As one of the most photographed locations in the state, Garden of the Gods breathtaking beauty draws in thousands of visitors each year to the heart of the Shawnee National Forest. Commemorated on the back of the Illinois state quarter in 2016, Garden of the Gods Recreation Area features a series of uniquely weathered rock formations and cliffs not seen anywhere else in the Midwest. Highlighting the picturesque scenery and best known landmarks of Kissing Monkies, Camel Rock, and the Devils Smokestack is the 0.25 mile Observation Trail. Those looking for more of a challenge can traverse the 1.6 mile Indian Point Loop which explores a length of scenic, cliff high overlooks before descending through part of the Wilderness Area to several remote caves.
Observation Trail | 0.25 Miles
Indian Point Trail | 1.7 Mile Loop
Garden of The Gods Location | Google Maps
It is hard to argue that out of the 280,000 acres of wetlands, lush forests, steep canyons, and razorback ridges within the Shawnee National Forest, the Garden of The Gods stands out as the jewel in the region. Tucked within a small pocket of the larger 3,318 acre Garden of The Gods Wilderness Area, this small recreation area boasts the two most popular trails visitors travel from all over the world to explore; the Indian Point Trail and the Observation Trail. While the Observation Trail is best known for its incredible rock formations and panoramic vistas, the Indian Point Trail gives you a taste of the wilderness areas rugged beauty and access to less crowded bluffs from which to catch a gorgeous sunset. Garden of the Gods sits surrounded by some of the best hiking in the eastern Shawnee Hills with areas that include Rim Rock Nat'l Recreation Trail\Pounds Hollow, Stoneface, Jackson Falls, High Knob, and Bell Smith Springs.
Main access to the recreation area can be found along Garden of The Gods Rd, 2 miles north of the Karbers Ridge Rd junction. Though privately owned, the Garden of the Gods Outpost (open 10 a.m.- 8 p.m.) is the unofficial Visitors Center and the best place to stop and gather information on the areas other attractions. Aside from selling souvenirs, it also doubles as an ice cream parlor, hot dog stand, and small grocery store. Once inside the main gate to the Recreation Area, follow the road until you reach signs for the Backpackers Parking Area. Hidden in plain sight along this main road is the largest natural arch found within the Garden of The Gods Wilderness, Arch of The Gods. To find it, keep and eye out for a roadside pull-off just before arriving at the Backpackers Lot. On the north side of the road is a stretch of 30 foot cliffs right below the Pharaoh Campground. This is where you’ll find it.
Indian Point Trail (1.7 Miles)
The Backpackers Parking Lot is the only area where overnight parking is allowed, unless you have reserved a spot at the Pharaohs Campground. Hikers planning on long excursions typically park here and utilize a spur of the River to River Trail to enter the Wilderness Area. Crossing the entire length of Garden of The Gods Wilderness, the River to River Trail spans 151 miles across the Shawnee National Forest from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River. You’ll find the trailhead for Indian Point at the far end of the parking lot. Though only a half mile away from the hundreds of people visiting the recreation area at any given point, you’ll be lucky to run into more than a few of them on this trail. A hundred yards in and we officially enter the rugged wilderness area.
Much like traversing the Rim Rock National Recreational Trail, the Indian Point Trail explores a massive solitary knob just south of the main Garden of The Gods Recreation Area. A narrow land bridge connects the trailhead to the hiking trail loop atop the escarpment. Surrounded by a mature second growth forest of oak, maple and pine, it also contains a large wetland pond near its flat summit. Heading straight to the top of the ridge, it takes a short 0.35 mile trek to reach the scenic bluffs. Small user made trails zigzag through the thick brush here to a handful of hidden overlooks often utilized as camping spots. In fact primitive camping is allowed anywhere within the Wilderness Area free of charge. The most sought after spot to throw up a tent or hammock is a large clearing right beside the exposed cliffs of Indian Point.
Indian Point lays at the very far end of the cliff line, jutting out over a stretch of bluffs with clear and unimpeded views of the surrounding area. Looking west over a never ending stretch of wilderness, you can make out a few homes and church steeples near the town of Herod. Turn your gaze due south to see the upraised, circular crest of Hicks Dome. Considered an enigma by geologists for decades, it was first suggested that the 10-mile diameter crest of Hicks Dome was created by a meteorite impact some 300 million years ago. However, current studies have resulted in a shift towards classifying this as an extinct volcano.
Leaving the scenic vistas, we hit the trail to begin descending a series of switchbacks to an area just below the summit. There are two loops here; a shorter 0.5 mile loop that circles the entire cliff line atop the summit and the longer 0.7 mile loop which descends into the forest below. We chose the bottom route. Not quite reaching the very bottom of the cliffs, our path treks just below the steep bluffs to explore a string of cliff overhangs and caves hidden out of sight from the summit. Though it is unknown whether any Native American villages existed atop Indian Point, historical texts do state that this entire region was full of people when French explorers and missionaries first entered what is now Southern Illinois. Today it is estimated that the area contained somewhere in the range of 60 separate villages, supporting a population of roughly 20,000 people.
