While the better-known Garden of the Gods is located in Colorado, this one is Southern Illinois’ main claim to fame. By far the most popular hiking spot in the area, I firmly believe that the Illinois Garden of the Gods is worthy of its name. Beautiful and unique, it’s a favorite go-to spot of out-of-towners and locals alike. Not only is there a view for miles and miles, but also some impressive and amazing giant rock formations. Some of these formations are in the shape of human and monkey faces, as well as the best-known rock formation: Camel Rock.
“The Gods”, as it’s known locally, is a 3,318-acre parcel of forested land owned and ran by the USDA Forest Service. Open year-round, it’s located deep within the Shawnee National Forest, and within multiple counties (Saline, Pope, Hardin, and Gallatin). The nearest large town is Harrisburg, approximately 30 minutes away. There’s one, single gas station called Fast Stop, right off Route 34, near the turnoff to The Gods (called Karbers Ridge Road; about 8-10 minutes from the entrance). However, I’d highly suggest getting gas much sooner, as this station could be closed and all other gas stations are 20ish minutes away. Also, the bathrooms at The Gods are port-a-potty style, so this gas station is your last chance at a “real” bathroom.
There is one main trail called the Observation Trail, which is made of sandstone rocks and is very easy to traverse. It will take you right through some of the massive sandstone rock formations, as well as along the top of the rocks. There are numerous informative signs sprinkled throughout, offering a glimpse into how these magnificent rock formations came to be. The trail is about 1/4 miles long and takes approximately one hour to complete. However, most people end up deviating from the trail and taking time to explore the rock formations. There are benches along the trail, plus a large observation deck about halfway through, built above the rocks, and offering a unique point of view.
While locals grow up climbing these rocks, many out-of-towners try to do the same, and sadly, numerous accidents occur each year. On average, at least one person per year dies at The Gods, and almost exclusively, it is someone not from the area. I am adding this as a warning, because the rocks can be extremely tricky and deceptive, where people tend to get too close to the edge and slip. They don’t realize how far down the drop is, nor how slippery the rocks are. When you grow up in the area, you are aware, because you hear about the deaths that occur every single year. However, if you stay on the path or don’t get too close to the edge, you’ll be fine. 👌🏼
While I loved coming here no matter the time of year, my personal favorite time to go is fall or early winter. During the fall you can see the leaves changing throughout the forest, which is quite a beautiful sight. The weather is pleasant and cool, which makes hiking enjoyable. During the early winter, traffic (both cars and people) to The Gods starts to die down due to the icy temps, so you could possibly have the place to yourself – or at the very least, be only one of a few people there. The summer is a completely different story. It’s hot, it’s sticky, there are bugs and snakes, and there are people. A lot of people. As mentioned, not only does the area attract tourists from all over, but locals make it their go-to spot, as well.
However, please don’t let the yucky thought of humidity, snakes, bugs, and people deter you from visiting if you do happen to go during the summer! Not only have I gone myself countless times during summertime, I’ve also taken numerous family members (all native Californians) and they were perfectly fine. As long as you hike smart and bring plenty of water with you, you should be fine. There are also many spots within the rocks to take a break in the shade. During the summer months, the best time to go is at dusk, because there are fewer people and cooling temps.
Overall, if you ever happen to be in Southern Illinois or northern Southwest Kentucky, please consider checking out these incredible rock formations! The Garden of the Gods in Illinois is a wonderful day outing and will honestly make you forget that you are in a state known for its rural, flat farmland 🌽. The Shawnee National Forest and it’s rolling hills are a unique feature of Illinois, one that you will not find anywhere else within the state… and The Gods are its crown jewel.