Shawnee National Forest Things to Do: A Local’s Adventure Guide

Table of Contents

Last updated on June 8th, 2024 at 11:51 am

Cindy Scott

Welcome to the summary of the nineteenth episode of the Locals Know Best podcast!

I’m Cindy, your host. I’m a former full-time RVer and love all things travel. Through my adventures, I’ve learned that locals really do know the best spots!

Every podcast episode dives into one local’s perfect day of outdoor adventure in their town.

This episode embraces the many incredible adventures possible in Shawnee National Forest country in Southern Illinois.

Locals Know Best Podcast Episode 019: Shawnee National Forest, Illinois, Off Most People’s Radar

Shawnee National Forest Carol Episode 19 Locals Know Best Podcast Graphic

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About Carol Hoffman

Shawnee National Forest podcast episode guest headshot Carol Hoffman
Learn more about Shawnee National Forest and Giant City State Park at SouthernmostIllinois.com or call their toll-free number for more information at 1-800-SEE-IT-HERE.

Carol grew up near the forest in Anna, so she knows the area well. She’s a birdwatcher, hiker, and all-around nature enthusiast. She has been promoting the scenic beauty of Shawnee forest country for 25 years.

About Shawnee National Forest

Shawnee National Forest covers a massive 289,000 acres in southern Illinois, boasting forests, openlands, canyons, and bluffs. It’s quite different from the rest of the state.

In this episode, Carol talks about how unique Shawnee National Forest is compared to Illinois’ flat lands. She explains why it is an excellent spot for outdoor activities like birdwatching, biking, rock climbing, rappeling, hunting, fishing, and hiking.

Since the forest is so big, Carol believes exploring the park from one specific zone with many things to do is best for the perfect one-day itinerary.

For her breakdown of how to spend a perfect day in the area, we’ll focus on exploring the National Forest from Giant City State Park, within the forest.

She recommends exploring the National Forest from Giant City State Park because that area is a treasure trove of close-together outdoor recreation that can all be easily reached in under 30 minutes, including breathtaking views, hiking among plants and animals, fishing, hunting, boating, kayaking, swimming, even rock climbing, and rappelling, those are all options in Giant City State Park.

Whether you want to be up in the canopy of the trees, on horseback, on a lake, or hiking in the forest, this part of the forest has all those opportunities right there, together and easily accessible.

When is the Best Time to Visit?

There’s never a wrong time to visit southern Illinois, especially Shawnee National Forest, as activities are available year-round. However, spring, summer, and fall shine with warmer weather and a wider range of activities. 

Carol appreciates the area throughout the year but particularly loves its charm in spring. The blooming flowers, bird migrations, and frequent rains make the waterfalls even more picturesque during this time.

Shawnee National Forest Attractions

Because Shawnee National Forest is so big, it’s good to know about the main attractions ahead of time. That way, you can plan your trip better and make sure you visit the places you really want to see.

Shawnee National Forest Trails

One of the most enjoyable activities in Shawnee National Forest is exploring its trails. Depending on your interests and skill levels, there are plenty to choose from, whether you’re into hiking, horseback riding, or just taking in nature.

Shawnee National Forest Hiking Trails

While every hiking trail in the park is a good choice, Carol recommends Trillium Trail as one of the best and most popular options. It’s enjoyable year-round, but especially in spring when the flowers bloom. Trillium is a moderate loop, just over 1 mile long, making it perfect for a quick workout. Plus, it’s dog-friendly, so your furry friend can come along with you.

Another fantastic option is the Giant City Nature Trail, located within Giant City State Park. This trail is popular and offers an easy 1-mile loop. It’s ideal for birdwatching and suitable for kids and dogs, making it a perfect choice for a family outing in nature.

Shawnee National Forest Bike Trails

Person Biking in Shawnee National Forest
Photo Provided by Carol Hoffman

If you prefer cycling, many bike trails also exist throughout the national forest! One of the top spots for cycling is the Cove Hollow Trail to Cedar Lake Trail. This route is moderately challenging and covers 5.5 miles round trip.

For those coming from afar or not keen on bringing their own bikes, Shawnee Hills eBike Rentals nearby offers electric bike rentals. E-bikes are especially convenient for varying fitness levels as they provide assistance while cycling.

Shawnee National Forest Zipline

If you love adventure, one of the most exciting activities in the area is visiting the Shawnee National Forest Zipline. Carol’s first recommendation on our ideal itinerary for a perfect day in southern Illinois was the zipline, so you know it’s worth trying!

