Shawnee National Forest
Do you need a Shawnee National Forest Weekend Itinerary?
A visit to the Shawnee for a weekend adventure is a great idea! It’s affordable! It’s close to a lot of significant areas! There is a lot to do! There is something for everyone of all ages and activities.
Hiking…check! Backpacking…check! Horseback riding…check! Mountain biking…check! Kayaking…check! Sightseeing…check! Yep! We got it all in southern Illinois.
But the problem is that the nearly 300,000 acres of National Forest are spread out all across the very southern half of the state of Illinois.
And you could never see it all in one day! Especially with these gas prices!
So, I wanted to put together this article to give you some ideas for a Shawnee National Forest Weekend Itinerary so that you can choose the best adventure to meet your needs!
Shawnee National Forest Weekend Itinerary: East Side
The east side of the Shawnee National Forest is the most visited side of the forest.
Some of the most well-known spots of the Shawnee are on this side of the state.
It is a side of the Shawnee that is worth exploring repeatedly.
Now let’s take a look at some of the best Shawnee National Forest weekend itinerary plans for adventuring on the east side.
Hike the Best Weekend Adventure
Everyone should see Garden of the Gods at least once!
After seeing Garden of the Gods, you’ll fall in love with the Shawnee National Forest.
Spend the weekend hiking the Observation Trail, head into the Wilderness Area, and hike Indian Point and other trails. After that, go down the road to High Knob and end the weekend with a great hike along Rim Rock, be sure to check out the Pounds Hollow Beach if it’s hot outside.
If you need a place to stay, we have a lot to choose from in this area. There are cabins such as Rim Rock’s Dogwood Cabins, Shawnee Forest Cabins, and Timber Ridge Treehouse Cabins. There is a non-electric campground at Garden of the Gods and an electric campground at Pounds Hollow.
For shopping, check out Garden of the Gods Outpost for Shawnee Forest apparel and souvenirs, Bigfoot stuff, good ice cream, hiking and camping supplies, and food and grocery items you might require.
Backpacking the Backdoor Loop Adventure
All Trails has two different loops for the Backdoor backpacking adventure. There is a 10 Mile Loop and a 13 Mile Loop. You can also get a nice loop hike for backpacking from the River to River Trail Society. These loops are perfect for overnight hiking.
Bring plenty of water as many of the creeks may be dry. You can camp in the wilderness area if you follow the guidelines.
There is a lot to see on these loops, including many lines of bluffs, rock formations, natural arches, cave shelters, a diverse forest, and beautiful overlooks.
You’ll love the Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area!
Camp to Camp Equestrian Adventure
Then you enjoy a ride to each of the campgrounds from the other. The Double M area even has a designated wagon trail. Double M Campground also has a delicious diner worth checking out. You might also enjoy a drive to the Gap Bar for food and beer.
The High Knob and Double M area have hundreds of equestrian trails. There is a lot to see. You can even ride to Garden of the Gods, high line your horse (or mule), and then check out the Observation Trail for a short hike.
If you’ve never ridden this area, you’re missing out!
Take the Shawnee Challenge Mountain Bike Adventure
Are you a mountain biker?
Shawnee National Forest is a mountain biking paradise! People from all over come here to crush our single-track trails.
Take the Shawnee Challenge, a free 10.5-mile biking/hiking challenge that will earn you a free reward when you finish it.
And feel free to enjoy the rest of the nearly 20 miles of mountain bike trails.
Float From Your Campsite Kayaking Adventure
Enjoy a weekend of camping and kayaking at Glen O Jones Lake.
There are quite a few campsites right on the lake. This makes it perfect to launch your kayak from where you’re camping and enjoy a float on this big lake.
It is one of my favorite kayaking spots.
There are also hiking trails, an equestrian campground, fishing docks, and other sightseeing areas around the lake.
There is even a five-mile bike trail.
The lake is close to Harrisburg, with plenty of dining and shopping options.
A Sightseeing Shawnee National Forest Weekend Itinerary
For those interested in a sightseeing driving adventure with some neat things to see and do along the way, consider this 50+ mile driving route.
Along this route, you’ll see some of the best areas for sightseeing on this side of the Shawnee National Forest.
This includes a chance to ride on a Ferry across the Ohio River (for free), and you even get to see the Illinois Iron Furnace.
This route includes a drive on the Ohio River Scenic Byway.
