The Shawnee National Forest’s Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area draws crowds with its Observation Trail. Although you should include that 0.25-mile loop on your agenda, avoid the crowds and explore the 3,300-acre wilderness on this 4.6-mile loop that dips into forested canyons, skirts rugged cliffs, and peeks at an impressive arch carved into the 230-million-year-old sandstone.
This trail begins on the north side of the lower parking area and heads into the woods, passing Anvil Rock. You’ll turn west and within half a mile begin passing low, rough-textured sandstone formations alongside the path. The trail drops further into a verdant, sheer-sided canyon—ferns and mosses cling to the sides of the cliffs and cave-like overhangs—before beginning a mostly gradual climb out of Rocky Branch Hollow. Merge onto River to River Trail at mile 2.75. Cross the park road and walk alongside steep cliffs below the campground (allow extra time to expore off-trail cracks and canyons) before turning north and rounding a forested hillside to complete the loop.
Though spring rains add seasonal waterfalls to bottomland and cliff sections of this trail, autumn is also a great time to visit this area: fall colors and ripe persimmons line the trails.
-Mapped by Ted Villaire