Garden of the Gods is not only in Colorado! There’s lots of free fun to be had in the Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest, southern ILLINOIS!
1. Ride the free ferry from Cave-In-Rock to the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. One way trip takes about 15 minutes. Be sure to watch as the ferry lands and the 1st Mate lassos the cleats with chain! He told us his record was 44 times in one day!
Also be sure to watch as the ferry leaves – it’s a barge with a tugboat attached with a swivel. If you’re inclined when you get to the KY side, drive up to Amish country – supposedly an 8-10 mile drive. Or be like us and just get back in line to ride the ferry back across.
2. Aaarrrggggg matey! Pretend you’re a pirate in the early 1800’s and explore the cave from which you terrorized the Ohio River at Cave-In-Rock. Or if you prefer, take it all in from the movie buff perspective – part of the original “How The West Was Won” was shot at the cave.
It’s an easy walk and a bigger cave than we anticipated! The natural hole in the top allows fresh air and light – plus smoke to escape back in the day.
3. Walk the Garden of the Gods Observation Trail for the scenic overview of the rock formations and Shawnee National Forest/Garden of the Gods Wilderness.
4. Enjoy a waterfall at Burden Falls, Jackson Falls or Fern Clyffe Falls, but make sure there’s water before you go – there was literally NO water over Burden Falls when we went in the fall. We assumed “no” water actually meant a trickle, but were mistaken.
5. Hike Bell Smith Springs trails – there are three main trails. If you’re in a hurry, do not miss the Natural Bridge!
6. Fill up your water bottles at Dixon Springs State Park – home of the best tasting water in the world according to locals.
7. Go looking for the old Grist Mill on the National Forest Service hiking trail map for Hill Branch Trail (Bell Smith Springs area). Unless you’re luckier than us, you won’t find any evidence of the Old Grist Mill, but the scenic riverbed and creek is worth the little over a mile walk.
8. Take the short hike to find the petroglyphs on Mill Stone Point of Interest on the map. The bluff top trail has interpretive signs telling you about what you’re seeing – those depressions in the ground are the remains of woodland native american homes and the reason there’s no trees growing in a large area in the otherwise dense forest is because the area was heavily used as the “town square” and trees don’t grow in such compacted soil — oh, and there’s the petroglyph rock. 🙂
9. Rim Rock Trail – with its “Fat Man’s Squeeze” rock formation was one of the best trails we hiked, a don’t miss. It’s between Garden of the Gods and Pounds Hollow, where if it’s hot, I understand you can take a dip in the lake.
10. After a day of exploring, relax staring into the flames of your campfire. And if, in the unlikely event, the fire fails to mesmerize you all evening, look up. The stars are pretty spectacular in the middle of nowhere too! You may have to walk a bit to find a clearing where you can see the sky for the trees, but it’s so worth it!
OK, so it’s not free, but at $1.41 for a “small” cup of ice cream (generous scoops), a stop at The Chocolate Factory, directly across from the Dixon Springs State Park entrance is not a bad treat after a day of hiking!
And one more thought from the National Forest Service (signs at Bell Smith Springs trailhead) …
Enjoy! What have I missed? We only had time to explore the eastern half of the Shawnee National Forest area, no trips to the wineries, or Fern Clyffe State Park or Giant City for supposedly the best fried chicken in the world (and a nice state park too…) or …. Please leave a comment and share! Cheers! Jan