Shawnee National Forest Weekend Itinerary: Central
The central portion of the Shawnee National Forest is among the favorite areas of locals and visitors alike.
These areas have all the great swimming holes, historic rock formations, and much to do!
There are a lot of hidden gems in the middle of the Shawnee National Forest.
Let’s take a look at some of the best Shawnee National Forest Weekend Itinerary plans for enjoying the central part of your National Forest.
An All-In-One Hiking Adventure
Bell Smith Springs alone has it all! If you go during the summer, you can enjoy a swimming hole that you can jump in from the rocks. It also has the largest natural arch in Illinois. There are fantastic rock formations. And the Mill Branch Trail is like seeing something out of a fairy tale!
There are quite a few options if you need a place to stay. Nightly rental is available at the Potel in Ozark. During the off seasons, Camp Ondessonk offers cabin rentals. There is a campground located at Bell Smith Springs. There is also a charming Airbnb close by called Shawnee Paradise.
This area even has some great places to eat! Check out Shotgun Eddy’s for great food, beer, and entertainment. Please drink responsibly! Murphy’s Pit BBQ is another good option close to Bell Smith Springs.
Backpacking in the Largest Wilderness Adventure
Check out the River to River Trail Society Multi-Day Hiking Map bundle for Avenza if you’re interested in backpacking in the Lusk Creek Wilderness.
Lusk Creek is our largest designated wilderness area.
You could easily do one overnight or multiple nights in Lusk Creek.
There is a lot to see too! Natural arches, cave shelters, scenic overlooks – it’s where I chose to watch the Total Solar Eclipse, and I’m glad I did because it was a fantastic spot for it.
There are several ways to get into the Lusk Creek Wilderness, too!
Backcountry Horseman’s Finest Equestrian Adventure
When I think about horseback riding in the middle of the Shawnee National Forest, I think about the Hayes Canon/Jackson Hole/Honey Hole area.
This area is maintained beautifully by the Backcountry Horseman of Illinois. This group is a friend of Hiking with Shawn and a vital organization for Shawnee National Forest. Much work on equestrian and hiking trails is conducted between them and the Shawnee Trail Conservancy. We couldn’t do it without them.
See their work by riding in this great area. Stay at Hayes Canyon Campground, a fine equestrian campground in Eddyville. Then ride the Jackson Hole area to Honey Hole and more. You can even ride to Sand Cave and Millstone Lake.
Be sure to head to Shotgun Eddy’s for great food, beer, and entertainment. Please drink responsibly.
Ride the Tunnel Cycling Adventure
Are you interested in a fun bike ride for all levels of cyclists?
Head on over to Vienna and ride the Tunnel Hill State Trail.
If you start in Vienna, you can get nearly 20 miles of out-and-back cycling, including the best trestles, the tunnel, and many cool things to see along the way.
If you need a shorter route, start at the Village of Tunnel Hill, and in 5 miles out and back, you can see the tunnel and the big and long Breeden Trestle.
Need a bike? Head to Sandburn Junction (also right off the trail) for bike rental, ice cream, and more!
Need a place to stay? Check out Shawnee Forest Campground.
A Quiet Float on the Dutchman Kayak Adventure
If you’re looking for a quiet float trip without the crowds, head over to Dutchman Lake.
This lake only allows 10 HP motors, so there isn’t much wake.
Many kayakers enjoy this lake, but it’s never really that busy.
You’ll enjoy the many views of the lake.
The lake is close to Vienna, too, with many dining options shown above.
Easy Going State Park Sightseeing Adventure
If you’re looking for an easy-going adventure for sightseeing, check out Ferne Clyffe State Park.
This park has several easy trails that are about a mile or less of hiking.
You can see waterfalls (if we’ve had recent rains), scenic overlooks, a nature preserve, and even enjoy a picnic.
If you need a place to stay, check out Cedar Rock Cabins, or you can get a campsite right in the park.
For great food, I highly recommend Whiffle Boy’s Pizza in Goreville. I put them on my top 5 pizza places!
Need Custom Itinerary Planning for Your Shawnee Visit?
This article’s Shawnee National Forest weekend itinerary plans are great if you need something fast or extra ideas to plan your trip!
But if you want something a bit more custom to you, these might not be what you’re looking for.
I’ve got good news!
