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Backpacker Magazine – January/February 2010

Readers' Choice Midwest Hikes: Garden of the Gods to Lusk Creek Canyon, Shawnee NF, IL

Hike the River-to-River Trail over rugged ridges, through narrow canyons, and into small caves.

by: Midwest Reader Map Team

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Garden of the Gods to Lusk Creek Canyon, Shawnee FL, IL (Terry Donnelly)
Garden of the Gods to Lusk Creek Canyon, Shawnee FL, IL (Terry Donnelly)

See which other trips made it into our annual awards.

Nachusa Grasslands, IL | Aurora Borealis - Isle Royale NP, MI |Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, OK | Effigy Mounds National Monument, IA | Ice Age Trail, WI | Garden of the Gods to Lusk Creek  Canyon - Shawnee NF, IL

“Unlike most of the region, which was scoured smooth by glaciers or seas, this area has been untouched by land-leveling forces,” says John Trilik. It’s also a spot that defies preconceptions of the Midwest as a featureless lowland. You’ll find canyons, creeks, and cliffs on this 23.4-mile point-to-point on the American Discovery Trail. Indeed, our panel chose this hike for its myth-bustingly rugged beauty—and solitude. 

Day one In the Garden of the Gods parking lot, grab your pack (and your blaze orange: whitetails abound here, and hunting season runs from October to January), and hike north on the Wilderness Trail for a one-mile weave through the Garden of the Gods, a sprawling area where high, castellated bluffs open to astounding views over Illinois’s southern prairie (yes, there’s grassland here, too). After .25 mile, Anvil Rock’s signature, top-heavy shape appears. Turn left to pass boulders called Mushroom Rock and Noah’s Ark before rejoining the main trail.

The rocks here are colored with swirling red and brown designs, formed by the slow leaching of iron ores out of the limestone. Turn left .25 mile later onto the River-to-River Trail and hike 1.5 miles past a rock formation called Big H (yes, it is shaped like an H). From here, you’ll pass a series of small caves and overhangs—hikers still find arrowheads from the native Shawnee here—and a few shallow streams along rolling terrain. After 10.9 miles, the trail squeezes into One Horse Gap, a narrow channel in the bedrock. Slide through two leaning boulders, then set up camp, just beyond where the gorge widens, under the 50-foot-tall rock overhang with a trickling waterfall.

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Reader Rating: -


Aug 24, 2012

I'm a little confused... is the Lusk Creek Trailhead where I left my car?

Mitch Irish
May 02, 2011

Backpacked this trip within the last week. Gorgeous country, but the trails are very poorly marked in the Lusk Creek area and Indian Kitchen is not off of the River to River trail. I believe you have to branch off of the R2R onto trail 425 after the Little Bear Creek river crossing (which is susceptible to flash flooding...)If you follow the R2R past the crossing, it will drop you out onto Little Bear Creek Rd, not Indian Kitchen. Other than that, views are incredible, trails are nearly vacant of other people, natural water is easily accessed throughout this hike, and there are some awesome campsites along the way. The horse rider's backwoods camp area just off to the southwest of One Horse Gap has an amazing view from the bluffs. Trails in Lusk Creek area are very tore up from horses and water erosion. Especially around the Owl Nest Bluff area. Very muddy and slick after rains. Little Bear Creek rose from knee deep to chest deep overnight on us. Was told by a local that to the north is the old River to River trail crossing for that river and it is much more mild and safe.

Midwest Hiker
Mar 09, 2011

Be advised that Lusk Creek can rise rapidly:

Nov 19, 2010

Anyone know if there is re-fill water on this hike??

jay durbin
Mar 13, 2010

hiked this hike from bald knob to lusk creek over ten years ago and it was an outstanding hike. few sections trce travel along roads, but most of it is inside the forest. sandstone formations are everywhere, making a walk thru rocks size of small cars to 120'cliffs, almost from start to finish!


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