Shawnee National Forest
Enjoy the splendors of the varied natural resources of the largest, most diverse natural treasure in Illinois, the Shawnee National Forest. Major highways lead to this heartland, about eight hours from Chicago. Here you will find some of the most beautiful scenery in the Midwest. Drive to Shawnee Hills on the Ohio National Scenic Byway and revel in its fall colors. Go birding, horseback riding, hunting or fishing. Enjoy photography, hiking, bicycling, picnicking and swimming. Try boating, canoeing, camping, mushroom hunting, berry picking and more. Delight in the abundance of wildlife.
In contrast to the gently rolling farm lands to the north, the 270,000 acres of Shawnee National Forest lie in the rough, unglaciated areas of southern Illinois known as the Ozark and Shawnee Hills. This area between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers boasts an unusual combination of five natural ecological divisions. Seldom anywhere else will you find such a diverse combination of vegetation, wildlife, and recreation opportunities.
Hiking, Backpacking, Roads, and Trails
Hiking on any of the over 135 miles of trails in the Shawnee can be a rewarding experience and leads the way to other activities such as fishing, hunting, and camping. Seasons dress the Shawnee Hills in changing year-round beauty. Spring and fall are the most comfortable for hiking and backpacking as daytime temperatures are warm and nights are cool. Spring flowers are a special reward to spring hiking as the fall colors are to autumn hiking. Good hiking can occur during summer but daytime temperatures and humidity are usually high with nights not offering much relief. During the summer, temperatures in the 90's and 100's and humidity of 80% to 90% can go on for several weeks without break. Winter offers many good days for hiking as temperatures can be mild. Extended backpacking trips, however, may run the risk of encountering foul weather as winter weather can change frequently. All trails in the forest are open to foot travel. Most trails are open for horse and foot travel.
There are 1,250 miles of paved, gravel, dirt and grass surfaces in the forest road system. Foot travelers are welcome to use them with due care. Some roads are always closed to motorized use, and other roads and trails are closed seasonally. The longest uninterrupted hiking trail through the Shawnee is the River-to-River Trail linking the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
Lakes and Ponds
Bring your fishing boat, canoe, sailboard or sailboat. There are many lakes and ponds in or near the forest, ranging from small pools to lakes larger than 2,700 acres. For information on One Horse Gap, Pounds Hollow, Tecumseh and Whoople Cat lakes, contact the Elizabethtown Ranger Station. For Big Cedar, Kinkaid, Little Cedar and Turkey Bayou lakes, contact the Murphysboro Ranger Station. For Bay Creek #5, Dutchman, Lake of Egypt, Glendale, Cache #1 and Sugar Creek lakes, contact the Vienna Ranger Station. The Jonesboro Ranger District has a variety of smaller lakes and ponds.
Bluffs millions of years old stand guard over forested hill country. Cliffside vistas and interesting outcroppings draw thousands of people each year. Popular attractions include Garden of the Gods, Stone Face, Little Grand Canyon and their hiking trails. Inspiration Point Bluff rises 350 feet above Mississippi River bottomland at the LaRue-Pine Hills/Otter Pond Research Natural Area.
Minerals played an important role in the history of southern Illinois and are still important today. The Great Salt Spring attracted people and animals to the area for centuries. A visit to the Illinois Iron Furnace, restored in 1967 by the Golconda Job Corps, will take you back to the mid-1800's, when more than nine tons of pig iron were produced per day. Minerals mined today include fluorspar and tripoli. Fluorspar is used in common products such as toothpaste and fire extinguishers. Tripoli is used in paints and as an abrasive. Coal, important in the past and present economy of southern Illinois, lies mainly north of the forest.
The forest offers four developed swimming sites: Lake Glendale, Pounds Hollow, Johnson Creek and Buttermilk beaches. Lake Glendale and Pounds Hollow are the only beaches where lifeguards are provided and a fee is charged in the National Forest. Buttermilk is accessible only by water or a 2 1/2-mile trail.
Camping and Picnicking
Camping here in the Shawnee is fun, whether you like to rough it or prefer conveniences. Pitch a tent or park a trailer for a modest fee in one of 13 developed campgrounds. Most have drinking water, restrooms, tables and grills or fire rings. Showers are available at Lake Glendale and Pounds Hollow recreation areas. Glendale campsites have electrical hookups for all your conveniences of home. Panoramic views and unusual scenery are found near every campground. Towering rock formations, peaceful rivers and streams, and historic sites provide backdrops and side trips while you camp or picnic.
Seven Wildernesses make up about 10 percent of the forest. Travel must be on foot or horseback in these special areas. Motorized and mechanized travel is not allowed here. Several of the Wildernesses have picturesque streams. All offer more solitude and less evidence of human influence than other parts of the forest.
