TRAVEL FEATURE - - LOUIS LA PLANTE

How to Quickly Plan a Trip to the Garden of the Gods

The trails at Garden of Gods in Southern Illinois offer the best nirvana moments. That moment often occurs when you reach one of the top of the rock formations on the trails. You stop. You look across the view that sweeps 30 miles wide. You breathe. You take in nirvana.

When I first stepped foot on those trails in the Shawnee National Forest, I was 18 years old, and I didn’t know a thing about hiking.

But I was young and stupid. Now, I’m in my thirties—and slightly less stupid, slightly less young. I'd like to say I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’m much more prepared to plan a quick hiking trip in Southern Illinois.

Here are three things I wish I had known about Garden of the Gods before I hiked there the first time.

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[1] It is often confused with the Garden of the Gods in Colorado.

The confusion is found online. In fact, when one fan of the Illinois location learned that so many of his friends in the Midwest were mistakenly “liking” the Facebook page for the Colorado area, he created its own page.

The location near Colorado Springs is a worthy hiking destination, too, with 15 miles of trails. The gardens are the same in this regard: Each feature large, beautiful rock formations. But in the Western state, the sweeping mountain views are strikingly ever-present.

Every June, runners take to a 10-mile race through the park. Their feet pound the ground as they snake through the park. They rise and roll on elevations ranging from 6,210 feet to 6,530 feet. But back to Illinois’ Garden of the Gods.

[2] Everyone describes the area the same way.

That description goes something like this: The rock formations and cliffs took millions of years to forms. These sandstone rocks are 320 million years old and remnants of when the area was covered by an inland sea.

As commonplace as that description has become, the trails are anything but. Speaking of those trails, I’ve also learned this:

[3] The Garden of the Gods Trail isn’t the only game in town.

It’s 0.2-miles long, and while it offers beautiful vistas from the rock overhangs, it isn’t the most strenuously difficult hike.

No worries. More challenging hiking and backpacking trails spread throughout the Shawnee National Forest, including the 160-mile River-to-River Trail. It extends from Battery Rock on the Ohio River to Devil’s Backbone Park in Grand Tower Illinois on the Mississippi River. Here’s a list of more trail options near and around Garden of the Gods.