You can choose between two different adventures. Carol suggested the Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour, which lasts about 3 hours and includes 8 different zip lines, 3 unique suspension bridges, and 3 short hikes.

Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour Banner
Photo Provided by Carol Hoffman

If you prefer a shorter tour, there’s the option of the Chipmunk Canyon Run, with 5 unique zip lines, 2 different aerial bridges, and 2 short hikes. Both are fantastic choices for some treetop excitement.

Shawnee National Forest Horseback Riding

Shawnee National Forest Things To Do: Giant City Stables
Photo Provided by Carol Hoffman

Horseback riding is another fantastic option for exploring the area!

Carol recommended Giant City Stables because, with them, experienced guides lead and instruct you throughout the ride. The horses there are accustomed to trail riding, so you don’t need prior experience. It’s a fun and unique way to see the area while enjoying breathtaking views from horseback.

Kid on Horseback Ride with Giant City Stables in Shawnee National Forest
Photo Provided by Carol Hoffman

Spend Time on the Lake

In the national forest and its surrounding areas, there are several water features to explore, but one standout is Little Grassy Lake, located near Giant City. This spot offers a campground, fishing equipment, as well as kayak and canoe rentals for visitors.

Rock Climbing & Rappeling

Shawnee National Forest Devils Standtable Climber
Photo Provided by Carol Hoffman

Another exciting activity to enjoy in the area is rock climbing and rappelling. With numerous unique rock formations, it’s common to spot many climbers during your visit to the national forest. While there’s no rental gear available at the park, it’s a great opportunity to capture photos of climbers in action. If you’re an experienced climber, make sure to bring your own equipment.

One of the permitted locations for rock climbing and rappelling is Jackson Falls in the Hidden Springs Ranger District. There are additional climbing and rappelling areas in southern Illinois, although they are situated outside of the park.

Paint or Take a Yoga Class with Alpacas

Rolling Oak Alpaca Ranch: Shawnee National Forest Things To Do
Photo Provided by Carol Hoffman

One of the most unique activities you can experience is at the mother/daughter run Rolling Oak Alpaca Ranch, where you can paint or take a yoga class with alpacas. It’s a great way to try something new and relax if you’ve been active. 

Check their schedule in advance since these activities aren’t always available, but they’re a lot of fun when they are.

If you’re unfamiliar with these activities, they involve painting or practicing yoga while alpacas roam around you. It’s a fun and unusual way to enjoy the outdoors with these lovely animals.

Rolling Oak Alpaca Ranch Alpacas in Shawnee National Forest
Photo Provided by Carol Hoffman

The Best Photo Spots

Shawnee National Forest is quite different from other areas in Illinois, and since it’s so massive at 289,000 acres, it’s good to know the best places to capture its incredible scenery. While the entire park is beautiful, some spots stand out for Instagram-worthy photos. 

Devil’s Stand Table is a highly sought-after photo spot in the region. Its popularity stems from its distinctive rock formations resembling a table, creating a stunning photo backdrop.

Giant City Water Tower
Photo Provided by Carol Hoffman

Another excellent spot for photography is the Giant City Water Tower, located near the Giant City Lodge. This tower features a spiral staircase that takes you to a lookout platform at the top, offering panoramic views of the forested areas, trees, park, and cabins below. If you’re comfortable with heights and able to climb stairs, it’s worth it for the breathtaking scenery.

For something truly unique, make your way to Bald Knob Cross, which sits at over 111 feet tall and is visible across 7,500 square miles; this massive cross is surrounded by the Shawnee National Forest, offering a stunning view. It’s also lit up at night, making it a fantastic spot to visit day or night.

If you want a brief hike with fantastic views, head to the Inspiration Point Trail. This trail is under a mile out-and-back and provides excellent views of rock formations, forests, grasslands, and more, making it the perfect trail to snag some incredible photos.

Other Shawnee National Forest Attractions

Although we didn’t discuss them in the episode, there are several attractions worth exploring in Shawnee National Forest if you have extra time or plan to stay for a few days.

Other Popular Shawnee National Forest Hiking Trails

Given the sheer size of the national forest, you can expect to find numerous fantastic hiking trails worth exploring. While we didn’t cover these in our perfect day itinerary, these popular additional recommendations offer incredible trails, views, and hiking experiences.

