There is no better way to introduce your kids to the wonders of nature than to take them on a journey that immerses them into the woods, where the sounds, scents and overwhelmingly beautiful scenery can connect them to the earth in ways that are both invigorating and restorative.

(That means it’s good for parents who need to relax and for the kids, who need to let off some steam!)

Such trips are also unforgettable, and will leave indelible memories of the crunch of leaves beneath their feet, the aroma of pine and the sound of birds singing from tree branches above.

And if you’re planning a trip to Illinois’s beautiful Shawnee National Forest – a 280,000-acre home to waterfalls, unusual sandstone rock formations, swimming holes and trees lush with leaves that will help everyone keep their cool on a hot summer day or will dazzle with bursts of color in autumn – we’ve got you covered.

Whether you’re interested in hiking, swimming or waking up in a cabin to enjoy a cup of coffee surrounded by woods (the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee is somehow always better outside), Shawnee has it, and it will help your kids learn to enjoy and respect the great outdoors – one of the best environmental lessons you can teach them. Best of all, they won’t even realize that they’re learning. It will just be an unforgettable, innate part of them that will linger, long after you leave. That’s the ultimate beauty that nature has to offer.

So, let’s take a look at how you can spend a day, a weekend or longer at Illinois’s Shawnee National Forest.

Family friendly hikes

There are many miles of hiking trails at Shawnee, including the 160-mile River to River Trail, but for a nice afternoon hike that is suitable for kids, we’ve selected some that have adventures around nearly every curve.

Rim Rock National Recreational Trail

This scenic trail has plenty of highlights, including a wooden staircase, unique rock formations and two ways to get back to the parking lot, the paved upper trail or the dirt lower trail, which includes the historic Ox-lot Cave, a rock overhang where loggers in the 19th century protected their horses and oxen. There are interpretive signs throughout, and special features including the remnants of a stone wall built by Native Americans as well as an observation deck and plantation built as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) work relief program that was part of FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s.

Pounds Hollow Recreation Area

This secluded spot features a 25-acre lake with a sand beach ideal for swimming, as well as spots for picnics including a large shelter built as part of the CCC program, fishing (the lake has largemouth bass, sunfish and catfish), limited boating, tent and small trailer camping and hiking. Just above Pounds Hollow is Pine Ridge Campground, which has 35 campsites – 13 with electricity and 22 without. Each site has a picnic table and campfire ring with a grill, and water is available at the campground entrance.

Cave-In-Rock State Park

This history-filled park – it was featured in a scene in the movie “How the West Was Won” – features a hike to a limestone rock cave with a fantastic view of the Ohio River – and some villainous pirate history that will entertain kids of all ages. Discovered by a French explorer, the cave became a lair for one Samuel Mason – a former general for President George Washington – after the Revolutionary War, who turned the cavern into a tavern called Cave-In-Rock, where he and his gang lured hapless settlers hoping for libation, only to rob or kill them. Later use of the cave was just as dastardly, and well worth a visit to find out more.

Iron Furnace Historic Site

The only remaining iron furnace structure in the state, this site offers a look at how iron was manufactured using charcoal in a furnace constructed of rock quarried near Cave-In-Rock as well as brick from Pennsylvania. Along with history lessons, the historic site features three old-fashioned swimming holes and a short hike to a picnic area with bottomland habitat.

Garden of the Gods Recreation Area

While this majestic hike is the park’s most popular trail – the quarter-mile trek takes about an hour to walk – it can also be dangerous, so families should stick close together, especially when walking along the trail’s 120-foot cliffs. Garden of the Gods features amazing vistas and rock formations named Camel Rock, Table Rock and Devil’s Smokestack, which make them virtually impossible to resist. The trail can be challenging, so there are benches for breaks, or just to take in the gorgeous surroundings of this mysteriously beautiful place quite deserving of its name.

Family lodging


If waking up to the aroma of coffee and bacon is your idea of an ideal morning, the camping sites at Shawnee National Forest are made for you. Surrounded by trees, sites are secluded, but take advantage of the nearby swimming areas, because most campgrounds offer no shower facilities.

