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10 Things to Do in Shawnee National Forest in Illinois

Tonya Prater, Owner

Outdoor lovers will find so many fun things to do in Shawnee National Forest. Known for its adventurous hiking and stunning scenery, this National Forest in Illinois is also Bigfoot territory!

10 things to do in Shawnee National Forest - maybe even see Bigfoot!

Thanks to Southernmost Illinois for extending an invitation to experience the best of the Shawnee National Forest Area and to our writer Crystal Rapinchuk for attending and sharing her experience.

I’ve been wanting to visit Garden of the Gods in Illinois for years, so I was thrilled to be invited on a press trip to explore the area! These 10 things to do in Shawnee National Forest focused on the eastern side of the park, and there are a lot more things to do in southern Illinois to round out any road trip.

1. Hiking in the Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods is the most touristy hot spot in the Shawnee National Forest. Its stunning, scenic views and unique geological formations make for some must-do hiking.

One of the most photographed places in Illinois, Garden of the Gods offers areas to hike, camp, picnic, and enjoy nature. The Observation Trail is a 1/4-mile trail with short, steep grades and steps, as well as benches along the trail. The high cliffs and panoramic views are an amazing payoff.  

Garden of the Gods in Southernmost Illinois
Photo credit @ Crystal Rapinchuk

2. Take a selfie with the Shawnee National Forest Bigfoot

This legendary Bigfoot statue was installed by a local resident and business owner on a whim and it’s drawn quite a bit of attention ever since!

Bigfoot statue in Shawnee National Forest.
Photo Credit @ Crystal Rapinchuk

You can’t miss Bigfoot on the side of the road across from the Garden of the Gods Outpost. Just pull into the small parking lot and grab some selfies and silly videos! Don’t forget to tag @ShawneeForestBigfoot on Facebook!

3. Grab some ice cream at Garden of the Gods Outpost

Garden of the Gods Outpost offers cold drinks, ice cream, Bigfoot and area souvenirs (including pressed pennies!) and more. The staff is incredibly friendly and can help you with directions and anything you want to know about the area. 

Don’t miss the Bigfoot family across the street eating ice cream!

Bigfoot family with ice cream cones.
Photo Credit @ Crystal Rapinchuk

4. Have a picnic under the Golden Circle

The Golden Circle area is a mesmerizing spot that many tourists don’t know about. The beautiful rock bluffs, caves, and natural arches are a wonderful place for the adventurous to explore.

The Golden Circle Trail is in the Garden of the Gods area and starts just down the road from the Outpost. There is a natural arch you can sit under and picnic, but I will warn you, it’s completely unmarked. I highly recommend stopping at the Outpost to ask for directions — and be prepared for an adventure!

You’ll have to do a bit of backwoods gravel driving (or hiking) but we didn’t have any issues in our minivan. Just make sure that you bring everything out that you brought in and don’t leave any trash!

The Golden Circle at Shawnee National Forest.
Photo Credit @ Crystal Rapinchuk

5. Hike down into Rim Rock

Rim Rock was one of my favorite places to explore in Shawnee National park because of its incredibly unique geological formations. I recommend taking the furthest path on the left which will lead you right to the narrow, steep stairs and down into the slot canyons.

You’ll also see some old stone walls built by prehistoric Native American Woodland people approximately 5000 years ago. Similar forts were built in Giant City, Illinois.

Rim Rock
Photo Credit @ Crystal Rapinchuk

6. Marvel at Ox-Lot Cave

Ox-Lot Cave is located at the bottom of Rim Rock Trail. Its name came from the fact that it was once used as a corral to keep oxen, mules and horses. Over to the side of the cave, a small spring is boxed in that was used as a watering hole for animals.

In the early 1900’s the area was also used for logging.

Ox-Lot Cave at Shawnee National Forest
Photo Credit @ Crystal Rapinchuk

7. Go swimming, fishing, boating or camping at Pounds Hollow

Pounds Hollow Recreation Area is a beautiful, quiet section of Shawnee National Forest – but a popular swimming hole in the summer! It’s located just down the road from Rim Rock.

The great thing about Pounds Hollow is that it’s free for anyone to visit, swim, fish, or boat – just bring your own gear. There are no fees at all, but you will need a fishing license (like anywhere else in Illinois). You can also pitch a tent and camp at Pounds Hollow for about $10/night.

8. Explore Cave in Rock

Having a huge obsession with caves, I loved exploring Cave in Rock! The limestone cave is rumored to have been the home of many outlaws, pirates and counterfeiters in the late 18th to 19th centuries.

Outside the Cave in Rock
Photo provided courtesy of the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau

There are legends going back hundreds of years about pirates at Cave in Rock. Many of the legends are fictional, but the most fierce legend is real.

Captain Samuel Mason, originally from Pennsylvania, was a lifelong criminal and pirate that not only attacked boats on the Ohio River but would also steal from people’s houses while they were at church on Sundays. Mason used Cave in Rock his base of criminal operations in 1797.

Two movies were filmed there, further inspiring the legends looming around this cave: Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (Disney film 1950’s) and How the West Was Won (MGM Film 1960’s).

9. Dig for Fluorspar at the American Fluorite Museum

The small, but history-packed, American Flourite Museum is located on the site of the Rosiclare Fluorspar and Mining Co., once the largest fluorspar mining company in the U.S. (Note: This museum is closed as of November 2021.)

Piece of fluorspar.
Photo Credit @ Crystal Rapinchuk

Fluorspar is used to make things like Corningware, propellants, freon, and more. You’ll find maps, plenty of fluorspar and other minerals on display, and even old mining equipment, uniforms and models.

When you’re done soaking up the history, head outdoors and wander around the large property. You’ll find an old train car, mining carts and equipment, and even the old power house. For a fee, you can also dig your own fluorspar out of a large pile and take it home!

Old train car.
Photo credit @ Crystal Rapinchuk

10. Climb inside the Iron Furnace

This impressive piece of history was in operation as the only working Iron Furnace in Illinois from 1837 to the 1880’s. It was, however, rebuilt in 1967. It produced 9 TONS of pig iron PER DAY which is an incredible feat even today!

iron furnace
Photo Credit @ Crystal Rapinchuk

Shawnee National Forest Cabins

Looking for somewhere to stay at Shawnee National Forest? The Shawnee Forest Cabins are incredibly cozy and have private hot tubs as well as fireplaces and full kitchens! You can walk to Bigfoot and the Outpost from your cabin and you’re only 2 miles from Garden of the Gods!

Find even more places to see and stay on the eastern side of the Shawnee National Forest here or anywhere else in the Shawnee National Forest area.

Thanks to my friend and colleague, Crystal Rapinchuk for attending a press trip on behalf of Travel Inspired Living and sharing her experience with us. Crystal loves to spend time outdoors, exploring caves and planning epic road trips with her family and sharing her experiences on ExplorationAmerica.com.    

Looking for more fun destinations to visit in the United States? Check out our post on things to do in Mt Airy NC. Hint: Mayberry fans will love it! Those interested in military history will enjoy our post on things to do in Fayetteville NC and if you want to stop off in the big city, Chicago is only a few hours away.  

Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois.

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