When considering Illinois as a primitive camping destination, some out-of-staters may picture flat prairielands and wonder, “where’s the adventure in that?” As someone who grew up near the Shawnee National Forest, I can tell you that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The forest boasts canyons, caves, unique rock formations, waterfalls, and stunning vistas. Activities abound, from hiking and rock climbing to hunting and fishing. Bring the whole family, as many of the parks and trails are kid- and pet-friendly. And the best part? You can live in this wilderness for up to 14 days for the low cost of FREE (or very cheap if you choose to stay in a campsite).
Rules for Primitive Camping in Shawnee
Garden of the Gods
Why It’s Great
Arguably the most popular destination in the Shawnee, the Garden of the Gods offers history as well as natural wonders. As you hike along the trails in the Garden of the Gods Wilderness, you may find clues of the past, including ancient homesteads, fruit trees, and cemeteries. Most campers come for the views, though. Unique rock formations with winding, copper-toned bands have names like the Devil’s Smokestack or Camel Rock. During seasons with moderate or heavy rainfall, you can spot numerous small waterfalls. Ideal for people and pets who enjoy clambering over rocks, the Garden of the Gods has many vistas to discover.
Before pitching your tent in the wilderness area, you can park your car in the overnight Backpacker’s lot near the Indian Hill trailhead. Primitive camping is popular in the Garden of the Gods, so you won’t have to look far to find a great spot off the trail. Just make sure you practice Leave No Trace principles and clean up after yourself before you leave.
Due to its popularity, you may have to wander far off the beaten bath to set up your campsite away from other humans. During the late spring, summer, and early fall, ticks and mosquitos are abundant. Coming prepared with insect repellant and long sleeves and pants is essential and you’ll need to protect your pup prior to your visit with medication. Finally, bring a map as GPS can be unreliable in the wilderness. But hey, that’s part of the experience, right?
Ferne Clyffe State Park
Why It’s Great
Compared to Garden of the Gods, Ferne Clyffe is a smaller, less crowded park. However, that doesn’t mean it lacks adventure potential. You are more likely to hear several different wildlife species while you sleep than the chatter of other people. The limestone bluffs are excellent for climbing and kids will love exploring the caves. There are eighteen hikes ranging from easy to difficult. During the springtime, waterfalls appear next to fern-covered rocks. The trails are relatively easy and perfect for kids and pets.
For a more rugged camping experience, choose the Class C Backpacker campground, located about half a mile from the Turkey Ridge primitive campground parking lot. There are grills, water, and receptacles for trash available, making it one of the more luxurious (yet still primitive) camping destinations.
If you are looking for more arduous hikes, Ferne Clyffe may not be for you as only one of the 18 hikes is listed as difficult. Bring a printed map as the park lacks adequate signage for various trails.
Why It’s Great
For the more experienced rock climbers, Jackson Falls is the perfect destination for primitive camping as it is the only area in the Shawnee National Forest where climbing is permitted. Home to beautiful moss-covered sandstone bluffs and waterfalls, its remote location, scenic views, and moderate difficulty level earned it the distinction of Best Hike in Illinois by Outside Magazine. If the thought of technical climbing or bouldering scares you, don’t worry—there are plenty of other possibilities, including hunting for mushrooms or wildlife.
When the rocks and bluffs are wet, the crevice-lined trails can be treacherous and are therefore not a good option for kids and pets. Furthermore, while its remoteness may be a draw, help may be slow to arrive in case of an emergency. The trails are not well-marked and the roads leading to Jackson Falls can be difficult for some vehicles.
You may either camp off the beaten trail or you may prefer one of the park’s primitive campsites. If so, expect few amenities—there are no picnic tables, grills, or trash cans, for example.
If rock climbing is your thing, keep in mind that climbers must stick to marked routes with existing bolts to protect the natural beauty of the rocks (also, likely, for your safety!).
Why It’s Great
One of Shawnee’s hidden gems, this quaint and craggy campground was once the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) work camp that was abandoned over 50 years ago. Two fireplaces from that era give Camp Cadiz a warm and cozy feel, although they are no longer used for heat. If you want a primitive camping experience without having to pee in the woods, Camp Cadiz may be for you—as long as you don’t mind using a vault toilet. There are no showers or electricity, but there is one communal water spigot and grill at each campsite. The fee is $10 per night for a maximum of eight people and two vehicles.
