Unique Geology and the best views in Southern Illinois
Miles: Depends on how much you explore but roughly 8 to 10 miles combined
Difficulty: Moderate – A decent number of ups/downs but nothing overly strenuous
Fees: No fee for day hiking or overnight camping. No permit required
Trail notes: This is a shared use trail with horses. Parts of the trail are really chewed up from the horses and as a result I would avoid this trail if it is at all wet. There was also an abundance of Poison Ivy alongside the trail. Please be careful and keep an eye out for the ivy.
A couple of weekends ago I got a Friday off of work and headed out of town for an overnight camping trip with my brother. We headed out to Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois. I have never been to this area and was looking forward to exploring somewhere new.
The initial plans were to hike the Garden of the Gods Loop Trail and Observation trail and camp somewhere on the backside of the Loop trail. We parked at the Garden of the Gods Backpacking Parking Lot, which is the only parking lot in the park that allows for overnight parking.
To access the Loop Trail, head north out of the parking lot, directly across the street and you will hit the trail head. From here you will head east, counter-clockwise, along the trail. Almost immediately you start to see some of the rock formations that make the area so well known.
The first couple of miles of the Loop Trail makes its way up and down gradually through deciduous forest and over a couple of very small creeks. The deciduous forest gives way to pine forest and then they intermix.
After ~ 2.5 miles you reach the turn off for the Garden of the Gods Observation trail. You start a gradual uphill climb, passing by a horse hitching area to get to the observation area. Once in the rock formations there is a rock paved path with wooden bridges to follow along if you like. We chose to climb many of the rocks and jump around the tops of them as much as possible. There are a lot of tremendous views here. Please be careful though, it would be very easy to fall which could result in serious injury or death. While the Loop trail was relatively empty, the Observation was quite busy. There were more people here than I ideally like while out for a hike, but I love that people are getting out and enjoying nature.
The Observation Trail makes a loop with the result being heading back down the trail that you came up. Meeting back up with the Loop Trail, and continuing on in the counter-clockwise direction. There are many crisscrossing trails and it would be as easy to make a wrong turn. For the next two miles you have gradual ups and downs in elevation but overall descend ~ 300 feet, making your way through the forest.
Here the trail turns and heads along a creek for the next mile. This area is very pretty with the trail on one side and a small rock cliff side on the other. This creek was the best source for water while on the Loop trail. The other creeks along the trail had minimal water and appeared fairly stagnant.
Also, in this section of trail you will find 2 or camping sites along the creek. It really is a beautiful area to camp in but at the time we camped was swarming with mosquitos. This is where we had intended to camp but due to the high number of mosquitos and due to the fact that we were passing through this section at around 13:00, we decided to keep on hiking hoping to find a campsite on another trail that we had planned as backup.
Leaving the creek behind you have approximately 2 miles of trail left and 200 feet of net elevation gain. Along the way there are a couple of small overlooks offering nice views. The loop does not end exactly at the trailhead, but instead puts you back into the Backpacking Parking Lot.
The trip didn’t go as we had planned but we still had a great time hanging out, being in nature and exploring a new area of the world. At the end of the day that is what we set out to do, just in a slightly different way.
Summary: The Garden of the Gods Loop Trail and Observation Trail are a great combination for a day hike as long as it isn’t wet. The trails are rather chewed up from the horse use and would be a muddy mess with any rain. The rock formations throughout the trails are phenomenal and well worth checking out. Camping spots are rather limited and were teaming with mosquitos. Makes sure you take plenty of water as there is only one good water source of water on the trail and it is roughly 7 miles in.
Wanting to hike more: An easy, relatively short and pretty hike to add on is the Indian Point Trail. Both hikes leave from the same parking lot. I will have a trail report out soon, so keep an eye out for it.
I hope you found this interesting and helpful. Have you been to Garden of the Gods or Shawnee National Forest? What are your thoughts and what trails in the area should I check out next?