Visiting the

Shawnee National Forest:

Know Before You Go

It is no joke that visiting the Shawnee National Forest has become a popular activity over this and last year. The COVID-19 Pandemic has really encouraged people across the country to start recreating in the many outdoor spaces. While more people getting outdoors is great and encouraged, it is extremely important to understand the need for a conservation mind-set when visiting these special and often precious natural environments.

Compared to many other National Forest around the country, the Shawnee National Forest is quite small and common resources found in the other forests are not often the case in the Shawnee. Before visiting the Shawnee National Forest, it is important to know about specific thing before we visit and that is the aim of this article.


The Shawnee National Forest is Broken Up!

One particular thing about the Shawnee that differs from many other National Forests is the fact that it is quite broken up across the southern portion of the State of Illinois. While there are large acres of centralized Shawnee land, much of the forest is bordered and sometimes even land-locked by private property. It is critical to respect the land rights of property owners by not trespassing. Not all private property is marked with signage or visual prompts. However, knowing before you go with tools at hand can help you ensure that you do not violate the rights of property owners.

If you are unsure of what may be private and what may not be private, consider visiting the Shawnee National Forest at known recreation areas, designated trails and wilderness areas. You can find information these areas on our Trail Guide feature, the official website of the Shawnee National Forest, by purchasing maps from the Friends of the Shawnee National Forest or by using a smart phone application such as Avenza. You can also pickup paper maps from Shawnee National Forest Ranger Stations.

If you do plan to recreate in more isolated and remote areas of the forest or off the beaten path, you are encouraged to use boundary maps or apps to show you public vs. private property boundaries. A favorite app of Hiking with Shawn is called OnXHunt (not sponsored) which for an annual fee, you can see all public/private land for an entire state. In many cases, without a boundary map or app, it will be difficult to visiting remote and isolated areas of the Shawnee National Forest without potentially trespassing on private property.

Aside from signs indicating a National Forest boundary or private property, another commonly seen boundary warning around the forest is purple paint. The purple paint law is officially recognized in the State of Illinois. Posts, trees and other structures displaying purple paint means that beyond the painted object is private property. The purple paint law identifies the paint as an official use of an alternative ‘No Trespassing’ sign. You are strongly encouraged to respect private property and should know that trespass can result in being warned, cited/fined or even arrest and/or criminal charges being filed against you.


The Shawnee National Forest has Capacity Limits!

As more and more public lands were reopened in Illinois last year due to the pandemic closures, it quickly became apparent that many recreational areas in the Shawnee National Forest had capacity limits. Extremely popular areas such as Garden of the Gods, Bell Smith Springs and Little Grand Canyon become so packed with visitors that it was overwhelming for travelers to drive through areas. It also became an issue of safety for locals who lived along these areas. The Forest Service was forced to limit entry which may had lasted for hours. In some cases, areas had to be closed temporarily in order to protect public health and safety.

For visitors travelling from farther destinations, arriving to an intended spot to visit only to see that it is nor accepting new visitors could be devastating. Tourism is important for the many rural areas around the Shawnee National Forest, but resources management is just as important. Knowing these potential closures before you are visiting is extremely important to ensure that you can have a positive visit to the Shawnee National Forest. Remember – the forest is quite small compared to many other National Forests and because of that, capacity is always an issue at the more popular spots.

The most commonly visited spots in the Shawnee National Forest are the major ones you likely hear about the most. These are but not limited to Garden of the Gods, Burden Falls, Bell Smith Springs, Rim Rock, Pounds Hollow Beach, Jackson Falls, Millstone Bluff, Little Grand Canyon, LaRue Pine Hills and many of the state-based lands and state parks in the area. It is important to understand that if the weather is clear and warm to even hot, these areas will likely have a lot of people visiting them. Closures and restrictions will be likely during these times. The more popular areas are best visited during the cooler periods and through the week.

Luckily, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit the Shawnee National Forest. There are plenty of other trails and areas that are not as popular but still have plenty to see. You just need to make sure you plan ahead before visiting the more remote areas. Always make sure someone else knows where you are going and try not to visit alone. Some beautiful spots that are as packed during nicer days and weekends include Kinkaid Lake, Cedar Lake, Oakwood Bottoms, East Trigg, Gum Springs, Wilderness areas and Lake Glendale. Just remember, these places are usually remote, and it is extremely important to plan ahead before you visit.


The Shawnee National Forest Lacks Amenities!

Aside from the more popular recreation areas, there are fewer amenities available across the Shawnee National Forest, especially is more remote areas of the forest. It is important to know the lack of features before you visit the forest. This will allow you to plan accordingly and pack the right supplies that you will need to ensure that your visit to the Shawnee National Forest is positive and safe for you and those traveling with you.

