Rip and Go: Illinois - Shawnee National Forest, River to River Trail

See across the Prairie State from 320-million-year-old sandstone outcrops.
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See across the Prairie State from 320-million-year-old sandstone outcrops.

Do it Hidden among southern Illinois’s corn-laden plains, the 160-mile River to River Trail winds from the Ohio to the Mississippi through bayous, bluffs, and upland forests. Sample the goods on this 17.1-mile two-nighter (convenient to St. Louis, Nashville, and Indianapolis), which offers big, Appalachian Trail-esque views. After caching a gallon of water per person at the Garden of the Gods backpackers’ lot (for the first night’s dry camp), depart from the River to River (R2R) crossing on Eagle Creek Road (1). Hike 2.6 miles through stands of slender eastern white pines to the top of a 100-foot-tall sandstone outcropping (2) for views of the Garden of the Gods Wilderness covered in a tapestry of autumn yellows and oranges (starting in October). Survey the turkey vultures as they circle the hardwoods, and then continue 2.9 miles on the rocky trail to the Garden of the Gods (3), an out-of-place area of imposing, hoodoo-like sandstone bluffs. Slowly chiseled by wind and rain eons ago, the statuesque formations—named Camel Rock, Mushroom Rock, and Anvil Rock, among others—line the left side of the trail. Curl around the stone chimneys (take a .1-mile side trail on your right) to retrieve your cache. From the parking lot, retrace your steps down the side trail and head south on the Indiana Loop Trail to make camp at mile 5.8 (4) in a secluded, wooded area with wide-open eastern views, prime for a sunrise. Next morning, enter the Shawnee National Forest. In the small town of High Knob (5), top off your water (for night two’s dry camp) at a public-use spigot at the horse camp (mile 9.2). Gently ascend .7 mile to a paved road (6). Detour .1 mile north on the pavement to a set of concrete footholds that used to lead to the top of an old fire tower. Use the footings to climb to 360-degree views of the Shawnee’s rolling, hickory-carpeted hills. Back on the R2R, continue east, diving into the oak, hickory, and maple woods. Pass three small ponds and follow signs for Battery Rock at the Elizabethtown junction (7). Reach an unnamed hill at 15 miles, and set up camp (8) on a bare patch at the hill’s 770-foot pinnacle, under a small window in the canopy. Day three, descend 350 feet in 1.4 miles to a rocky creekbed (9) at the confluence of two dry arms of Beaver Creek, where you’ll enter an understory so thick you’ll need to shed the shades to see the trail. At mile 17.1, reemerge at the north end of Camp Cadiz (10), a small campground that was a Civilian Conservation Corps work camp in the mid-1900s. Turn right and walk to your shuttle car.

GET THERE From St. Louis, take I-64 east 140 miles to IL 142. Go 42 miles south to IL 13 and then 4.1 miles east to IL 1. Head 12.6 miles south to Cadiz.
SHUTTLE car Find locals happy to shuttle hikers to the trailhead at rivertorivertrail.com.
TRAILHEAD From Cadiz, drive west on Cadiz Rd. and continue onto Karbers Ridge Rd. In 6 miles, turn right onto IL 34. Veer right onto Gape Hollow Rd. to the trailhead.
GEAR UP Dunn’s Sporting Goods, 1904 W. Rendleman St., Marion, IL; (618) 997-3626; shopdunns.com
SEASON Fall offers turning leaves; avoid summer’s humidity and ticks.
CONTACT (618) 253-7114; fs.usda.gov/shawnee
PERMIT None Trip ID 2273106