What’s Your Favorite National Forest?

After largely being confined to our home and St. Louis in general for the last 15 months, Megan and I had the itch to travel somewhere. Anywhere, really. We had recently seen friends travel to the Grand Canyon, so that jumped up the list, and we’d also heard great things about Olympic National Park in the Pacific Northwest, so we concerned that too.

In the end, though, due to a combination of concerns about air travel and some work commitments, we realized that we don’t have to travel far from St. Louis to explore someplace new. We had heard good things about Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois, so we set aside a Thursday and Friday for the trip and booked an AirBnB.

Below I’ll mention the main highlights of the trip (mostly hiking), and overall I would highly recommend Shawnee National Forest to anyone within a few hours. There are a few more photos on Instagram. If not, I’m curious to hear if there’s a national forest you’d highly recommend too.

Little Grand Canyon

I love that in lieu of the “real” Grand Canyon, we went to the little one instead. Despite getting a little lost at times (the main trail isn’t always marked well), we found ourselves on an adventurous path down a stone canyon creekbed and then back up another creekbed. We highly recommend the counterclockwise version of the loop. While it’s a beautiful hike, I could see it being quite challenging if you have bad knees or if there was recently heavy rain.

The Iron Whisk

This gem of a restaurant is a reminder that you can find great food (and vegetarian friendly at that) in the smallest of towns. They specialize in “Dutch babies,” which is kind of an open-faced pancake pie, but I think I’ll most remember their smashed potatoes. Seriously, if/when I go back to the Iron Whisk, I will try to order a giant to-go batch of those potatoes–they were that good. We capped the meal with some fudge made with local lavender. If you visit, make sure you time the trip so you can go to this restaurant while it’s open, as they aren’t open for every meal (they’re mostly a brunch restaurant).

Bell Springs

After checking in at our tiny home AirBnB, we drove along some unpaved roads to Bell Springs. It was here that we made a small mistake, as Bell Springs really isn’t a hiking area. Rather, it’s a place to splash around in the water or explore the beautiful creekbeds. I wish I had a picture of one creekbed, as it was so serene and mysterious that I could have spent hours exploring and writing there. Instead, we treated it like a hike, and the second half of the hike is overgrown and full of spiderwebs (which shows you that hardly anyone uses the trails).

Garden of the Gods

While most of the hikes in Shawnee took us down into enchanted creekbeds, the short loop at Garden of the Gods has you scramble over a series of boulders overlooking a beautiful vista. I wouldn’t mind trying the longer trail next time, but it was kind of nice to just take our time to enjoy the boulders and the view.

Rim Rock

We may have saved the best for last, because the Rim Rock trail–not far at all from Garden of the Gods–felt as close to Middle Earth as New Zealand did. It’s a very easy hike down into another lush forest canyon. Even on a hot day, it’s shady and cool down there, and we took our time admiring the rocks, soaking in the scenery, and taking lots of photos.

Shawnee National Park is quite big, and it’s likely we missed some great hikes and other attractions. We actually found a disc golf course in Goreville–very simple layout, but fun to try–and we didn’t go to any wineries. Also, we heard about a hobbit-style vacation home available for rent that we need to try next time. Do you have any other recommendations there?

8 thoughts on “What’s Your Favorite National Forest?”

  1. Although not technically a National Forest, I am a big fan of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I visit whenever I can, especially when visiting family in TN or attending cons in Asheville NC. I did play a good video game set in a National Forest in Colorado, so I would like to visit it some day.

  2. Very nice blog about Shawnee. As someone who has lived in Illinois my whole life, mainly the suburbs of Chicago, it always amazes to see pictures of Shawnee – usually, the Garden of the Gods catches my eye. One place I can recommend is just outside Shawnee is Scratch Brewing in Ava, Illinois. It is by far the most scenic taproom location I’ve ever visited. They brew using a lot of unique ingredients, mainly foraged, from the local area. I’m glad I made a trip after a Geekway a few years ago.

      • I agree–Jamey–I was going to recommend Scratch, but Chris beat me to it. You and Megan should not go back to the Shawnee area without a visit to Scratch!

  3. As a fan of hiking and trekking around the world, my favorite national “forest” is Girijos kraštovaizdžio draustinis, translated from Lithuanian as Grove Landscape Reserve, within which is the exact Center of Europe. As a descendent of Lithuania, I’m excited to have traveled there and brought back a few rocks from the area for my father before he passed away.

  4. I love the Arapaho national forest which is 440,000 acres immediately across the street from our farmstead. Hiking, flowers, trees, water, and just quiet Colorado mountains – hard to resist especially because we can and do walk there, no fossil fuels or travel required.


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