Best Trails to Hike in Shawnee National Forest (Featuring Hiking Experts)

It’s no question that Shawnee National Forest is a big draw for both tourists and locals alike. With over 250,000 acres of beautiful land to explore, it can be overwhelming to decide where to go hiking! That’s why we’ve asked expert hikers of Shawnee National Forest to chime in on what trails to hike and what to see.

Leigh Wilson:

Leigh Wilson is the founder of the “Campfires & Concierge“, a blog that details the U.S. and International destinations, sharing her personal adventures. My travels have taken me to 49 states (Rhode Island is coming soon!), 32 U.S. National Parks and 11 different countries.


Kid-Friendly Hike: The hike to Pomona Natural Bridge is the perfect family-friendly hike in Shawnee National Forest. The trail itself is less than 1/2 a mile to reach the bridge, and it’s not particularly steep or challenging. There are streams along the valley floor where kids (or dogs!) can splash and have fun.

Most Challenging Hike: For me, hiking with a dog, I found the most challenging hike to be the Little Grand Canyon hike. Although it’s only three miles round trip, we weren’t able to complete the loop because parts of it were just too steep with a dog. You really needed both hands for a bit of scrambling.

Leigh’s 3 Most Instagrammable Spots: My top 3 spots for the most Instagram scenes would have to be the

Cache River Wetlands (image credit:
  1. Cache River Wetlands – nobody will believe you are in Illinois as it looks just like the Bayou!
  2. Garden of the Gods Observation Trail
  3. The Patio of the Restaurant at Cave In Rock State Park


Shawn J. Gossman:

Shawn Gossman

Shawn is the founder of the “Hiking with Shawn” blog, and host of the YouTube Channel. He hikes, backpacks, and visits and promotes various areas in the Shawnee National Forest, local state parks and other areas promoting outdoor recreational activities in the area.


Kid-Friendly Hike: In all honesty, I feel like the Rim Rock Trail is one of the friendliest hiking trails for kids in the Shawnee National Forest. This is because there is a lot for kids to see and a full-fledged swimming beach close by.

Most Challenging Hike: The River to River Trail in all is by far the most challenging like in terms of overnight thru-hiking. However, for a day hiking capacity, I have found that some of the most challenging hiking trails are around Garden of the Gods Wilderness area due to all of the rolling hills and rugged terrain that accompanies most of the spots.

Shawn’s 3 Most Instagrammable Spots: My top 3 spots for the most Instagram scenes would have to be the

Bell Smith Springs (image credit:
  1. Natural Bridge at Bell Smith Springs
  2. Camel Rock at Garden of the Gods (of course)
  3. Old Stoneface


William Gilmour:

William is the president of River to River Trail Society and has been hiking extensively all over the Shawnee National Forest for the last 11 years. He is very knowledgeable on GPS technology and documented a lot of points of interest all across the Shawnee many of which are documented in the trail guide.


Kid-Friendly Hike: I would have to recommend the Indian Point trail starting at the Backpackers parking lot at Garden of the Gods. The trail is a 2.3-mile loop that is mostly flat with only a small area on top of the bluffs but has an extended section of trail that runs along the bottom of a row of bluffs that feature a lot of nocks and grannies that kids like to explore.

Most Challenging Hike: The most challenging hikes I do are in the Lusk Creek area simply because of the overall size and remoteness of the valley, the challenging creek crossings and the difficulty navigating the area.  Most hikes into the area are going to be 7 – 10 miles if you want to get to many of the key features like Owl Bluff and the Natural Bridge.

William’s 3 Most Instagrammable Spots: The three most “Instagram-able” spots that I will choose are:

Lusk Creek seen from the top of the bluff opposite from Indian Kitchen.
  1. Getting out in the winter to enjoy the frozen waterfalls where ever they exist.
  2. Garden of the Gods wilderness
  3. Packentuck Falls in Camp Ondessonk

Carol Hoffman:

Carol Hoffman is the executive director of Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau, a tourism organization that’s eager to assist you in any way to make your stay in Southernmost Illinois memorable.



Kid-Friendly Hike: The best kid-friendly hike I would recommend is to walk along Post Oak Trail inside of Giant City State Park.

Most Challenging Hike: One of the most challenging hikes in Shawnee National Forest would be Little Grand Canyon.

Carol’s 3 Most Instagrammable Spots: The three most “Instagram-able” spots that I will choose are:

Garden of the Gods (
  1. Garden of the Gods
  2. Bald Knob Cross
  3. Blue Sky Vineyards


We hope you’ve enjoyed these Shawnee National Forest hiking tips! A special thanks to our contributors, Carol, Shawn, and Leigh, for providing their recommendations. For more attractions in the Shawnee National Forest area, see our attractions page.



2 thoughts on “Best Trails to Hike in Shawnee National Forest (Featuring Hiking Experts)”

  1. Kid Friendly hike, Ferne Clyffe waterfall trail. Short, nearly flat, great waterfall and creeks.
    Most Challenging Hike, River to River, Daytrip- Jackson Hollow West of RR tracks from Gum Springs Road. Fantastic Bluffs, no trailhead.
    3 Most Instagrammable Spots.

    1. Indian Kitchen
    2. Pine Hills-Inspiration Point
    3. Giant City Lodge

    1. Malcolm & Loraine

      Thank you, Scott, for reading our blog. We also appreciate you commenting and sharing with us all some other areas to explore here in the Shawnee National Forest in beautiful Southern Illinois. When folks visit with us for a weekend they get just a little taste of the area’s wonders. Those that come for a week find they leave with a very long list of places to visit the next time they vacation here with us at Makanda Inn & Cottages!

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