I (Hiking with Shawn) offer custom itinerary planning services for Shawnee National Forest, our state parks, and the southern Illinois region.
My services are very affordable, and I will ensure that I deliver the best possible itinerary to ensure you have the best time in the Shawnee.
After all, I live here and want to see this area get a lot of tourism use! So, I make sure you have a great time enjoying this incredible place.
If you need custom itinerary services or more information, check out my Itinerary Services Page.
Shawnee National Forest Weekend Itinerary: West Side
The west side of the Shawnee National Forest is the least visited side.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t anything over there, either.
There is plenty to do on Shawnee’s west side and many hidden gems.
Let’s look at some Shawnee National Forest weekend itinerary plans around the west side for you to enjoy!
Hike a Natural Bridge and then a Waterfall Adventure
Pomona Natural Bridge is a very short trail with a large natural bridge that you can walk on (be careful) and under. If we’ve had rain, there is a fantastic waterfall. It’s a nice little trail to add to your Shawnee adventure journal!
The Little Grand Canyon is a bit more complicated. It is a loop consisting of a few miles with rolling hills and requires hiking up and down waterfall cascades. If it’s wet, it can be slick. Don’t try it with snow and ice in the winter – it would be deadly. There are some lovely waterfalls and views along this trail. Some people even run it!
For dining options, check out the nearby Mase’s Place. Head into Murphysboro, eat at the World Famous 17th Street BBQ and get a great breakfast from Bunmakers. Carbondale also has many great places to eat, with food options from around the world, even vegan.
Backpack the Red Cedar Trail Adventure
Are you looking for a fun overnight weekend backpacking adventure?
Look no further than the Red Cedar Trail at Giant City State Park.
This trail is a 12-mile loop that is moderately difficult.
There is a primitive campground in the middle of the loop. It features a few pit-styled toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, trash cans, and shade. There is no electricity or water at this site.
A camping permit is required, but it’s only $8.00.
The trail is closed during firearms hunting season.
There is much to see along the way, including bluffs, grasslands, and more.
Enjoy Ride Along One of Illinois’ Best State Parks Equestrian Adventure
Hikers and backpackers aren’t the only ones to have all the fun at Giant City State Park.
Horseback and mule riders can also enjoy a 12-mile loop trail designated for equestrian use.
There is even a horse campground and stable at Giant City State Park.
The equestrian trail passes through interesting bluff and rock formations, old past signs, and scenic creeks.
There are a few places where the trail crosses the road – please be careful!
Crush the Trail on the Best Mountain Bike Trails of Illinois Adventure
Southern Illinois University’s Touch of Nature has created a Mountain Bike Trail System that is becoming one of the best places to mountain bike in the Midwest.
There is a day (or annual) fee to use the trails that can be purchased at Touch of Nature. The money goes back into the trail system.
Mountain bike races and other events are held here on an annual basis.
There are trails for the most advanced riders down to toddlers!
Take a Tour of Cedar Lake Kayaking Adventure
Cedar Lake might be one of the best kayaking spots mentioned in this article.
If you want a longer lake, this is it.
You share the lake with boaters, but there is plenty of room to float.
You should check out Little Cedar Lake if you go and stop by the dam. It’s cool to see it, and people camp out around there.
There is no fee required.
A Shawnee Hills Wine Country and Orchard Sightseeing Adventure
Do you want an ultimate sightseeing adventure mixed with wine?
Then you check out the Shawnee Wine Trail!
Don’t like wine? We have plenty of Craft Beer breweries to enjoy, too!
Please remember to drink responsibly and be safe.
And there you have it – 18 different Shawnee National Forest weekend itinerary plans to help you have the best adventure in southern Illinois. Be sure to shop, stay, and dine at our local Mom-and-Pop places for two main reasons. One – it will only add to the experience and get you away from the everyday grind. Two – You help our local communities and encourage more growth only to improve your next visit. Thank you for choosing southern Illinois and the Shawnee National Forest as your weekend adventure spot. We can’t wait to see you again!
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Thanks again for checking out another one of my articles and until next time, I’ll see you on the trail!
Founder, Hiking with Shawn
Howdy folks! My name is Shawn Gossman and I founded Hiking with Shawn. I’m an avid hiker, cyclist and outdoorsman here in the Shawnee National Forest. I was born and raised in Southern Illinois and never want to leave. Click here to learn more about Shawn Gossman