Hiking Shawnee National Forest's Garden of the Gods Wilderness

The bike touring down south so far was nice and rewarding, in its own way, but the whole reason to go down to southern Illinois for me was to get in some solid hiking. Backpacking will be playing an equal roll in my life over the next few months as bike adventures have, and although both are leg-heavy, I'm quickly finding out being good at one isn't the same as being good at the other. Backpacking more heavily would be a challenge, both in my fitness and in learning how to live off only what fits in the pack hanging off me vs. multiple bags hanging from a bike. And Garden of the Gods Wilderness in Shawnee National Forest would be a great (and relatively close) place where I could get out on foot and still feel some elevation changes.

Shawnee allows primitive camping, with an emphasis on packing it all out, so at first light I started packing everything I might need for sleeping away from the campsite to my backpack. I had no idea how long Garden of the Gods Wilderness's trails were, and with my nasty habit of going off trail to look at stuff I figured I ought to be ready for getting stuck out there past sundown. My new friends from the night before were still sleeping off last night's celebration, and apparently a white van had joined the campsite at some point in the night. Sleeping in a hammock keeps you pretty aware of any noise or disturbance in the night, but that van totally flew in under my radar.

I locked up my bike, filled my water bladder at the camp's well, and headed down a trail winding through amazing rock formations not really seen from the popular lookout point with its convenient parking lot. Walking by these rocks, a by-product of when this area was underwater 320 million years ago, give or take a million, it's hard not to run your hand over the colorful peaks and valleys in the rock face. I restrained, reminding myself that millions of years of the erosive forces of nature that made these designs can be undone in twenty years of the erosive forces of people. It wasn't some point of grand wisdom. Actually it was a pretty easy decision to err on the side of preservation when some of the rocks have DIY plaques like "dong godz 420 wuz here 96" already carved in them.

The area's trails curve around one another, connecting at different points before heading in opposite directions. Some make bigger loops into dense woods while others tack around cliff edges. While it can get confusing, you're not really getting lost if you're not really going anywhere in particular. Still, at noon it was starting to feel like I wouldn't need as much time here to hike everything as I thought, and found a nice exposed rock face to make lunch, watch some turkey vultures, and take a nap.

By the afternoon I finally took a look at a map and realized only two trails were left. One was the River to River trail, but I didn't feel confident I could hike 160 miles in the next few days. The alternative was Indian Point, which offered a lookout south over the Illinois and Kentucky border.

Just a few minutes into the trail and I found myself in a completely different environment from what I had spent all day in. This trail was dominated by pines. The falling sun was cutting between them and while this is a short loop, I spent quite a while out there just capturing the light through the trees. The lookout itself turned out to be more interesting than the view, and please take that opinion as one from someone spoiled by good views in their life. The canopy and open farmland in the warm evening light is nice, but the lookout itself features scraggly, wind-bent trees growing on the rock cliffs. Those cliffs, which you'll need to figure out how to get across in order to even see the view, are staggered and separated from the trail itself, with no option to walk out onto them that avoids holding tight to trees that make for insufficient anchors or just jumping from one rock to another. The gaps range from a foot wide to five feet wide, easy enough, but if you don't make it across your fall with be a twenty or so foot drop between jagged rock walls with a pile of boulders at the bottom to greet you. It's intimidating, but the rush of making it over the bigger gaps while looking down at what lies in between is amazing.

Gambling with my life aside, this trail too I finished before the sunset and took the opportunity to head back to the lookout. The day had felt full and adventurous, but I was perfectly happy to just sit here in the most popular spot of the wilderness and watch another really amazing sunset.

Okay, so maybe I didn't sit around for that long. The rocks started absorbing all the warm pinks and purples of sundown and when good light hits I can't help but run around and photograph everything I can make a subject of. A few other folks started popping up, hidden in their own little lookouts watching the sunset, looks of contentment on their faces mirroring my own though they had far less dirt and sweat on their faces as I did. Towards the end of that day I was fighting off a fairly strong bummer vibe, thinking that I had done too much too fast, but now in the last cool minutes of daylight I was perfectly happy with my decisions, though they meant two things. For one, I had hiked a lot that day and really needed to eat. The other, a little harder to stomach, was that I was done here.

Back at camp, my neighbors from the night before had left me their unused firewood. No one else remained at the camp, so I took the solitude as an opportunity to build my fire as big as I wanted to make my dinner over.

The light from the fire chased itself around the trunks of the tall pines surrounding my campsight, and it reminded me of playing hide and seak in the woods as a kid.