River to River Trail

The River to River Trail is excellent for seasoned hikers seeking a multi-day backpacking adventure. This hike spans just under 152 miles from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, traversing diverse landscapes such as forests, plains, bluffs, and more. It’s a very popular backpacking route in the region.

Little Grand Canyon Trail

The Little Grand Canyon Trail is much shorter, spanning a 3.4-mile loop. Along this route, you’ll enjoy views of forests, the canyon, water features, and more. It’s rated as moderately challenging and is ideal for a few hours of hiking. 

However, it can be slippery, especially after rainstorms. I recommend wearing proper hiking shoes, avoiding the trail during heavy rains, and bringing hiking poles for extra traction and stability. 

Ox Lot Cave via Rim Trail

This 2.3-mile loop hike is perfect for exploring different terrains, rock formations, and caves. Finishing the Ox Lot Cave via Rim Trail takes about an hour, making it great for a quick adventure or if you’re short on time. Keep in mind that it can get muddy, so wear appropriate gear. 

Garden of the Gods Observation Trail

The Garden of the Gods Observation Trail is a must-visit if you want to explore a highly popular and very short trail. This half-mile loop offers stunning rock formations, treetop views, and a beautiful landscape, making it well worth the visit. It’s the perfect place to grab some photos of the rugged terrain. 

Jackson Falls Trail

Jackson Falls Trail is an excellent choice for hikers. This 4.2-mile loop leads to a picturesque waterfall surrounded by lovely trees, rock formations, and creeks. 

However, the trail isn’t very well marked, so I suggest downloading the route offline from the AllTrails app to ensure you stay on track throughout your hike.

Pomona Natural Bridge Trail

If you want a short hike, under half a mile, leading to a stunning natural bridge, the Pomona Natural Bridge Trail is a beautiful and quick choice. It’s worth noting there are a few steep parts, but the scenery makes it worthwhile.

Other State Parks Near Shawnee National Forest (& Natural Areas)

Southern Illinois boasts numerous state parks and natural areas close to Shawnee National Forest. Below, I’ve outlined some of the best ones to explore.

Fort Massac State Park

Fort Massac State Park, located by the Ohio River, offers various outdoor activities like hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, and more. The area has a deep historical background dating back to the time of Lewis & Clark. One of the park’s trails, nearly 9 miles long, is named after George Rogers Clark, who led a militia regiment against the British in the 1800s.

Visitors can explore a replica fort, the park’s museum, and attend events celebrating its rich history. It’s a perfect spot for history buffs to enjoy.

Fort Defiance State Park

Fort Defiance, also known as the “Point” to locals, is another great spot to visit in the area. Here, you can witness one of the world’s largest confluences where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet. It’s a stunning sight that attracts visitors from all over. Besides enjoying the unique views, visitors can also fish and have picnics here.

Trail of Tears State Forest

Trail of Tears State Forest commemorates one of the most tragic events in American history when, following the Indian Removal Act, the Cherokee people were forced to move to reservations in Oklahoma, known as Indian Territory. The park’s visitor center features numerous exhibits about this event, and there’s an on-demand documentary available, along with interpretive programs scheduled during the summer months.

For outdoor enthusiasts, the park offers fishing, hiking, swimming, playgrounds for children, and picnic areas.

Dixon Springs State Park

Dixon Springs State Park is another stunning destination to discover, offering scenic views of rock formations, canyons, and waterfalls. It’s also the perfect spot for birdwatching and a great place to view various plants and flowers.

For those seeking more activities, the park features a modern swimming pool with a large water slide, hiking trails, picnic spots, fishing, hunting, and other recreational opportunities.

Cache River State Natural Area

The Cache River State Natural Area spans over 18,000 acres and is renowned for its expansive wetlands, cypress trees, and outdoor recreational opportunities. Visitors can try out activities such as hiking, canoeing, and fishing. 

The area is also a paradise for wildlife enthusiasts, offering sightings of various bird species, numerous frog varieties, as well as deer, foxes, and other wildlife.

Other Towns Near Shawnee National Forest

During our fantastic day exploring the area in the podcast, we dove into Giant City State Park and the lovely town of Anna. However, here’s some information about two other notable towns near Shawnee National Forest.

Carbondale

Carbondale is a small city known for its public parks, golf courses, rivers, lakes, and location near many state parks and the beautiful Shawnee National Forest. It’s a great place to stay and has many different wineries, breweries, and restaurants for visitors to enjoy. 

