11 Things to Do in Shawnee National Forest

Man enjoying his vacation in Shawnee National Forest.

Known for its breathtaking beauty, Shawnee National Forest is a popular place to visit because there’s so much to do. And because the climate is so agreeable, you can do them pretty much throughout the year. We’ve made a list of our favorite ways to pass the time at one of our favorite national forests. A word of warning before we get started: You just might be in bigfoot country, so be careful out there!

Where Is Shawnee National Forest? 

This incredible national forest spans the southernmost part of Illinois. Missouri lies to the west, just across the Mississippi River, with Kentucky to the east, on the other side of the Ohio River. The cities of Carbondale and Harrisburg are each less than 30 miles from Shawnee National Forest. Cape Girardeau, Missouri, is just 12 miles away, and Paducah, Kentucky, is 18 miles down the road.

Why Should You Visit Shawnee National Forest? 

You can explore 289,000 acres of diverse forest lands between two mighty rivers that include some incredible rock formations. The place has a rich history, and you can get an up-close look at remnants from different eras. 

You can find plenty of recreational opportunities on the water and land, including more than 400 miles of hiking trails. You can even take a path that stretches from river to river. Shawnee’s sprawling landscape includes lush woodlands, rolling hills, sensitive wetlands, and picturesque rivers, lakes, and streams. You can also experience the diverse terrain by motoring along two different scenic byways.

While Shawnee National Forest has a remote feel in many places, you can stop by numerous quaint towns and communities in the vicinity. It’s in a prime location, where the Midwest meets the South. You’ll have easy access to several interstate highways and plentiful accommodations. 

Camper parked along the forest tree line in Shawnee National Forest.

When’s the Best Time to Visit Shawnee National Forest? 

With fairly mild weather, it’s possible to enjoy Shawnee National Forest almost any time of the year. You can visit in the fall when it’s not too hot and not cold, though it can get nippy at night. Additionally, the forest is even more beautiful as the leaves start to change colors. Also, with fewer leaves on the trees, you can get a better view of the magnificent cliffs and rock formations.

11 Things to Do in Shawnee National Forest 

Are you ready to tour this fantastic place? Get your camera ready as we walk you through Shawnee National Forest’s top attractions.

1. Grab a Selfie with Sasquatch 

Sasquatch is a female, and she has a name: Sassy. Unlike the real-life counterparts that some people believe exist in these very woods, she will stick around for a photo. In these parts, getting your picture made with Sassy the Sasquatch is like a rite of passage. You’ll find her standing patiently by the road that leads to and from another of the forest’s main attractions.

2. Tramp Through Rim Rock

The Rim Rock Recreational Trail in Shawnee National Forest takes you over and through incredible rock formations similar to the slot canyons you find in Utah. This southern Illinois version has stunning sandstone structures surrounded by dense foliage and wildflowers. Of the two trails here, the lower one has steeper inclines.

Rim Rock protruding from the Shawnee National Forest canopy.

3. Check Out the Garden of the Gods 

These unique sandstone formations are probably the forest’s most popular feature, and for a good reason. The Garden of the Gods is the scenic centerpiece of this busy hiking and camping area. You can hike 5.5 miles of trails surrounding the Garden of the Gods or the quarter-mile observation trail. 

Our favorite description of these unusual outcroppings comes from a Nashville writer who visited recently. “It looks like a giant-sized toddler was playing with boulders and left them stacked and strewn all around the wilderness,” said Steven Hale from the Nashville Scene. 

4. Walk Inside the Iron Furnace 

Visit the Iron Furnace historic site located in the Shawnee National Forest. This intriguing rock formation built from local limestone blocks stands 32-ft-tall. It was built in 1837 to manufacture iron, which came to use for weaponry during the Civil War. Back in the day, it burned charcoal to temperatures of around 3,000 degrees. Don’t worry; it’s had plenty of time to cool — it hasn’t operated since 1887.

Young woman exploring one of the many caves in Shawnee National Forest.

5. Visit the American Fluorite Museum 

Do you know what fluorite is? Besides being Illinois’ state mineral, it’s a naturally occurring crystal important to steelmaking, ceramics, and fluoride production. You can learn a lot more about it by touring the American Fluorite Museum. At one time, this was the largest fluorspar mining operation in the country, located on Main Street in the town of Rosiclare. You won’t find this oddball attraction anywhere else.

6. Enjoy Water Activities at Pounds Hollow 

See towering bluffs from the water at the 25-acre Pounds Hollow Lake. You can swim, kayak or canoe, or drop a line for catfish, bass, or bream. This rustic day-use area is also an ideal site for a picnic lunch. If you may even score a spot in the pavilion that overlooks the beach.

Woman enjoying her time kayaking down the river on vacation.

7. Squeeze into Ox-Lot Cave 

Come visit Ox-Lot Cave in the same area known as Karbers Ridge. Taking the rock stairway to view this rock shelter won’t be easy. You may have a tight squeeze moving through Fat Man’s Misery. This is the name given to the narrow passageway to the cave.

8. Take a Scenic Drive

You can see lots of things through your windshield. Shawnee National Forest has two different scenic routes. One of them, on the east side of the forest, crisscrosses the Hidden Springs District. The other, to the west, is known as the Mississippi Bluffs District. You can take in the beautiful scenery from the road from cypress swamps, fertile farmland to limestone bluffs.

9. Experience Cave-In-Rock State Park 

It’s not hard to figure out how this place got its name, and one glance confirms it. Water hollowed out a natural cavern in a large boulder on the banks of the Ohio River thousands of years ago. This historic landmark provided shelter for pioneers heading west and a place where pirates and outlaws holed up. Enjoy the view from the rugged bluff and walk the winding riverfront trails to explore this 200-acre state park.

Cave that was hollowed out by one of the many rivers located in the area.

10. Ride the Cave-In-Rock Ferry 

Take an opportunity to float over to Kentucky while you visit Shawnee National Forest. Taking a ferry boat across the Ohio River and back will give you an even better look at Cave-In-Rock. It might also create a lifetime memory for you and the kiddos. The free ferry ride runs every 15 minutes around the clock, seven days a week.

11. Hike to Jackson Falls or Burden Falls 

Relax to the soothing sound of cascading water at Jackson or Burden Falls. Many people enjoy rock climbing, bouldering, and rappelling in the area. Jackson Falls is near the town of Ozark, while Burden Falls is closer to Eddyville. Both of these moderate hikes have a fairly short distance to the falls.

Plan Your Visit to Shawnee National Forest 

Are you looking for lots of things to do outdoors? Head toward southern Illinois and take advantage of what some call a national treasure. There’s so much to do in and around this place that we could have made a list twice as long. What are your favorite activities at Shawnee National Forest?

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