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Top 10 Fun FREE Things to do near Garden of the Gods, IL

Top 10 Fun FREE Things to do near Garden of the Gods, IL

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!

1509_GardenOfTheGods_148

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.

Cave-In-Rock from the beach on the Ohio River

Cave-In-Rock from the beach on the Ohio River

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.

Cave-In-Rock Pirate's Lair

Cave-In-Rock Pirate’s Lair

Cave-In-Rock

Cave-In-Rock

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.

Garden of the Gods Rock Formations enhance the view across the wilderness.

Garden of the Gods Rock Formations enhance the view across the wilderness.

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.

Top of Burden Falls ... literally dry. The tallest waterfall in Illinois, but not this fall day!

Top of Burden Falls … literally dry. The tallest waterfall in Illinois, but not this fall day!

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.

Natural Arch at Bell Smith Springs

Natural Arch at Bell Smith Springs

David walks across the Natural Bridge - it's easy to miss and close to the trailhead, so be on the lookout!

David walks across the Natural Bridge – it’s easy to miss and close to the trailhead, so be on the lookout!

5.  Hike Bell Smith Springs trails – there are three main trails.  If you’re in a hurry, do not miss the Natural Bridge!

The stone stairway leading out of the gorge from the Natural Bridge.

The stone stairway leading out of the gorge from 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.

Hiking the old Grist Mill Trail - Hill Branch Trail.

Hiking the old Grist Mill Trail – Hill Branch Trail.

Hill Branch Trail

Hill Branch Trail

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.

Hill Branch Trail

Hill Branch Trail

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.   🙂

Petroglyph Rock at Millstone Branch Trail - look closely in the upper mid-left section of the photo by a leaf, you'll see the top of the Phoenix' head, then follow it down and you can barely make out the wings and tail feathers among the lichens.

Petroglyph Rock at Millstone Branch Trail – look closely in the upper mid-left section of the photo by a leaf, you’ll see the top of the Phoenix’ head, then follow it down and you can barely make out the wings and tail feathers among the lichens.

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.

Fat Man's Squeeze wasn't all that tight...

Fat Man’s Squeeze wasn’t all that tight…

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!

SmoresOnTheCampfire

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) …

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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

    10 Comments

  1. Using this as a guide for our trip there next weekend!! Thanks so much for posting!

  2. Went on a trip to Shawnee National Forest with two kids (7 and 11). Used your suggestions as a guide. They loved Garden of the Gods, which was our original destination. Rock-in-Cave was also a hit, which we owe to you. Ironically, they were most excited about Rim of the Rock and Fat Man’s Squeeze when I showed them pictures beforehand, but they didn’t like that trail very much for some reason. Just wanted to say thanks for posting – it was a useful guide for our road trip.

    • Thanks! Interesting that the kids didn’t enjoy the Rim of the Rock and Fat Man’s Squeeze trail. Did they enjoy the chocolate shop or did you run across it? 🙂
      Cheers & THANKS again! Jan

      • Didn’t see a chocolate shop, but we each made our own trail mix to take with us (it’s a family tradition), so they already had ample chocolate with them. I think my kids don’t enjoy hiking for its own sake but as a means to arrive at some spectacular natural display, which the other two places delivered on. They found walking down to a riverbed to be “boring” and complained they were expecting to see more narrow canyons and passageways. When I’ve taken them to Starved Rock, they were similarly bored and whining until we reached the waterfalls. But this is not a complaint, just an answer to your question. Again, your post was great. Both the pictures and the text helped me plan our trip to the area well.

  3. Went to Garden of the Gods Observation Trail and it was pretty cool.

    • Are the leaves turning down there yet? We’re thinking of driving down this week. THANKS! Jan

      • Leaves are turning, going there today

        • Lucky you! We’re waxing our trailer. But we get to leave for the winter in T-minus 7 days! Chasing the sun! Enjoy Garden of the Gods! Cheers — Jan

  4. my oh my oh my oh my oh my. Shawnee…my oh my oh my!

  5. We’ll alter our route to cross the Ohio by ferry on our way south.

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