Whitetail deer, squirrels, rabbits, Canada geese, quail, ducks and wild turkeys are hunted in the Shawnee National Forest and at nearby wildlife refuges. Wildlife openings and waterholes are maintained for better wildlife habitation. Hunting season, regulations, hunting licenses, special permits or wildlife stamp information can be obtained from the Illinois Department of Conservation.
The mix of trees in the Shawnee National Forest provides an eye-filling autumn spectrum of color. Maple, gum and dogwood produce the brilliant reds of fall. Beech trees dress in yellow as the days shorten. Oaks are scarlet-brown at the height of their glory, and pines sprinkle the palette with a dependable array of greens. Enjoy the Shawnee's melting pot of hues.
History and Archeology
Native Americans settled in the Shawnee Hills about 11,500 years ago. Evidence of the late Woodland Indian period, which ended about 600 years ago, has been preserved and interpreted at several forest locations. Learn about people of this period by visiting the Millstone Bluff National Register site. A one-mile trail leads you past a stone fort, cemetery, petroglyphs (rock carvings), and a village site.
The historic Indian period began with the Joliet-Marquette exploration of the area in 1673, and ended with the forced march of the Cherokee Nation people to western reservations along a route that passes through what is now the Shawnee National Forest. This route came to be known as the Trail of Tears because many Cherokee people perished from cold, hunger and exhaustion during the journey. The nearby Trail of Tears State Forest is named in honor of those who made the journey, and those who died along the way.
Pioneer expansion during the 18th and 19th century brought frontier people looking for adventure, and farmers seeking homesteads and good land. Early pioneer life is reflected in a sign at Settlers Rock along the Rim Rock Trail: "An early settler, tired from a day of plowing, tied his ox and came down here to sit awhile and watch the last ember of the sun bed down in the trees on yonder spotted hills."
Boating and Fishing
Lakes, ponds, creeks and streams in and near the forest offer canoeists and powerboaters picturesque settings for summertime rides in the sun. Negotiate the narrow, upstream reaches of Ianguid Lusk Creek sandwiched between towering cliffs. Drift or paddle the tranquil Big Muddy River Canoe Trail.
You will long remember a trip on the water with a quiet sunrise departure or sunset return on a shimmering lake surrounded by the forested hill country. Let your boat slide through glassy water on Devil's Kitchen, Little Grassy, Big and Little Cedar and Dutchman Lakes alongside rocky outcroppings. Or water ski on Lake of Egypt (permit required) and southern Lake Kinkaid.
Popular only begins to describe fishing adventures in southern Illinois. Trophy-sized bluegill, red ear sunfish, channel and flathead catfish, white and yellow bass, crappie, and, of course, largemouth and Kentucky spotted bass trophies have been taken from area waters. Walleyed pike, sauger, striped bass and hybrid striped bass are also caught. Fishing enthusiasts, from the worm-and-bobber crowd to those on the tournament circuit, have a field day in April and May as the waters warm and the fish begin to feed actively. The fun for many continues throughout the warm months and into mild southern Illinois winters.
Looking for a challenge? Take your bass or crappie rig and motor the mighty Ohio River and its world-famous Smithland Pool. Anglers call the Ohio River and 22 streams that enter it from Illinois one of southern Illinois' best-kept secrets.
Your safety is important. Remember flotation devices and other boating safety gear. Many lakes were created by flooding lowland and cypress swamps. These impoundments make tremendous fisheries but often contain submerged stumps or treetops. These hazards can be difficult to see. Please remember to observe horsepower limits.
There is no shortage of marinas, boat and motor rentals, or bait and tackle supplies from private establishments and other agencies that manage lakes in and near the forest. While the Forest Service charges no fee to fish, an Illinois fishing license is required. Have fun, land a lunker, and get the frying pan ready!
In addition to an astonishing variety of trees and plants, many species of wildlife live on the Shawnee, including at least 49 species of mammals, 253 birds, 52 reptiles, 57 amphibians, and 109 fish. Perhaps you'll see a whitetail buck leave his forest shelter for early evening grazing. Or you'll follow brilliantly feathered finches from a boardwalk as they dart through pin oak treetops at Oakwood Bottoms. You may not be lucky enough to see a rare Indiana bat, eastern woodrat, pygmy sunfish or blind cavefish, but they are in the forest and protected. From ancient bald cypress trees and tupelo wetlands to dry upland hardwood slopes, the Shawnee is home to an extraordinary diversity of species. Non-game and huntable wildlife are cooperatively managed by the Forest Service, which preserves and enhances wildlife habitat, and by the Illinois Department of Conservation, which manages wildlife and establishes and enforces game regulations.
Around the Forest
Adjacent to the Forest are many wildlife areas. They include Cypress Creek and Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuges and Turkey Bluffs State Fish and Wildlife Area. To the west of Shawnee is Trail of Tears State Park. Over the border in Kentucky is Mammoth Cave National Park. Nearby in Missouri is Mark Twain National Forest and Mingo National Wildlife Refuge.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication