A Little Time and a Keyboard: 5 Shawnee National Forest Hikes Lifting the Soul Exploring Unique Ecosystems

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

5 Shawnee National Forest Hikes Lifting the Soul Exploring Unique Ecosystems

 5 Shawnee National Forest Hikes Lifting the Soul Exploring Unique Ecosystems

5 Shawnee National Forest Hikes Lifting the Soul Exploring Unique Ecosystems

Shawnee National Forest presents a natural wonderland mosaic of ecosystems. Within an astounding 289,000 acres, Shawnee National Forest holds an incredible array of natural treasures and experiences that are bound to delight any nature adventurer. During three days of hiking, we enjoyed seeing the wonders of nature unfold on five different trails.

Rocks in a variety of shapes and sizes form unique trails at Giant City State Park in Makanda, Illinois
Rocks in a variety of shapes and sizes form unique trails at Giant City State Park.

Giant City State Park 

On our first afternoon of forest rambling, we headed to Giant City State Park. Quickly upon arriving at Giant City State Park, we noted the lofty rock formations reaching to the clouds. In fact, Giant City State Park is named for these impressive stone giants. Rock formations reaching to the skies. Slabs of rock in interesting shapes and color blends carving paths. Verdant and soft moss adorning rock faces in a variety of patterns. All of this crafted a striking spot for a hiking adventure.


Awed by a natural balancing act in the form of a rock formation at Giant City State Park.
Awed by a natural balancing act in the form of a rock formation!

Wandering up, over and around the sandstone creations provided us with unique perspective of nature's sculpting forces. I particularly enjoyed spotting little holes in the sandstone. Additionally, we discovered water slowly dripping through formations adding delightful surprises and further variances in color. In one spot, we climbed through a bit of a rock passage to come out on the other side of the trail.

Devil's Standtable 

Rock climbing is permitted in two spots of the park. Devil's Standtable presents an interesting geological element was well as one of these rock climbing spots. When we arrived to check out this natural marvel, a rock climbing class was just ending. There is a very short trail at Devil's Standtable however the formation is definitely worth a visit. Additionally, there is a nearby stream and a bit of a cave.

Tip: With an incredible 289,000 acres to wander in Shawnee National Forest, I recommend researching trails before heading out to pinpoint those of interest. I would pick out a few more beyond what you intend on hiking just in case you find some too crowded. It will make it easier to pivot.

Little Grand Canyon

During our second day of hiking, we embarked on a rolling and steep in spots trail at Illinois' very own Little Grand Canyon. While part of the trail was flooded out, we were able to enjoy a vigorous and scenic hike. 

Deep ravines inside Illinois' Little Grand Canyon inspire awe.
Deep ravines inside Illinois' Little Grand Canyon inspire awe.

Quite quickly we noticed that we would be savoring scenes of deep ravines along the trail. Trails are a bit sandy which may seem a bit strange hiking in a state with rich farmland. However, you are walking through an area of sandstone that is constantly eroding. As a birder, I can tell you that Little Grand Canyon is a fantastic spot for birding! We saw and heard a splendid number of birds on the trail!

Admiring sandstone bluffs and the Big Muddy at the Little Grand Canyon
Admiring sandstone bluffs and the Big Muddy at the Little Grand Canyon.

During our hike, we also took in views of the Big Muddy which is a tributary of the Mississippi River. We arrived at an incredible lookout affording us an amazing view of bluffs along the river. Taking in views where you can see for miles and miles never gets old!

In our Little Grand Canyon here in Illinois, you will see upland forest, dry hill prairies and a floodplain ecosystem in the canyon. During our visit, we could easily see the spring overflow of the Big Muddy.

Heron Pond

The cypress and tupelo trees rising from the still waters of Heron Pond wetlands easily entrances visitors with an almost surreal environment for Illinois. During our hike, we crossed the confluence of the muddy Dutchman and Cache creeks. If you have a chance, take time to pause at this point. We saw an adorable turtle swimming down one of the creeks. After pausing, we headed further along the trail. While I am sure hikers are anxious to get to the boardwalk, there is plenty to enjoy along the way. We had fun spying a variety of plants and looking for wildlife. In a couple of spots, we did have to do a little rock hopping across little streams.