Tent camping

There are several different campsites within Shawnee National Forest, including:
  • Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area: This lovely part of the forest offers canyons with sandstone cliffs and streams, hidden springs as well as an interconnected trail system (trails are eight miles, so make sure everyone is set for a few hours of hiking before you set out, or plan a place to turn around) lined by the rock formations and a natural rock bridge, all of which what make this forest something distinctly special. There are 21 campsites suitable for both tent or small RVs.
  • Lake Glendale Recreation Center: Set in the center of Shawnee National Forest, Lake Glendale features a large picnic shelter with grills, swimming, boating (the lake includes a boat ramp), fishing, hiking, bicycle trails and camping. At Oak Point Campground, there are 34 campsites with electricity and 59 sites without, all suitable for tents or RVs. There are picnic tables at each site, and the campground offers showers and flush toilets.
  • Pine Ridge Campground: Part of Pounds Hollow Recreation Center, Pine Ridge is located above the lake, and has 13 campsites with electricity and 42 sites without. Each site has a picnic table, fire pit and a lantern pole.
  • Pharaoh’s Campground: Part of Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, this campground features 12 campsites with picnic tables, fire rings with grills, drinking water and toilet facilities.
  • Camp Cadiz Campground: The site of a CCC work camp, this campground is “off the beaten path,” according to the forest website, and the campground is rarely full unless it is hunting season, making it ideal for those who love taking in the serenity of nature more privately. Each site includes a picnic table and a fire ring.

RV camping

Shawnee offers several sites for RV camping as well, including:
  • Oak Point Campground: Part of Lake Glendale Recreation Center, Oak Point is suitable for large RV campers. There are 34 sites with electricity and 59 sites without. Sites include picnic tables and fire pits. Other amenities include a boat ramp at Lake Glendale.
  • Tower Rock Campground: Fishing and boating are available at this campground, located along the Ohio River. It is only open to pop-up campers and small trailer campers.
  • Bell Smith Springs Recreation Center: There are 21 sites suitable for tents, pop-up campers or small RVs. As with all the campgrounds, sites are first-come, first-served.
  • Garden of the Gods Recreation Center: Pharaoh’s Campground has 12 campsites that are suitable for pop-up campers and RVs.
  • Pine Ridge Campground: Pop-up campers and small RVs are also welcome at Pine Ridge, located above Pounds Hollow Lake and part of Pounds Hollow Recreation Center.
  • Shawnee Forest Campground: Open year-round, this campground features 60 large RV sites with water, sewer and electricity at each site, which also have fire rings and picnic tables. The campground features new bathhouses and laundry facilities. For more information, visit.


Shawnee Forest Cabins

These rustic, welcoming log cabins located in the heart of Shawnee National Forest feature one-bedroom cabins with hot tubs – a must after day-long hikes – as well as two-bedroom cabins, each ideal for a relaxing getaway. The closest cabins to Garden of the Gods Recreation Center – and down the road from both Pounds Hollow Recreation Center and Rim Rock hiking trail, Shawnee Forest Cabins are packed with amenities. Each cabin features air conditioning and heat, a fireplace, high-speed Wi-Fi, a DVD player and satellite TV – just in case it rains – a microwave, coffee maker and toaster as well as cooking utensils along with a fire pit and a charcoal grill, so you can make burgers, steaks or even pop popcorn the old-fashioned way over a fire, then watch a movie and relax after a day of hiking some of the most beautiful areas in Illinois. Cabins also feature full-size sleeper sofas. Shawnee Forest Cabins are located at 745 Garden of the Gods, Herod, IL. For more information, visit. or call (618) 751-9926.