Goreville

Goreville is a quaint town celebrated for its warm hospitality, community spirit, and outdoor adventures. If you’re seeking a charming spot near Shawnee National Forest to immerse yourself in local culture, Goreville is an excellent choice. The town is also home to Ferne Clyffe State Park, offering opportunities to admire waterfalls, camp, and enjoy fishing.

Historical Sites Around Shawnee National Forest

Numerous historical sites around Shawnee National Forest are also worth exploring. These locations offer valuable insights into the region’s rich history.

Kincaid Mounds

Kincaid Mounds encompasses 105 acres and forms part of the Kincaid Mounds Archaeological Site. This site was inhabited by Native Americans from approximately 1050 to 1400 AD. 

The mounds served as elevated platforms believed to be the seats of power for elite leaders and the Chief. This region is significant as it marks one of the earliest instances of large-scale agriculture practices in Illinois. It offers a valuable opportunity to dive into the history of Illinois, American history, and the history of agriculture.

Herod Cave

Herod Cave is a roadside stop along Highway 34, perfect for taking photos, enjoying a picnic, and observing the remains of a former restaurant.

Tecumseh Statue

Within the Saline County State Fish and Wildlife Area stands a life-sized bronze statue of Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief. This statue pays tribute to his legacy and embodies the idea that while one person or twig may break, a group of people or a bundle of twigs remains strong together.

Roadside Attractions Around Shawnee National Forest

In addition to the numerous state parks and historical sites, several roadside attractions are worth exploring. Each of these has unique photo opportunities and quirky stories behind them.

Big Muddy Monster Statue

The Big Muddy Monster Statue stands in Murphysboro, Illinois, standing at approximately 8 feet tall. It’s a replica inspired by a police report from 1973, in which an individual reported encountering a muddy monster in the area. 

The statue, unveiled 50 years after the report, mirrors the details of the police report and is situated near the Big Muddy River. It’s a fantastic spot to capture photos with this iconic tale that gained Murphysboro attention.

Superman Statue

Metropolis, Illinois, is home to the world’s largest Superman Statue, towering at 15 feet tall and providing an ideal spot for photo opportunities! Additionally, you’ll find the Super Museum just across the street and a fantastic gift shop nearby to explore.

Sassy the Sasquatch Statue

Sassy is a very tall Sasquatch Statue near the Garden of the Gods in Herod, Illinois, in the Shawnee National Forest. It’s a great place for a quirky photo opportunity.

Harry the Shawnee Sasquatch Statue

In Harrisonburg, Illinois, you’ll find another impressive Sasquatch Statue named Harry. It’s another fantastic spot for taking memorable photos.

Shawnee National Forest Lodging

There are a variety of lodging options in and around Shawnee National Forest. These are the top options:

Shawnee National Forest Lodge

If you want a lodge experience in the state park, I know just the place to make you feel more at home.

Giant City State Park Lodge

Giant City Lodge: Shawnee National Forest Place to Stay
Photo Provided by Carol Hoffman

The Giant City State Park Lodge is more than just a great place to stay; it also features an amazing restaurant that enhances the overall experience. Known for its warm hospitality, the lodge offers comfortable rooms with a cozy, outdoorsy atmosphere.

It also has a gift shop, lounge, and sitting area to enjoy the park. This is a great place to stay if you want to be out of town and instead quickly stroll right onto the trails in the morning.

Shawnee National Forest Cabins

There are various cabin choices in and around Shawnee National Forest. However, Carol picks the cabins at Giant City State Park Lodge as her favorite option:

Giant City State Park Cabins

The Giant City State Park Lodge also provides cabin accommodations. Their 34 cabins range from the older, rustic, one-room cabins to a little bit more elite cabins out on the park’s bluffs.

There are no cooking facilities in them, but you can grill out at picnic grounds in the park, and the lodge is within walking distance and a great place to have breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Carol appreciates these cabins for their close proximity to the lodge’s restaurant, the water tower, and numerous outdoor activities.

Shawnee National Forest Camping

If you’re someone who loves camping, there are several options in the area, but here’s a top pick:

Little Grassy Lake Campground and Marina

Little Grassy Lake Campground and Marina provides fantastic camping in the area. It’s on a peninsula, offering beautiful lake views from most sites. The campground offers many different options, including RV spots and tent sites. It’s a good idea to call ahead and reserve your preferred spot. Plus, they have a marina where you can rent a boat for a fun day on the lake.