Calling themselves the “Inoca”, an early French and Algonquin interpretations of these native peoples language led them to later be called the Illinois. It is believed that the Illinois Confederation consisted of 12 separate tribes that shared a common language and culture. Before being decimated by disease and warfare, these tribes were made up of the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Peoria, Tamaroa, Moingwena, Michigamea, Chepoussa, Chinkoa, Coiracoentanon, Espeminkia, Maroa, Tapouara. Though some of this lower trail is bordered by poison ivy, wider paths leading to the various caves and rock shelters are easily navigable. One of the more notable formations is a towering 100 foot cliff overhang with a cave right below it. Surrounded on both sides by seasonal streams, this would make a great place to venture after a hard rain to find some waterfalls. As we begin the ascent back towards the Backpackers Lot, we start shedding some of heavier hiking gear for the leisurely stroll of the Observation Trail.
Observation Trail (0.25 Mile)
The Observation Trail is located within the Pharaoh Picnic Ground, about a 0.50 mile drive further into the Garden of The Gods Recreation Area. Typically taking 45 minutes to complete, this 0.25 mile trail follows a path atop a line of sheer bluffs overlooking the Garden of The Gods Wilderness. This is what most people travel to the Garden of The Gods to see. Being mostly paved, it is easy to traverse. Just keep in mind that there are no guard rails atop some of the exposed ridges so keep an eye on young children. Facing the trailhead, the most common way to begin this hike is to the RIGHT by walking north along the flagstone path. It only takes a few moments to walk through the forest and exit out onto the largest concentration of hoodoos east of the Mississippi River.
Created over a span of 320 million years, this part of North America was once at the bottom of a giant inland sea known as the Western Interior Seaway. Spanning from the Late Cretaceous to the Early Paleocene, large rivers carrying sand and debris to the seas shoreline accumulated into layers of rock thousands of feet thick. Later eroded by wind, rain, and the freezing and thawing of the changing seasons, we now have these awe inspiring rock formations to admire over. Squeezing through the tight passage of Bizarre Bands, made of swirling deposits of iron ore that glisten in the sunlight, we hop out onto the top hump of Camel Rock. Created by a series of flattened hoodoos stacked one over the other, Camel Rock is the most notable rock formation at Garden of The Gods. Its image was chosen to represent the Shawnee National Forest on the Illinois state quarter in 2016 for the “America The Beautiful Series”.
From up here, you get the picturesque Garden of The Gods view that people swoon over. Hoodoos of every shape and size extend for nearly 800 feet across the top of this ridge. A staircase takes visitors down to a viewing platform of the rugged wilderness and Camel Rock to the right, but few notice the whimsical formations directly behind them. Arrayed in single file order over the crest of this ridge are a grouping of rocks that resemble monkeys making “kissy faces” at one another, earning it the moniker Kissing Monkeys. Entering a shaded courtyard atop the summit of this promontory, visitors get a chance to follow several paths that lead to overlooks atop the rocky knobs all along the ridge. Again, if you turn your gaze north you’ll get another great vantage of Camel Rock.
Rising from the forest in the direction of Harrisburg, Wamble Mountains sloping peak is the tallest point in the area. According to a local legend, a man by the name of John Chism, son of an early pioneer who settled a homestead below Wamble Mountain, was robbed and murdered on his way home from Equality one fateful evening, near present day Garden of The Gods. Local folklore has it that his ghost can be seen riding a horse at night in the surrounding area, purportedly searching for his assailants. It would seem from up here that people would have to attempt a dangerous scramble to reach the top of the cliffs off in the distance, but as we continue on the trail you’ll see that it is actually much easier and safer than it looks.
Tucked within a small slot canyon in between the cliffs below is another lesser known rock formation, aptly named the Devils Smokestack. Though the bottom of this natural pillar is obscured from view, it is a staggering 30 feet tall. Continuing onto the last stretch of the Observation Trail, it takes a steady uphill walk to reach the top of the distant cliffs we’ve been observing all evening. As it turns out, the trail leads directly onto several seating areas overlooking the cliffs. Taking a seat amongst the last few people on the Observation Trail, we hunker down to watch the last few minutes of a gorgeous sunset. Those interested in night sky photography will find this a great place to capture the Milky Way as there is very little light pollution in the area. Though the Wilderness Area is open 24 hours, the Picnic Area and Observation Trail do close at 10 p.m. Even in the last light of dusk, walking the short distance back to the parking lot is easy.
Up next, we’ll be getting an early start to the day by driving all the way across the southern tip of Illinois to see one of its largest arches, Pomona Natural Bridge. Located in a little visited part of the Shawnee National Forest, this 90 foot span is the second largest arch behind the Bell Smith Springs Natural Bridge. Tucked within its own picnic area, visitors can take the short 0.35 mile loop down into a steep ravine to explore the arch and several wet weather waterfalls responsible for creation this natural rock formation. Stay tuned and as always, see y’all on the trails!