Spring Tune Up in the Garden of the Gods

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. We took a trip in Illinois… our home state… somewhere outside of Chicago!

Shocker, right?

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.

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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.

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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.

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24 thoughts on “Spring Tune Up in the Garden of the Gods

    1. My first headstand in yoga class. Sure, I did headstands as a kid all the time. But you would be surprised how difficult they are now!

      We had never heard of Garden of the Gods either, but they are definitely a worthwhile destination in the Midwest.

    1. We would love to head out in a canoe with you! Thank you so much for the offer. We are still waiting to see if we get our Wonderland permits. If we do, we won’t have a lot of spare time before and after hitting the trail. If we don’t, we plan to head out to Washington anyway and make a vacation of it, so we really might take you up on that. Have you two ever done the Wonderland trail?

      1. We haven’t! We haven’t done much around there at all actually. There is so much around here, we’ve spent most of our time in the North Cascades. Haven’t even ventured into the Olympics much yet!
        If you don’t get your permit, do not fear there are plenty more places around here to be amazed, I’ll work on a list for you.

      2. That would be wonderful! We know Washington state is chock-full of beautiful places. I know you do a lot of canoeing, but do you do much backpacking? Do you have any recommendations for backpacking hikes?

      3. We do!
        Sahale Arm in North Cascades
        Mt Ellinor in the Olympics (short steep day hike)
        Broken Top (Oregon but worth the extra drive) by the Sisters
        If you can go midweek (lottery permit system weekends are unavailable for overnighters) the Enchantments in Leavenworth
        I’ve got some pics of most of these places scattered through the “us” and “friends” section of our site. Enjoy!

      4. Wonderful! Thanks so much for the list. We will have to look through your photos and form a back up plan if the Wonderland permit doesn’t work out. We will look forward to conducting some trail research based on your recommendations. Cheers!

  1. Sounds like a very relaxing weekend. I am sure that is a nice change for you two. This looks like a great place for hiking and exploring, which is very fun to do. You two are quite the explorers, and I love reading about your adventures on your blog!

    1. Thanks so much, Andy. Garden of the Gods was the perfect getaway before the busy stretch to the end of the school year. We love that you follow us along on our adventures!

  2. Thanks for the details & lovely photos. There’s not much information out there about backcountry camping here so I was happy to find your blog. We might be headed down there from Chicago this Easter weekend so I hope conditions are similar to what you had last year. Would you recommend staying in the campground or off of the trail?

    1. Thanks, Joann! You should have a wonderful time hiking at Garden of the Gods. There were a few awesome backcountry sites on the trail towards Herod with spectacular views that would be cool to stay at, but it didn’t seem like there was a decent water source anywhere close by. You will have to bring as much water as you can from the campground with you. If that doesn’t sound fun, the campground was very pleasant. Since there are only 12 sites, it’s pretty quiet, and there are great views from there, too. You’ll also have easy access to the Observation Trail at sunset which is a huge plus. Maybe a combination of both will be good. Whatever you choose will be fine. Have fun and let us know how it goes!

  3. Just did a weekend at GotG – thanks for the tips! Whichever direction you go you do indeed need to take plenty of water as there were almost no sources even if you do have a filter. A couple of finds to add to your great description…. on the River to River Trail about 2 miles east of the Garden of the Gods towards High Knob there’s a terrific spot to camp called Buzzard’s Roost. About 2 miles east of that is the High Knob horse camp. You wont want to stay there, but take a minute to meet Jo Jo – a real Southern IL character! They also had some awesome BBQ smoking, but my vegetarian daughter would have none of it…

    There’s also a short loop called Indian Point loop just off the backpackers parking lot. Lot’s of great sites to camp in and around the caves and rock formations, and atop the bluffs for some wonderful sunrise/sunset views

    1. Thanks for the updates, Joel! We are happy to hear that you two had a great time at Garden of the Gods. The gods must have been smiling on you with all the wonderful weather we had this past weekend. As two vegetarians, we give a high five to your daughter. 🙂 Where are you two headed next?

      1. next trip is over Xmas to Channel Islands national park off the Pacific coast near Ventura, CA. Sea cave kayaking, kelp forest snorkeling. and with any luck a whale spotting between the mainland and the islands. how about you guys?

      2. Sounds like a great trip, Joel. We are hoping to backpack the Channel Islands one day. We probably won’t get to do anything big for the holidays, but we have our eyes on the John Muir Trail in California next summer!

  4. Allison, when did you go to that trip in Garden Of Gods? I was thinking to go there last Fall, but it seems it is a very nice place for the spring also. We need 2 nights backpacking trip – with one car also, so, the loop and we are in flat Chicago too 🙂 So – thank you very much for details that very hard to find!

    1. Hi Chana! We were there in April, 2014. It was really nice temperatures then. There were lots of spring flowers, but the leaves weren’t fully out on the trees yet. Maybe this year spring will come a little sooner with the nice temperatures we’ve already had and are in the forecast. 🙂 Have a great time!

  5. Me and three of my girlfriends went to Garden of the Gods last week for some hiking and camping! We used your blog as a main resource (as details about Garden of the Gods are hard to find!). We were super pumped when we drove in and #9 was vacant. Because of you guys we called the overlook our “front porch” and had nearly every meal out there. We also did the hike to Herod and back, then did a bit on the R2R trail headed in the opposite direction, and of course observation trail at sunset. Thanks for the post, we enjoyed our stay.

    1. That is super cool, Lauren! Thanks so much for letting us know that our blog was helpful in planning and enjoying your trip to Garden of the Gods. We loved the “front porch” at site #9–so glad you got to enjoy it, too! What was the weather like at this time of year? Since good info on this area is hard to find, are there any updates or additional information that you might add here? Thanks again for reaching out. You made our day!

      1. It was pretty hot, as we were there mid-July. We brought a ton of water with us on our hikes. While hiking to Herod and back I went through about 2L myself (but we did hike about 15 miles). There was a brief summer storm, thankfully we made it to Herod and were able to walk to a church that had a few picnic tables covered and hangout there until it passed. Our timing actually worked out perfectly! We also had a HUGE tick problem! About a mile from Herod the ticks got really crazy, we stopped about every 15 minutes to do tick checks and ended up pulling quite a few off every time. We were not prepared for that – so if you’re headed there bring the DEET! Other than that stretch of forest we did not have any other issues (just a pesky raccoon we named Lenny).

      2. Thanks for all of the great information. We looked into doing the Knobstone Trail in southern Indiana earlier this spring as training for this summer, and ticks are a major problem on that trail, too. It must be something about the climate/vegetation in that stretch of the state. Good to know!

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