Stop the presses! We know we just announced a series of posts on Iceland, but we accomplished two things this week that we’ve never done before:
- Alison did a headstand in yoga class! That might not seem like a big deal to some of you, but, believe you me, it was a long time in coming.
- We took a trip in Illinois… our home state… somewhere outside of Chicago!
Anyway, we have big plans to trek this summer, first in the Indian Himalayas and then a circuit of Mt. Rainier known as the Wonderland Trail. The first will be challenging for sheer altitude (as high as 6000m); the second for total elevation gain and loss (22,000 feet over 12 days). So, we decided it was high time to shake off the winter blues and the flatlands of Chicagoland and go find spring in southern Illinois.
We read in the September 2013 issue of Backpacker Magazine that, despite the oppressively horizontal topography of most of the state, Illinois does have some vertical terrain of note down in the Shawnee National Forest near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers that form the southern border of Illinois. (Always wondered why the state has such a funny shape!) One area in particular, the Garden of the Gods, was mentioned as an ideal destination for backpackers like us who are looking for a tune up and a place to stretch the legs (relatively) close to home.
Backpacker calls the Garden of Gods the “best view in Illinois” with plenty of “Appalachian-esque views” on offer. Judging from the glorious weekend we spent there, we completely agree. Though located 300+ miles south of Chicago down a featureless drive down I-57, the Garden of the Gods makes for a perfect weekend tune up for backpackers looking to get back in shape and test out new gear.
Information was a little hard to come by despite the mention in Backpacker and general info available on the web. We called the National Forest office and they were kind enough to mail us maps, but finding someone who had firsthand knowledge of trail conditions, distances between camps, availability of fresh water, etc. proved impossible. So, hoping for the best, we packed up all our gear and headed south intending to hike a 2-3 day stretch of the River to River trail, a 160 mile trail that connects the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and cuts through the Shawnee National Forest and the Garden of the Gods in particular. The challenge to this approach was that we would be hiking point to point and would need to find a shuttle back to our car or return along the same route. A group of hikers could bring two cars and drop one at the far point to solve the problem.
Since we were on our own, we decided to base camp at Pharaoh Campground which has fresh water and a decent outhouse as well as easy access to the Garden of the Gods. This gave us multiple opportunities to stroll the Observation Trail and see and photograph the famous rock formations at sunset, a popular activity for day users as well as overnighters. The rock formations were formed 320 million years ago as a huge inland sea first filled up with sediment deposited by rivers and then was compacted, lifted up and eroded over time by sand, wind and water into its present look. The impressive sandstone rock forms reminded us a little of southwestern Wisconsin and of Appalachia in North Carolina.
Click to enlarge photographs and view as a slideshow.
We drove down from Chicago on a Thursday night after work and took a motel room at the Quality Inn in Harrisburg. This put us close enough to the campground that we could drive in the next morning and secure a campsite on a popular Easter weekend. Pharaoh Campground only has 12 first-come, first-serve sites, but several of them boast impressive views from atop the cliffs over the Garden of the Gods wilderness below. We recommend site #9 which has a private “front porch” from which to sit and read, sip a glass of vino and watch the turkey vultures riding the therms. We found Pharaoh to be pleasantly quiet, populated either by families with small children or other backpackers who were out for the first trek of the season.
With a campsite secured, we loaded up our backpacks and laced up our boots and hit the trail for the first time this season. On Friday we hiked west from the Garden of the Gods on the River to River trail towards the town of Herod, which is 4.5 miles away. The trail conditions were on the soft side, muddy in places, but generally manageable. This is due, in large part, to the fact that hikers share the trail with horseback riders. We encountered no riders on Friday, but four different small groups on Saturday.
There are several excellent backcountry campsites (especially along a ridge looking back toward Garden of the Gods). We met one hiker who was spending the night up there in his hammock. Backpackers beware: the only potable water from a reliable source is back at Pharaoh, but you do cross a few small streams from which you could filter water if needed.
The next day we hiked east toward High Knob, also 4.5 miles away. The trail in this direction was noticeably steeper and seemed to offer fewer obvious sites for backcountry campers. After breaking for lunch we turned back and were able to loop back around the campground to get a different view of the rock formations. There are many well-signed alternate loops to hike that allow you to make your adventure as short or as long as you please.
As an added bonus, spring was just starting to arrive in full force in southern Illinois. Many wildflowers were in bloom, fiddleheads were just starting to uncurl and the temperatures reached a heavenly 75 degrees. What a glorious thing it is to stroll around in shorts and a t-shirt for a change. The birds were frolicking as well. In addition to ubiquitous turkey vultures, we spotted pairs of cardinals, woodpeckers and even an American bluebird. We even spotted a nest with several eggs out on the Indian Point loop, a mile long trail that has 2-3 decent backcountry sites within a short distance from the Backpackers Parking Lot and walking distance from Pharaoh Campground.
On Easter morning, after soaking up a little more serenity and experiencing our own version of CBS Sunday Morning’s “Moment of Nature” (cue the bird calls and sound of gentle breeze in the microphone) while sipping coffee on the “front porch”, we packed up the tent and headed off to Rim Rock for our morning constitutional. Rim Rock offers a short, flag-stone paved trail on a gentle mile loop through moss-covered rocks to the stream bed below. We arrived early enough to have the place all to ourselves for an hour and took the opportunity to toy around with HDR photography and hunt for wildflowers. Note for foodies: we did run into a few people who were hunting for morel mushrooms, so the place offers a little for everyone.
There are several other natural attractions in the area, including One Horse Gap, Cave-in-Rock State Park and Giant City State Park. So we will certainly be back to experience more of this hidden gem in southern Illinois.