Exploring Garden of the Gods, Illinois

One of the prime attractions in the Shawnee National Forest, which covers 280,000 acres in Southern Illinois, is Garden of the Gods, a collection of fantastic rock formations that towers above a vast expanse of wilderness. The short hiking trail there makes this a great place to let the kids get up close and personal with nature.


The most famous rock formation is called the camel, but there are many others along the trail, each one beautiful in its own right and showcasing different geological processes and features. It’s a paradise for kids who like to climb, and the views are expansive and beautiful.

A well-groomed walking trail lined with paving stones opens the rock formations to most families. If you have babies or new walkers, you’ll want a carrier or a jogging stroller. There are hills and a few steps, but our four-year-old did just fine on his own two feet. For older kids and adults, the U.S. Forest Service has provided QR codes and a call-in number for a guided tour as well as interpretive signs along the path.


The trail can be walked in 30-45 minutes, but if you explore the formations in depth, you can spend several hours. Garden of the Gods is largely wilderness, which means nothing is off limits for climbing. It’s a fabulous opportunity for the adventuresome souls in your party.

However, “wilderness” also means there are no safety railings. That being said, I was not overly worried about my crowd of four kids. From the trail, the dropoffs look abrupt, but once you get to the “edge,” you generally find several lower levels of rock preceding the long drop. Still, parents will want to take reasonable precautions. We kept our developmentally disabled daughter well away from the edge, and our four-year-old, who sees every even surface as a race track and every uneven one as a launch pad, was required to hold an adult’s hand when he ventured onto the rocks.


This is a remote location and the only services are a pair of pit-style outhouses. Come prepared with your own water and snacks, but leave them in the car and come back when you need them, as they are not allowed on the hiking trail. Garden of the Gods is a place set up to enjoy the splendor of the outdoors in its natural state.


The Garden of the Gods lies southeast of Harrisburg, Ill., between Illinois Routes 34 and 1.