Willowbrook Cabins

These luxurious two- and three-bedroom cabins have all the amenities you need, including a full bath, a washer and dryer, central heat and air and in some cases, a hot tub off a shaded porch to help ease away any soreness from your day’s hike. Willowbrook is found near Shawnee sites including Millstone Bluff Petroglyphs, Burden Falls, Jackson Falls, Lusk Creek Canyon, Sand Cave, Bell Smith Springs and other great hiking trails. Each cabin offers Wi-Fi and cable in case of rain, as well a fire pit and a charcoal grill so you can cook camping-inspired meals and relax after a day spent at Shawnee National Forest. Willowbrook Cabins are located at 610 Eddyville Blacktop Road, Golconda, IL. For more information, click here or call (618) 672-4815.


While there are no motels close to the best day hiking trails at Shawnee National Forest, there are some spots to stay in Harrisburg, which is 30 miles away.

There are three motels in Harrisburg, including:

The Quality Inn

100A E. Seright St, Harrisburg.

It features free Wi-Fi and an indoor pool.

(618) 252-2442

Super 8 by Wyndham

100 E. Seright St. Harrisburg

include free Wi-Fi and breakfast.

(618) 715-2033

Economy Inn & Suites

411 E. Poplar St., Harrisburg.

Amenities include free Wi-Fi and breakfast.

(618) 253-7651

Staying safe

While Shawnee National Forest is home to wild animals – there are some deer, turkeys and other small animals – there are no mountain lions or large predators, so if you take safety precautions – if you’re camping, keep your food put away to prevent attracting wild things – there is no need to worry about four-legged animals.

As for predators – all rarities, by the way –  there are coyotes as well as three venomous snakes – copperheads, rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, but they are usually spooked by loud noises, and most families make enough noise that you will be unlikely to run across any of them.

Ticks are a problem in any wooded setting, but use a bug spray with DEET and inspect all the family members after a hike.

If anyone in your family should become injured – bee stings are possible – the nearest hospital is Harrisburg Medical Center, which has a 24-hour emergency room. You can also call 911, but be prepared to give your exact location or nearest landmark.

Rainy day things to do

If it rains – and Wi-Fi isn’t keeping the kids entertained, here are some fun activities:

Showplace Cinemas

701 N. Commercial St., Harrisburg.

This multiplex features bargain matinees.

Ross Cottom Lanes

bowling alley, 2080 N, US-45, Harrisburg.

Cave-In-Rock ferry

This free ferry crosses the Ohio River between Illinois and Kentucky from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

Waterfall hikes

Both Jackson Falls and Burden Falls are ideal hikes that will help you better get to know Shawnee National Forest, even during the rain.

Where to eat

While there are fast-food restaurants in Harrisburg if your kids can’t live without burgers and fries – McDonald’s, KFC, Sonic and Subway are among the mix – for a vacation, there are other places to find more unique food closer to your campsite or trail of choice.

  • Harbison’s County Market, Herod: This small gas station offers hand-dipped ice cream, deli sandwiches. daily lunch specials. and traditional gas station snacks. “It’s like a country store right out of a movie,” says Doug DeVore of Shawnee Forest Cabins.
  • Diver Down, Golconda: This spot features great burgers, steaks, homemade onion rings and a bar that serves ice-cold beer after a hot summer hike.
  • Morello’s Restaurant, Harrisburg: This Italian-American spot features a wine list, cocktails, beer, items from the grill, a lovely selection of pasta dishes and soups and salads.
  • Steam Café, Harrisburg: This coffee shop also features a great breakfast list including pancakes, chicken and waffles, biscuits and gravy and much more.

Other things to know

  • Stock up before camping or hiking: Walmart in Harrisburg has the supplies you need, including propane tanks for lanterns and other items.
  • Get gas before you get to the forest: Fuel up in Harrisburg before heading in for your hike. Gas stations are located throughout the forest, but many close early.
  • Don’t count on your cell phone: Verizon offers the best coverage. Other services aren’t as reliable. AT&T is the least favorable.
  • If you bring it in, please take it out: As with any natural space, we want to keep our national treasures scenic for years to come.

Before you go

Any mom with her own love of nature will know that it most likely developed in childhood. That’s why a trip to somewhere as scenic and diverse as Shawnee National Forest is a great place for families to visit.

There are so many options that it will be easy to fill even long summer days, and kids will be much better for the rewarding family experience.

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