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.