Garden of the Gods – Shawnee National Forest

Garden of the Gods – Shawnee National Forest – Observation Trail

Garden of the Gods - Shawnee National ForestThis is the icon of the Shawnee National Forest.  When one thinks of nature in Southern Illinois their mind may wonder to the Garden.  Visions of scenic vistas with gnarled rocks in the foreground and the vast Garden of the Gods Wilderness appear in the background.

This place is the one area that all nature lovers in Illinois must see, but the Garden is not only ours.  On any given day one can see a multitude of different license plates in the parking area.  The word is out and even though this is only a 1/4 mile hike, this trail packs an abundance of natural beauty.

Why is it Here?

Water.  Water everywhere.  This area and its surrounding lands were once part of a giant inland sea.  Vast rivers dumped tons of sand and sediments into this water world.  Over the years this process built up and compressed all the underlying debris into sandstone.  The land uplifted and the sea retreated.

The rock was now exposed to different forces of nature.  Erosion, freezing, and thawing nibbled away at the new mass, slowly drilling and removing earth up to a mile deep.  What we see at this current time is just a snapshot of this continuing process.

Notes from the Trail

Garden of the Gods - Observation Trail - Shawnee National Forest - Illinois

A rapid pinging sound alerted me that I had left my keys in the ignition.  I rummaged around in the back looking for a fleece to take the bite of the cooler fall temps that have arrived with the change of a new month.  I looked around and two other cars were parked several spaces away.

I had intentionally avoided this trail for months.  I knew this would probably be one of the hardest places to film, because of its many visitors.

Missouri has its Current River.  Kentucky has its Mammoth Cave.  Tennessee has it Smoky Mountains, and Southern Illinois has its Garden of the Gods. I have even met people in the middle of the New Mexico Desert that know about this place.

My goal was simple enough for such a short trail, to capture video that did it justice.  I was not sure how I would accomplish that task.  I had been here many times in the past ten years, but I had  always come as an explorer and photographer, never with a camcorder.

I grabbed my gear and proceeded up the flagstone path.  My intention was to film like all my other videos with me hiking and giving the area perspective, but after only a couple of takes I knew this was not going to work.  Even though there was no one to be seen on the trail, I knew that this area can become filled with people in a short amount of time.

I have been experimenting with new techniques on my camcorder. I wanted to just focus on scenery, but in the past have found it hard to edit the footage together where it had a natural flow.  Now I was going to be forced to make it work or come out with random shots that were unusable.

I scrambled over and through the jumbles of soaring sandstone looking for unique angles.  I wrestled with my tripod on uneven surfaces.  I scratched my head, wondering if I was just wasting my time.  After about 40 minutes the sound of a large group of people filled the area.  I knew my chance to film was gone, so I packed up with my unfinished video and went on to Bell Smith Springs to film.


Garden of the Gods - Shawnee National ForestOnce again, I was back, but this time I left out earlier.  I pulled into the parking area on an early October day,and was surprised to see that I was the only one here.  I was not expecting this.  I took it as a sign that today was my chance to capture the essence of the area.

I took the trail to the right and pass places that I had previously recorded.  My main goal today was to film the most well-known structure in the park, Camel Rock.  Leaves were starting to show the tinges of fall.  The wind blew softly giving added motion that helped bring the frame to life.  I must have shot twenty different angles of the Camel, before I moved on to other formations that would complement this unique sandstone.

I was transformed back to my vacations in Utah, where weird formations called “hoodoos” hovered overhead.  Instead of the red rocks of the desert, I was now surrounded by the grayish brown rocks of my home.  I spent well over three hours lost within the formations of the Gods.  The mass of people were non-existent, even though the pleasant weather was perfect for hiking.  I counted myself as fortunate and used the time wisely to discover new angles of an old place.

While I was down amongst the contorted landscape, the sound of human voices broke me from my nature trance.  I knew it was time to leave.  I believed I had what was necessary to make a video even though it would not be perfect.  The Garden had been good to me that day and I left with the knowledge that I would return soon to take part in its other trails.

I now leave it to my fellow readers to make the final decision on how the video turned out.

Garden of the Gods – Video


The author and Shawnee Hills Outdoors disclaim any liability or loss incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use and application on any information contained in this blog. Although this post talks and shows video of a person hiking alone, it is the best policy to always have a hiking partner. If you do attempt to explore any of these areas make sure you are have the proper knowledge to survive in the woods, do not rely on a cellphone for help. Please check ranger stations and park superintendents for latest information regarding these areas. This website is for entertainment only.

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Note:  Make sure to always bring a paper map just in case Google Maps leads you onto unnavigable roads.


  1. Rodger says

    You’ve done it again! Great job!! Been a long time since i was at The Garden and had forgotten how all inspiring it was.( Think the last time i was there Fred Flintstone was with me and we called it Dino Rock instead of Camel Rock )There is one very short subtle reminder in your shooting of just how majestic this area is. You probably caught this during editing but let’s see how many of your viewers catch it!!!! Once again Great Job Gary!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  2. Gary Marks says

    @ Rodger. Thanks, I like the name Dino Rock, too. lol. I believe I know what section you are talking about. I didn’t even know I had capture it until I was editing. I had to put it in. Thanks for noticing.

  3. Laura says

    Excellent Gary! I luv the bird flying and seeing the leaves moving in the breeze! Awesome!
    We were here last spring, thanks for showing us autumn. Gorgeous.

    Brad & Laura

  4. Gary Marks says

    @Laura – Thanks for commenting. The bird flying overhead was an unknown treat while I was editing. It makes me realize that I need to pay more attention when I’m out for these unique moments. Spring is a special season here and I hope you enjoyed your time here. Autumn will be coming in full force by the third to last week of this month. It is truly a pleasure to bring others the natural wonder of Illinois.

  5. says

    Nice, I was wondering when this article was coming. It looks like you had some great color the year those shots were taken. I stayed there overnight on Saturday, it was pretty crowded already with the coming of the leaf peepers. The color seems to be popping early this year, especially over on that side of the forest. Pounds had some very nice color Sunday morning, much more than I have seen here on the western side.

  6. Gary Marks says

    @ Taylor – Was a long time coming. Had to finally take on the home of your awesome photos of the area. We actually had rain the fall when the photos were taken. Leaf Peepers, Love it. I’m gonna have to use that one. lol. The Western side is shaping up nicely, The eastern always lags around Pine Hills. Went there this afternoon and it like a week / week 1/2 to hit its peak. Thanks for the comment.

  7. Kenneth Philo says


    My father was the engineer responsible for the construction of the Pounds Hollow dam and I spent summers in the late thirties with him at Camp Cadiz and hiked over to The Garden of the Gods to ride the camel many times. I also lived and was schooled in Harrisburg during the school years ( HTHS – Class of ’44 ) , but spent many hours hunting and fishing in “Little Egypt” during that time. Enjoyed your website and would suggest that the natural sounds of the Shawnee National Forest are better than any musical score ever written.

    Keep up the good work!


  8. Gary Marks says

    Thanks for the comment Ken!

    Wow, what a great story to pass on. To say that your father made one of the landmarks in Southern Illinois must make you proud of him. To see the Shawnee Forest being formed right before your eyes, must have been something.

    As for the music, I’m with you. The sound recording on my current camcorder is inadequate to capture all the true sounds we take for granted. I hope to use your suggestion soon on a video and let natural world speak for itself.

    Thanks again –