Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Garden of the Gods Illinois
“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. Garden of the Gods is 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 Shawnee National Forest 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.
Day two Gain the ridge and continue west for 3.3 miles to Concord Cemetery, a pioneer-era graveyard. After 4.5 miles, you’ll descend into Lusk Creek Canyon, which is walled in by 100-foot bluffs. Stash your pack to sidehike two miles south along the creek to a sharp left curve. Here, a collapsed stone wall and narrow trail lead to Indian Kitchen, a large niche in the rocks 100 feet above the stream believed to be an ancient Shawneee cooking area. “You could spend a whole day here just exploring all of the side canyons,” notes John Heneghan. Head back to the main trail and turn left for the 4.3-mile stroll back to the Lusk Creek trailhead.
Driving From St. Louis, take I-64 east for 75 miles to I-57, then head south for 43 miles to exit 54A. Take IL 13 east for 24 miles to IL 34; go south for 15 miles to a left on Karber’s Ridge Rd. and the Garden of the Gods parking area.
Map and Guide USGS quads: Herod, Eddyville ($9, store.usgs.gov); River-to-River Trail Guide ($20; rivertorivertrail.com)
Contact (618) 253-7114, fs.fed.us/r9/forests/shawnee