Skipping rocks at Heron Pond.
Skipping rocks at Heron Pond.

However, our eyes did open in awe as we stepped upon the moveable boardwalk. We walked slowly upon the boardwalk totally becoming enrobed in the stillness of the wetlands. The bases of the tupelo and cypress trees almost looked like hands grabbing at the base of the wetlands. In the quiet, we could hear birds echoing throughout. We did find some frogs wading. They were tough to spot at first but once we spotted one, we could easily spot more.

Stillness among the tupelos and cypress of Heron Pond in Shawnee National Forest.
Stillness among the tupelos and cypress of Heron Pond in Shawnee National Forest.

After spending time surrounded in a serene environ, we returned to the trail taking in more of the woodlands. The trails at Heron Pond are flat and easy to navigate making it the perfect nature adventure for anyone. 

Ferne Clyffe State Park

After our hike at Heron Pond, we headed to Ferne Clyffe State Park to chase waterfalls! Even though Ferne Clyffe was the fourth spot during our Shawnee National Forest adventure, we still discovered a nature experience distinct from all of the others. With eighteen different trails, Ferne Clyffe offers a range of experiences. We chose the Waterfall Trail which is moderately difficult and includes traversing very rocky terrain to descend into a canyon to view a waterfall. There is also an easier trail to the waterfall but we enjoyed the challenge.

The gentle rush of a waterfall at Ferne Clyffe State Park in Goreville, Illinois.
The gentle rush of a waterfall at Ferne Clyffe State Park.

The waterfall almost leaped over layered rock in spots. In others, it slid down like a silvery ribbon. We were hiking on quite a warm afternoon and appreciated the coolness that the caverns surrounding the waterfall provided. 

Ferns and moss grow over and with in rock formations at Fern Clyffe State Park.
Ferns and moss grow over and within rock formations at Fern Clyffe State Park.

Throughout our hike into the canyon and back up through rock formations, the moist, mossy landscape dazzled us. Moss and ferns covered rock formations growing in crevices crafting an ethereal environment. 

Garden of the Gods

Our last Shawnee National Forest adventure brought us to the mystical Garden of the Gods! Garden of the Gods represents quite a popular destination with the forest. However, we benefitted from a drizzly day on our visit dampening the number of visitors.


Garden of the Gods displays an extraordinary landscape fit for the Gods! Here you can see the deposits left at the edge of the ancient sea. As wind and water have eroded the sandstone structures, unique and ever changing formations have emerged. The main trail at Garden of the Gods is fairly easy and manageable for most making this amazing experience very accessible!

A variety of paths stem of this main path treating to incredible views and vantage points. Striking rock formations provided a nature frame for the view in front of us. We enjoyed taking advantage of the extra paths to enjoy new views and get more up close peeks at the rock formations themselves. I have to say, being able to walk right up to a formation and get a close look is pretty amazing!

Adventures Upon Adventures in Shawnee National Forest

Shawnee National Forest holds so many more experiences to behold. Miles and miles of trails invite exploration through unique ecosystems. In addition to more trails to explore in the five preserves we wandered, many more preserves are part of the Shawnee National Forest system. Between the changing environment and the wealth of trails, no two visits to Shawnee National Forest are the same making it a fantastic spot for nature adventures year after year.


5 Shawnee National Forest Hikes Lifting the Soul Exploring Unique Ecosystems in Southern Illinois

5 Shawnee National Forest Hikes Lifting the Soul Exploring Unique Ecosystems in Southern Illinois



2 comments:

  1. We've been to three of the places on your list. Can't wIt to hike at the other two someday!

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  2. I haven't been to the places you recommend, it's great. Maybe I'll arrange for a trip like that, it's exciting. Traveling makes me feel so much more comfortable.

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