Little-Known Fact: Shawnee National Forest is the largest chunk of public land in Illinois.
Tucked away at the foot of Illinois is a land that defies stereotypes of the Midwest; a land of wooded hollows, rolling hills, rock escarpments and plentiful wildlife. It’s called the Shawnee National Forest.
It was an April morning when we arrived at the visitor center, and most of the Midwest was still cold and dreary. Not Shawnee. Trees and wildflowers were already bursting with color. Birds seemed to be flitting everywhere. Since it was Thursday, we would be avoiding the weekend visitors, and as we looked around at the empty parking lot, it was clear we would have the trails to ourselves.
I was with Tim McEnery, a longtime “holler rat” who’s been clambering about in the Shawnee for years. Tim’s familiar with two of the forest’s greatest spots: the Garden of the Gods, an area of hidden canyons and unusual, animal-like boulders; and Jackson Hollow, with cliffs, forests and waterfalls that are just as dramatic but more secluded.
Eight miles of interconnected loop trails wind through the Garden of the Gods ~ not enough for a major trip, but plenty for what we had in mind. We hadn’t gone far before Tim held up his hand, motioning me to stop. “Up there,” he pointed. “Four deer are behind those trees.” Deer might not rank with herds of white rhinos or flocks of whooping cranes as exotic sightings, but they still make me smile. Only problem was it took me some time to figure out exactly which trees Tim was talking about. The only glimpse I caught was of pennant-like white tails disappearing deeper into the woods.
The vegetation grew denser and more tangled as we hiked through and along rocky streams, beside 80-foot cliffs, and past an old settler’s homestead marked only by a rock cistern and day lilies. I started feeling a little lost, but was told that’s not possible here: All the trails lead back to the parking area.
I noticed that Tim kept staring at his feet. Looking for wildflowers, I presumed. “Also snakes,” he mentioned later, as though it were hardly worth noting. “It’s still early in the year, but on a warm day like this, copperheads and rattlesnakes sun themselves on the trail. A lot of folks down here like snakes. The Forest Service even closes a major road for about a month each spring to allow snakes to migrate without being run over.
Tim led on to a bend in the trail, then suddenly disappeared into the forest. We soon wandered into a sunlit glen, complete with a gurgling creek and 80-foot sandstone walls.
“Well, this is it,” Tim beamed. “Little hideaways like this are scattered throughout the Shawnee. The trail is only 100 yards away, but in here, it feels more like 100 miles.”
We picked a campsite, and spent the afternoon and the following day bushwhacking, bouldering, and checking out the plants and wildlife. Even when we couldn’t find birds with binoculars, we could sometimes identify them by their songs.
On our final nights in the Garden of the Gods, we snuggled in our bivouac bags, watching the sky. Shooting stars streaked far overhead, while a whippoorwill sang. Tomorrow, we would visit Jackson Hollow.
An avid rock-climber, Tim conned me into rappelling into Jackson Hollow, a wide ravine hemmed in by steep cliffs. (The conventional way, of course, is to hike in.) As Tim chirped words of encouragement, I clipped in and backed off the edge. Seventy feet below lay the dark forest, secretive and remote looking. It was like diving into the ocean ~ I even hit bottom gasping for air. As soon as I unclipped, our two packs followed, then Tim. With a grin, he asked if I’d like to do it again. I hadn’t even wanted to do it the first time.
We started out hiking along a shallow, rock-bottomed creek, looking for its source. Jackson Hollow is one of the countless ravines and gorges that cross the narrow part of southern Illinois. Like the Ozarks to the south, the Shawnee was once part of a lowland plain that slowly emerged from the sea. As the land gradually rose, the streams that flowed over it cut deep valleys and narrow canyons, until only those rocks that were hard enough to resist erosion remained in the form of knobs, ridges and steep walls.
For the rest of that day and all of the next, we hiked through this little-known, two-square-mile area. There were only a handful of other people ~ climbers, mostly ~ despite the perfect weekend weather.
We laid our bags under a towering sandstone overhang, its walls stained red, brown and yellow from years of mineral-rich seepage. On the ground nearby, we found some old bits of charcoal, and farther under our protective roof, we discovered what appeared to be a crude stone tool. Indians had used this shelter some 2,000 years ago, cherishing the way the south-facing rock caught the sun and the overhang kept out all but sideways rain.
Our time in the Shawnee was almost over. Come morning, we had to head home. Tim fell asleep quickly, but I couldn’t. My mind was too full of plans to return. The forests of southern Illinois may not be as wild as when Indians roamed them, but for backcountry lovers, they’re some of the best.