When we realized the long weekend is rolling in, I opened my planner – Google Maps. I had to go somewhere special, yet it had to be in Illinois to avoid unnecessary travel restrictions. As I am browsing thru the app, I stopped looking at a name – Garden of the Gods. It is in the middle of a huge green terrain with a lot of saved places. These are from my “Want to Go” spots that have been adding up for years.
Shawnee National Forest it is. I quickly realized there is so much to do here from caves to rocks and majestic waters to beautiful views. First things first. There is only one place we could stay and that is on the river for the views. I called Cave-In-Rock, fingers crossed. Luck is on our side. We were able to secure a private home that is open year-round. Spoiler: The view is amazing and we are gonna go back for the A-frame.
Just like that, we are all set for our long weekend trip. It is about a 6-hour drive from Chicago, so an extra day makes the trip a relaxed one.
Come, let’s travel to the beautiful and the other side of Illinois – Shawnee National Forest.
First Stop: Cahokia Mounds
A quick stop en-route to our cabin.
Cahokia is one of the greatest cities in the world in AD 1250. Today, we are standing on its remains of the prehistoric native civilization.
Of all, one thing stands out – Monks Mound – one of the largest pyramids. It is made of mud and sand that has a base of the same size as the Great Pyramids of Giza. As expected, over time, the pyramid has sunk leaving only the base now.
It is a short walk from the parking lot. And there will be about 50 steps to the top of Monks Mound. The red stairs are rightly angled like a true symbol of Stairs to Heaven.
We had fun on top of the Mound looking at Twin Mounds from the other side of the road, the fence around it – Stockade, and the Woodenhenge. And the best part is looking at the Gateway Arch of St.Louis, Missouri long from Illinois. It seems so near yet so far. The information boards here helped us to learn about the terraces of the Mound, its gardens, and poles.
Interpretive Center, if opened can be lot more informative.
Our cabin is calling and we couldn’t wait any longer.
The private home is farther from the state park. We arrived after sunset and it took us a while to settle in. Luckily, the people at Cave-In-Rock Restaurant and a woman in the area are very kind to help us find the cabin that night.
The view in the morning though is mind-blowing. The river, sunrise, cargo boats, and the birds – we took our time to detox.
As this is off-season, Cave-In-Rock town is quiet. We decided to eat at Cave-In-Rock restaurant daily but it came as a surprise for us that on Sunday, it is closed by 5 PM. So that night for dinner, we drove in the snow to Eldorado, one hour outside the forest to get dinner, and came back. Quite a trip it is.
Day 2: Stop 1 – Cave-In-Rock State Park
After home-made breakfast, we were ready to explore the cave.
It is a quick up-and-down the hill and a very short walk to the cave from the parking. The cave is blocked behind the rocks all along the way, so it is exciting to walk and find it.
The first expression was “oh that was huge”. It really is. Sitting right on the river, it is a pretty landscape scene. As the name derives, it is a cave formed inside a huge rock which is a beautiful white limestone bluff. This tunnel-like cave eroded into the bluff by winds, water, and earthquakes over time.
As the legend goes, this cave was a home for many bandits and gangs for several decades and has seen robberies and murders. After reading all that, it was adventurous to walk right into the cave but we are glad we did not find any bones 😛. There are side compartments in the cave and we did not explore as we had enough adrenaline rush already.
The park is pretty much the cave itself and has few other trails. After the cave, we spent a good time in one of the shelter areas watching the ferry doing rounds and frequently passing cargo ships.
Other than the cave, we liked the restaurant, especially the people who are so sweet.
Day 2: Stop 2 – Rim Rock’s National Recreation Trail
We took about 3 hours to complete the hike at Rim Rock. We did Upper Trail – a 0.8-mile hike and then walked on Lake Trail until the lake at Pound Hollow which is about an additional mile. Coming back, we took Lower Trail which is a mile again but with beautiful bluff views.
Sounds like a normal trail right? No. There is a short path that connects Upper Trail to Lower Trail which provides an amazing experience. Here, we climb down the steps and walk in a narrow path amid gigantic rocks. These rocks have trees grown over them and are also covered in moss. So the whole scene looks very colorful.
After crossing these rocks, there is a small path on the edge of the rock. We had to bend a little and walk but it was the most exciting part of the trail. At the end of it, we would be standing on the rock overlooking the Lake Trail. It is a pretty cool spot but it would be hard to reach if scared of heights.
Lower Trail also has few beautiful rock formations. There is one flat rock that is balanced right on the edge of the bluff like in The Lion King reveal scene. It is very difficult to hike to that rock, especially after snow or rain.
Since the day is short, we tried hard to beat sunset and reached the parking lot before it gets dark.
Day 3: Garden of the Gods
Finally, its time for the place of the hour.
Since Garden of the Gods is a popular spot, we wanted to see without the crowds and there is nothing better than sunrise. There is absolutely no one. We took our ample time to enjoy the views although the trail itself can be completed in 45 min.
Sun is rising behind us but shining directly onto the rocks elevating the colors of the landscape. Rock formations here are beautiful. There are balancing rocks, tall rocks, rocks in the shape of the tortoise, and many more. Of course, Camel Point is popular and it is fun at first sight. It has a hump and really seems like a camel. It is pretty astonishing to see how these unique sandstone rock formations turned out over time. We had fun climbing rocks around Devil’s smokestack where it gives the edge of the world experience.
On our way back, we stopped at a recreation area – an old Iron Furnace and Tower Rock for the majestic Ohio river views. The fun part is along the way on the backroads where we get to see cows, horses, and donkeys.
En route home, we also stopped at Casey which is a small town with big things. The town has the biggest rocking chair in the world, wind chime, spoon, ruler, and much more. It was dark by the time we reached there, so we might come back to the town in summer.
Shawnee National Forest is a hidden gem.
All of the places have something peculiar and made them stand out from the crowd. Garden of the Gods is definitely a cherry on the top. The rock formations, colors, and total landscape surprised us. Along with the above places, there are many more in the area like Bell Smith Springs, Little Grand Canyon. For directions to these places, check out my Google Maps List.
Looking to rent a car or book a trip from nearby places? Wanderu, the best travel booking website have listed down all the possible ways you can go to Shawnee National Forest and other vacation destinations in Illinois. Check out this link, you may come across a deal that may save lot of dollars. Thank me later 🙂
Are you planning to go? Save this and treat yourself.
We have also made a video about this place, check it out here:
Have a question about a place? Looking for cabin information? Leave a comment and we are happy to help.
State parks have been our primary hangout all 2020. For a change, check out our experience from Alaska – It is beautiful for real. If you are looking for local parks, here are a few: Starved Rock, Matthiessen or Devil’s Lake. Up North Michigan is beautiful in Fall. And our most adventurous road trip is on Dalton Highway, it is no joke. Let us know about your favorite post in the comments and we love to read them.
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Cheers and Safe Travels!!!