Upscale Boutique Lodging Near Shawnee National Forest

If camping isn’t your thing or you are looking for a more upscale option that is at the edge of Giant City State Park but also within walking distance to downtown Anna, here is the best choice for you:

Davie School Inn

The Davie School Inn is a unique hotel located in Anna, Illinois. It’s a renovated school transformed into a boutique inn, making for a unique and comfortable stay if you prefer not to camp outdoors.

Shawnee National Forest VRBO

If you prefer vacation rentals, Shawnee National Forest offers numerous VRBO options. One of my top picks is the Notting Hill Cottage, featuring two bedrooms, one bathroom, pet-friendly amenities, and a hot tub. For an authentic experience in a prime forest location, this spot is ideal.

Where to Eat in Shawnee National Forest

If you’re like me and love finding delicious places to eat after a full day of hiking and outdoor activities, I have some perfect recommendations from local expert Carol.

Kiki’s Coffeehouse

Kiki’s Coffeehouse is a great place to get your caffeine fix. They have a cozy atmosphere, serve delicious coffee, and it’s reasonably priced. Perfect for starting your day or a mid-afternoon pick-me-up.

Davis Pastry

Another fantastic spot in Anna is Davis Pastry, famous for its scrumptious sweet treats. They are known for their cookies, donuts, and cinnamon rolls, but you’ll find that you really can’t go wrong with any of their tasty pastries.

Giant City State Park Lodge & Restaurant

Interior of Giant City State Park Lodge
Photo Provided by Carol Hoffman

Giant City State Park Lodge & Restaurant is a local favorite, famous for its delicious fried chicken dinners. If you want some comfort food after a day of outdoor adventures, it’s the perfect stop. 

Shawnee National Forest: Food at Giant City Lodge & Restaurant
Photo Provided by Carol Hoffman

Plus, they have a charming lodge to explore, including a great gift shop, and you can climb the nearby water tower for amazing views of the area.

Blue Sky Vineyard

Blue Sky Winery spread
Photo Provided by Carol Hoffman

Blue Sky Vineyard is an excellent spot to indulge in tasty wines and sangria in a lively setting. They’re famous for their music, pizza, and gorgeous scenery.

StarView Vineyards

StarView Vineyards is a fantastic spot to relax after a busy day, known for its enjoyable ambiance, live music, deck area, and tasty slushies.

Brick House Grill

Brick House Grill is a great spot for a hearty meal. They’re famous for their cozy atmosphere and tasty dishes like ribeye steak, linguini, and delicious bread pudding for dessert.

Shawnee National Forest FAQs

Woman sitting on a bench on a Nature Trail in Giant City
Photo Provided by Carol Hoffman

Here are the answers to a handful of frequently asked questions about Shawnee National Forest and the surrounding areas in southern Illinois. 

Is Shawnee National Forest worth visiting?

Shawnee National Forest is definitely worth a visit, thanks to its countless outdoor recreational activities and beautiful views.

What town is closest to Shawnee National Forest?

This depends on which direction you are coming from. Towns close to Shawnee National Forest include Anna, Carbondale, and Goreville

What is Shawnee National Forest known for?

Shawnee National Forest is known for its forested areas, rock formations, waterfalls, hiking, birding, and other outdoor recreational activities. 

What is the best part of Shawnee National Forest?

Garden of the Gods is the best part of Shawnee National Forest, known for its rock formations and surrounding treetop views. 

Do you have to pay to get into Shawnee National Forest?

You do not have to pay to get into Shawnee National Forest; it’s free to access. 

Can I make Shawnee National Forest a day trip?

You can definitely make a day trip to Shawnee National Forest. However, you won’t be able to explore the entire park because of its massive size of over 280,000 acres. 

Maps

Carol’s Shawnee National Forest Itinerary Map

Shawnee National Forest Map

Shawnee National Forest Country map
Photo Provided by Carol Hoffman

Giant City State Park Map

(Including Giant City State Park Trails)

Giant City State Park visitor map
Map from Illinois.gov, downloadable here.

Wrap-Up: Outdoorsy Things to Do in Shawnee National Forest

There’s plenty of excitement to be had when adventuring through Shawnee National Forest and the nearby areas. From exploring The Garden of the Gods to enjoying the adventure-packed Giant City State Park, outdoor enthusiasts will find endless fun, scenic views, and new experiences here.

With insights from locals like Carol, your time in southern Illinois is sure to be full of unforgettable moments.

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