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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Illinois' Shawnee National Forest

Exploring hills and "hollers" in the Land of Lincoln.

by: Larry Rice

PAGE 1 2

Contact Information:

Shawnee National Forest 901 S. Commercial St. Harrisburg, IL 618/253-7114

Illinois Department of Natural Resources Location: Shawnee is located in extreme southern Illinois, about 320 miles south of Chicago, 120 miles southeast of St.Louis and 60 miles southwest of Evansville, Indiana. Nearby towns include Harrisburg to the north, Marion and Carbondale to the east, and Rosiclare, Golconda, and Elizabethtown to the south.

Getting There: Interstate 57 goes south from Chicago straight to the heart of the forest, about 25 miles from Shawnee headquarters at Harrisburg.

Seasonal Information: Backpacking is great year-round. Spring means abundant wildflowers and full streams, and is one of the best times to visit. Autumn offers fall colors and ripe fruits, including persimmons. In winter, because hunting is allowed, check with the forest supervisor to avoid the peak of the season.

Warm days and cool nights make spring and autumn very comfortable. Summer can be oppressive, with temperatures often in the 90s or 100s, and humidity at 80 or 90 percent for weeks. Winter days can be mild, with a chance of freezing at night; snow and colder temperatures are always a possibility.

Wildlife: More than 20,000 whitetail deer roam the area, but Shawnee hasn't always had so many deer. In the 1920s, runaway hunting just about eliminated them. It took the establishment of the National Forest in 1933, along with restocking programs and natural migration from neighboring states, to bring the deer population back.

Other common species include turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, broad-winged hawk, bobwhite quail, wild turkey, great horned owl, pileated woodpecker, chuck-will's-widow, beaver, possum, raccoon, red and gray fox, bobcat, gray and fox squirrel, woodchuck, muskrat, and cottontail rabbit.

Brightly colored warblers and whippoorwills dart from branch to branch.

Insects: Insects are usually not a problem during any season, although deerflies can be bothersome in the summer.

Plant Life: In April, redbud, shadbush and the dogwoods are in full bloom. The ground is carpeted with wildflowers: trillium, bloodroot, spring beauty, sweet William, Dutchman's-breeches, jack-in-the-pulpit and shooting star.

The mix of trees in the forest provides an eye-filling autumn spectrum of color. Maple, gum, and dogwood produce the brilliant reds of fall. Beech trees dress in yellow as the days shorten. Oaks are scarlet-brown at he height of their glory, and pines sprinkle the palette with a dependable array of greens.

In some areas, moss and ferns make everything emerald green, even the cliffs.

Facilities: Camping is legal just about everywhere within the Shawnee. To find the most interesting wild spots, leave the trail and bushwhack into the interior. Carry a map and compass, and know how to use them.

For the less hardy, there are developed recreation areas, with fireplaces, tent pads, drinking water, and sanitary facilities. There is a maximum of eight campers to a site and a maximum of 14 days continuous use.

In the Garden of the Gods area in the Elizabethtown Ranger District (618/287-2201), campgrounds include Camp Cadiz, Pharaoh, Pine Ridge, and Tower Rock. Pharaoh Campground, the closest, offers drinking water and restrooms for $5 per night and is open all year.

Parking: Vehicles may be parked in designated parking lots within recreation areas and in wildlife clearings and road shoulders as long as ingress and egress will not take place under wet conditions.

Permits: No permits are required.

Policies: Campfires are permitted in backcountry areas, but only dead or downed wood may be used.

Pets must be kept on a leash and must stay out of water sources.

ORVs are prohibited.


  • There are copperheads and rattlesnakes, plus lots of poison ivy, which is especially troublesome from April through October.
  • Seasonal road closures are in effect from mid-December through the beginning of May; check with forest office.
  • Caution should be used because there are high cliffs in the area.

Leave No Trace: Special care must be taken with fires from February to April and in October and November, when wildfires are most common.

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps: Contact the Forest Service Office in Harrisburg, Illinois, and ask for their map list. Topos are $4.

Other Trip Options:

  • There are a number of state parks in the area, including Giant City (618/457-4836), Fern Cliff (618/995-2411), Dixon Springs (618/949-3394), and Cave-In-Rock (618/289-4545). Farther southeast is the Cache River State Natural Area.
  • The River to River Trail serves as the southern portion of the American Discovery Trail.
  • The 70-mile "Shawnee Hills on the Ohio Scenic Byway" winds and rolls its way through the state's most scenic countryside.

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May 17, 2010

Explore the Shawnee National Forest and surrounding area with professional guides! We offer year-round trips to many of Southern Illinois' fascinating and exciting areas. Let our experienced and friendly guides unlock the secrets to a true Southern Illinois adventure. We have classes and trips for all fitness and skill levels! Trips Offered: Rock Climbing, Rappelling, Backpacking, Hiking, Kayaking, Canoeing and more!


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