museums, a theater, and a sports arena, in addition to the cheap, delicious food you would expect to find on a college campus.

The Science Center of Southern Illinois is a great educational stop, while the Kids Play Zone at University Mall is a great place to let the kids burn off some energy before hitting the road. 

Pomona, Illinois 

The small town of Pomona is a great first stop on your Shawnee National Forest scenic drive.

This area is at the heart of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail so you’ll find several vineyards, including the Pomona Winery, Hickory Ridge Vineyard & Winery, and the Von Jakob Vineyard and Brewery. Alto Vineyards is also in the area and is just a few minutes from the Bald Knob Cross of Peace. This 111-foot cross can be seen for miles around, and often hosts special events and services. Don’t miss out on the Pomona Natural Bridge, a short hike to a natural bridge.

You won’t believe you’re in Illinois!

Trail of Tears State Forest

This state forest is the perfect introduction to the kinds of natural wonders you’ll find in and around Shawnee National Forest.

Set in the Ozark Hills of Illinois, you’ll really start to see how glaciers formed much of the landscape in this region as you hike along ridges and valleys in the forest. The trails are open to hikers and equestrians; the State Forest is also open to hunting at certain times of the year, so be sure to check ahead and wear blaze orange if you choose to hike during hunting season.

For campers, there are tent camping sites as well as backcountry camping options in the Trail of Tears State Forest

Giant City State Park

Another great destination in the Shawnee National Forest region is Giant City State Park.

This is a really cool area that is reminiscent of Ohio’s Hocking Hills State Park. Granite cliffs, waterfalls, and wooded trails are some of the best features of Giant City State Park. There are also opportunities for rock climbing and horseback riding, as well as fishing and camping.

Giant City Lodge was built by the CCC in the 1930s and serves up some famous fried chicken. You can rent cabins and lodge rooms, which offer access to an outdoor swimming pool!

If camping is more your style, there are 85 Class A campsites with hookups, as well as 14 walk-in sites, all with access to hot showers and modern restroom facilities. 

Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge

This wildlife refuge protects over 40,000 acres of land and water for the enjoyment of the public.

Visitor activities include fishing, hunting, and wildlife viewing. The Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center is a great place to begin your visit and learn about the various plants and animals that are protected in the refuge. There’s a nine-mile auto tour route that allows for wildlife viewing and photography. Interpretive programs happen throughout the year and include things like bald eagle viewing in the winter months.

There are fishing piers and a boat launch, making this a great place to bring a kayak or canoe. There are also four campgrounds in the refuge, some more primitive than others. 

Cache River State Natural Area

This area protects nearly 15,000 acres along the Cache River and is a must-see for anyone visiting Southern Illinois.

The area around Heron Pond Preserve will leave you wondering if you made a wrong turn along the way. You will really think you’re in the Bayou of Louisiana; with cypress trees and swampy water, it’s definitely an unusual sight for the Midwest.

There are boardwalks in some areas, and you can wade in others, however, there are poisonous snakes in this area, so be careful if you get in the water!

A canoe is another great way to experience this part of Shawnee National Forest. 

Garden of the Gods Recreation Area

Overlooking the bluffs and rock formations at the Garden of the Gods on a beautiful September afternoon. Shawnee National Forest, Illinois, USA

If Heron Pond makes you think you’ve ended up in Louisiana, Garden of the Gods may have you wondering if you’ve ended up in Colorado.

This is definitely one of the most popular areas of Shawnee National Forest, and allegedly one of the most photographed places in Illinois. Cool rock formations and hiking trails offer amazing views of the surrounding landscape.

There are 16 miles of hiking trails, with some of the most popular viewpoints closest to the parking and picnic area.

Pharoah campground is open year-round but is first-come, first-served only.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

Another beautiful state park in the Shawnee National Forest region is Ferne Clyffe State Park. And yes, there are ferns and cliffs!

With 18 unique hiking trails leading to waterfalls and fern forests, as well as a one-mile loop trail around Ferne Clyffe Lake. The area is open to hunting and fishing, although bank fishing only as boating and swimming are not allowed in the lake.

There are several campgrounds, from fully-equipped Class A sites to backcountry backpacker campsites.  

Cave In Rock State Park

Situated along the Ohio River just before it meets the Mississippi River, Cave In Rock State Park is a peaceful place to relax before ending your Shawnee National Forest Scenic Drive.

There is indeed a cave in the rocks along the river, and a short hiking trail leading to the cave. Other hiking trails will take you through shady forests and along bluffs offering great views of the river. The park also has a fishing pond and a campground with Class A and tent camping sites. There’s also a lodge with eight suites for overnight accommodations.

The restaurant at the lodge has a great patio overlooking the Ohio River. 

Have you traveled along this scenic drive? What were some of your favorite spots? Leave a comment below and let us know.

steve bain

Wednesday 8th of February 2023

Close to Garden of the Gods is an area called Rim Rock. Three main scenic trails puts you in touch with nature. Small waterfalls, streams, rock formations and abundant vegetation are among the many scenic wonders of this great feature of Shawnee National Forest. Protection Status
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