Most campgrounds on that note are very bare minimum. Most do not have any sort of running water such as a potable spicket or a shower house. Campgrounds may or may not have firewood available at each site. If there is any, it is downed limbs and stuff like that. You should make sure that you buy your firewood locally to help us prevent the spread of exotic and invasive plant species. Most campgrounds do not have electrical setups, either. All campgrounds in the National Forest are usually first come, first service and self-paying fee based.

Aside from the most popular trailheads and recreational areas, there are no restrooms available at most sites and trailheads within the Shawnee National Forest. Parking is usually limited at many sites and may consist of cars as well as equine trailers. Most trailheads and recreation areas do not offer any sort of human introduced water source or electrical hookup. Roads to these areas are often rural, poorly maintained or damaged due to overuse and not often maintained during wintry conditions. Many of the sites near creeks and rivers will often be subject to flooding during the wetter seasons.

The Shawnee National Forest is known for some very impressive waterfalls. However, our waterfalls are extremely dependent on rainfall. In order to see most of our falls flowing, it would need to be seen after a few days of a good amount of rainfall. If we have gone a week without rain or are in a drought, the waterfalls will likely be completely dry. Our creeks are also heavily dependent on rainfall which may be a challenge to those wishing to filter creek water into drinking water. It is recommended that you bring plenty of water and supplies with you. It is also important to note that many of the smaller communities around the Shawnee do not have stores and supplies to meet your needs.

The Shawnee National Forest doesn’t provide trash services in most of its locations. Litter has become a serious issue in the Shawnee during these past few years. Please help us keep our public land beautiful by packing out what you pack in. Littering cannot be tolerated in a National Forest that belongs to us all and many people and groups are now taking stand against it. Please help us fight this behavior by reporting litterbugs to proper authorities.


Shawnee National Forest is Rugged!

Don’t be fooled by the impression of flat land and crop fields that often gets applied to the Illinois environmental picture in media. The southern portion of the state, where Shawnee is, is made up of many rolling hills and almost smaller-form mountain environments. We have even named a few of our hills, mountains because of their rugged and steep conditions. Hills are something that you will likely encounter even on some of the easiest trails in the National Forest trail inventory. Prepare for elevation changes.

Southern Illinois is subject to some pretty extreme weather conditions throughout the year. During the winter, we commonly get ice, sleet and freezing rain events. Most rural areas and roads are untreated. In the summer, flooding and severe weather is common. We’ve had significant windstorms, violent tornadoes, frequent lightning and flash flooding. During the summer, it isn’t unlikely to see record heat and humidity recordings especially with climate change in full swing.

The Shawnee is home to thousands of miles of designated trail and probably the same number of user-made trails. User-made trails are not official and therefore not maintained. Getting lost on these user-made trails isn’t uncommon. Many of the designated trails are also used by equestrian users. During wet seasons, many of the horse trails are very muddy and sometimes nearly impossible to hike through. Certain trails are not maintained each year due to staffing and budget deficiencies. So, experiencing grown up trails, downed trees and user-made reroutes not maintained isn’t impossible.

Like many National Forests in warmer climates, biting insects occur in the Shawnee. These include ticks, mosquitoes, flies and gnats. Some of these insects could carry harmful diseases that can impact humans and their pets. It is exceptionally important to use natural or chemical-based biting insect deterrents. We commonly use permethrin for tick defense and DEET-based chemicals to help ward off other biting insects. Some say Lavender Oil is a good alternative to chemicals. Venomous snakes also occur in all areas of the Shawnee National Forest.


Knowing important things before visiting the Shawnee National Forest will ensure that you have a positive and safe experience during your stay. You can find out more tips and information about visiting and recreating in the Shawnee National Forest by visiting our blog which is updated weekly. You are also encouraged to visit the Recreate Responsibly campaign to learn more about you can recreate as a responsible trail user on public lands. Thank you for reading this article and please leave a comment with more tips about knowing before you visit the Shawnee National Forest.

One last thing!

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Thanks for checking out this guide and please share it with others if you’d like to see more of them made!

Shawn J. Gossman

Shawn J. Gossman


Shawn is the founder and host of the YouTube Channel, Hiking with Shawn as well as Hiking with Shawn LLC. Shawn hikes, backpacks and visits various forested areas in the Shawnee National Forest, local state parks and other areas promoting outdoor recreational activities to obtain video to show to locals and non-locals alike. Please support Shawn’s efforts by sharing this post and leaving a comment below.

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