Garden of the Gods and Rim Rock Trail
If there’s one reason people visit Shawnee National Forest, it’s mostly likely to experience the Garden of the Gods. These sandstone formations are as impressive as they are unexpected, especially when you’ve just passed through hundreds of miles of flat Illinois farmland interrupted only by the occasional stand of trees and manmade horrors like the soulless giant cross at Effingham. According to the National Forest Service:
The Shawnee Hills took millions of years to form. The rock formations and cliffs at Garden of the Gods are made of sandstone and are about 320 million years old. Long ago most of Illinois, western Indiana and western Kentucky were covered by a giant inland sea. For millions of years great rivers carried sand and mud to the sea, where it settled along the shoreline. Over time, the weight of the sediments turned them into layers of rock thousands of feet thick. At Garden of the Gods the sediment layers were over 20,000 feet thick or about 4 miles deep. Eventually, a great uplift occurred, raising the inland sea above sea level causing it to fill in with sand and mud. The uplift also fractured the bedrock exposing it to nature’s erosive forces. Since that time, windblown sand, rain and freezing and thawing actions have worn down the layers of sediment, creating the beautiful rock formations at Garden of the Gods.
Before heading to Shawnee’s most noted wonder, we had to find a place for breakfast — not an easy feat when you’re in a strange, sparsely populated area with only intermittent access to a cellular network. According to the guide book I’d found in the cabin, Cave-in-Rock seemed to have some restaurants, so we headed in what we thought was that direction. Before we went very far, however, I spotted a sign for Bear Branch Horse Resort and Restaurant. This proved to be a charming place up a hill where people park their trailers (human and horse), then set out on their mounts to explore Lusk Creek Wilderness and other places. The restaurant is open only on weekends, and we had the place to ourselves. Outside, a tied-up dog fussed while a tied-up horse underwent his morning grooming. Horse campers — another American subculture unknown to most of us.
After eating a basic, satisfying breakfast and buying a detailed area map (with horse highlines noted), we found the Garden easily. At the vault toilet by the parking lot, a man whose wife had just walked off tried to talk a little girl into using it, but she had retreated into the stubborn refusal mode every parent knows. A few minutes later, his wife reappeared and asked what was going on. When he explained, she said curtly, “I’ll handle this.” He demurred, which made his wife explode. “She’s my daughter, and I will deal with this.” Chastised, the husband (but perhaps not the father?) slunk off sheepishly, while the mother’s methods proved to be a little more direct and a lot more effective.
I didn’t know what to expect, but this turned out to be the easiest trail we’d attempt during the week. Even the “narrow passage” marked on the sign was not too narrow to accommodate my wide load.
Garden of the Gods is lovely and spectacular, and photos can’t quite capture it. As a friend from the UK said, “That’s the quintessential American landscape, isn’t it?” Indeed, it looks like something you might see in a John Ford film or an episode of Bonanza — and nothing like the rest of Illinois. It calls for a panoramic shot — but by someone more skilled than I.
As at Starved Rock State Park, I was surprised (shocked) by how many parents let their children clamber up and down slippery rocks or walk out onto ledges. One young woman, barefoot, nimbly hopped across a narrow gap between rocks, which likely was not as dangerous as I thought for someone who’s not as stiff as I am, but probably not perfectly safe, either. I cringed even more when I saw the infant strapped to her chest.
We came across a temporary sign notifying the many visitors that rappelling is not permitted and that a search and rescue practice was in session. Further down we encountered four men with rappelling gear, two on the path with two split off to go around some plants. One of the men on the trail snapped, “You’re not supposed to do that!” Along the ways signs ask visitors to stay on the path to help protect the restoration of plants and the delicate ecosystem underway.
Although the main loop is not long, we spent about three hours taking photos, watching the circling vultures, and soaking in the scenery and rolling hills. As J. said, if he did nothing else but see Garden of the Gods, the trip would be worthwhile.
We left at about 3 o’clock and looked for a late lunch, but the first place we came to was closed — possibly permanently; it was hard to tell. It must have been camping day, because we found ourselves at the Double M Campground, another establishment catering to the horse crowd with a restaurant that’s also open only on weekends and holidays — until 4 p.m.
After a long trip to CVS and Walgreens in Harrisburg (which, we discovered later, was unnecessary — there were local marts closer to us), we headed in the direction of Rim Rock. We made a couple of stops along the way, the first at what appeared to be a working phone booth in the grass between a house and an abandoned building, the second at a tiny roadside cemetery. If you look at a detailed map of Shawnee, you’ll see that the area is dotted with an amazing number of little cemeteries. The oldest graves in this seemed to date to the late 1800s, although the stones were too worn to be legible.
The Rim Rock trail was an impulse stop, and the light was starting to fade when we started out from the trailhead. The part we took was not difficult, but there are warnings about not getting too close to the edge. With the trees in full leaf, it was hard to figure out the topography or to get a panoramic view. I did notice how stunted and gnarly some of the trees are, somewhat like those you might see on the Northern California coast. We also saw steps below us that, in the dimming light, seemed inaccessible (I think they lead to a cave). It’s the sort of surreal sight that inspires some of my strangest dreams.
The second part of the trail we took is an uphill climb, and by then I was tired, achy, and a little concerned about much further there was to go and the increasing darkness. Soon, though, we came to the ancient remnants of a wall constructed by Indians that happens to be close to the parking lot. By then it felt like the longest 8/10 of a mile I’d ever walked. And that’s without going down toward the cave or anywhere else — the trail is 2.5 miles long and best undertaken before 7:30 p.m.
After all that, a full day, we’d scratched only the surface of Garden of the Gods Wilderness and the Rim Rock/Pounds Hollow area. If I’d grown up here, I might appreciate Illinois more. And I might be in fantastic shape!
Day 1: Onarga, Arcola, Rend Lake, Willowbrook Cabins
Day 3: Elizabethtown, Tacumseh Lake, Tower Rock, Cave-in-Rock, Illinois iron furnace
Day 4: Metropolis, Illinois, and Paducah, Kentucky
Day 5: Golconda, Burden Falls, Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area
Day 6: Lusk Creek Wilderness Area, Millstone Bluff Archaeological Area
Day 7: Snakehole and the Upper and Lower Cache River
Day 8: Pomona Natural Bridge, Little Grand Canyon, Lower Cache by canoe
Days 9 and 10: Fern Clyffe State Park, Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, Champaign