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
Rim Rock National Recreational Trail
Pounds Hollow Recreation Area
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
Garden of the Gods Recreation Area
- 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.
- 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. www.shawneeforestcampground.com.
CABINS NEAR THE SHAWNEE NATIONAL FOREST
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. Shawneeforestcabins.com or call (618) 751-9926.
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.
HOTELS NEAR THE SHAWNEE NATIONAL FOREST
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.
Super 8 by Wyndham
100 E. Seright St. Harrisburg
include free Wi-Fi and breakfast.
Economy Inn & Suites
411 E. Poplar St., Harrisburg.
Amenities include free Wi-Fi and breakfast.
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:
701 N. Commercial St., Harrisburg.
This multiplex features bargain matinees.
Ross Cottom Lanes
bowling alley, 2080 N, US-45, Harrisburg.
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.
- Mackie’s Pizza, Harrisburg: This spot is a local favorite, and features pizza, salads, appetizers, toasted sandwiches, and pasta.
- 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.
- The E-Town River Restaurant, Elizabethtown: Burgers and fish are highlights at this relaxing restaurant that floats on the Ohio River.
- 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.