It is the only horse-friendly camping option on this list; however, all pets—whether equine or canine–must stay leashed as it is a campground. Camp Cadiz sits on the eastern trailhead for the River to River trail and is rarely full except during hunting season.
Because it is one of the more remote and rugged campgrounds, there are not a lot of online reviews for Camp Cadiz. One complaint that appears often is that Cadiz can be hard to find. Although it is usually quiet, during hunting season (November-January for deer, April-May for turkey), the first-come, first-serve campsites tend to fill up. If you get a spot during the height of hunting season, it may not provide the solitude you are looking for.
When deciding where to pitch your tent in Shawnee, keep in mind what you want out of your adventure. Ferne Clyffe State Park may be best suited to a family-friendly excursion, while Jackson Falls is a better fit for experienced climbers. I wanted a dog-friendly backpacking experience that provided great views and was a bit challenging, so I chose the Garden of the Gods. Regardless of which destination you choose for your primitive camping trip, you will be immersed in all the natural wonders the Shawnee National Forest has to offer.
Need a break from your News Feed? Although the Panther Den Wilderness is the smallest wilderness in Illinois, there is more than enough nature to leave the modern world behind for a weekend. And there’s good news: you (probably) don’t have to worry about large predatory cats. There are no roads for wheeled vehicles, so leave your mountain bikes and ATVs at home. You won’t miss them, as you’ll have more fun bouldering and exploring the deep crevices of the multilayered formations that gives the wilderness its name. Whether you are interested in a day hike or a week-long camping adventure, there are numerous sights and activities to choose from.
Hikers will enjoy the Panther Den Loop, a 2.9-mile moderate trek past remarkable rock formations, scenic creeks, and waterfalls. Part of the River to River Trail, the Panther Den Loop is a kid- and pet-friendly hike that will satisfy serious adventurers and casual campers. One of the major draws to Panther Den is the rock formations, which were formed by an ancient, long-gone waterway that ran through the area. The formations have been compared to a labyrinth for their winding shape.
In the spring and summer, the area is teeming with color from wildflowers and the sounds of birds in the branches overhead. Keep an eye out for beavers, deer, mink, and muskrats. Kids will enjoy playing in the creek and searching for crayfish and salamanders. While there are no reports of panther sightings in the area, people have claimed to hear them; more likely, it’s just a teenage boy hiking behind them.
This loop is moderately trafficked with families, hikers, and birdwatchers. Seventy-foot cliffs are great for spotting larger birds soaring through the air and for taking one of those sitting-on-a-cliff-and-pondering-life photos worthy of Instagram—no filters needed.
Many campers have noted that parts of the Panther’s Den Loop–particularly the second half, after passing the rock formations—are overgrown during certain times of the year. During the spring and summer, wear long pants and long sleeves to avoid poison ivy. You will be happy that you wore those long pants when you leave the forest without mosquito or tick bites. You may even run into some spiderwebs, so it would be handy to bring a trekking pole along to knock them down. As someone with arachnophobia, I prefer using a pole to clear the path over my hands!
It is also easy to get lost within the wilderness, so make sure you carry a map and let others know your plans.
Once the day-hikers leave, Panther Den becomes a natural haven of solitude. If this appeals to you, I highly recommend pitching a tent and staying for a night or two. Primitive camping is permitted at Panther Den for no fee. As is the case with primitive camping throughout the Shawnee National Forest, you must camp and wash 150 feet away from lakes and streams. If you really feel at home in Panther Den, you can stay for up to 14 consecutive days.
Planning ahead is key: there is no fresh water source or bathrooms, so you will need to bring your own supplies.
Boating on Devil’s Kitchen Lake and Little Grassy Lake
The fingers of Devil’s Kitchen Lake extend into Panther’s Den and is a perfect location for bass fishing or canoeing. If you have your own canoe or kayak, one of the most popular put-ins is on the northern end of the lake at the Devil’s Kitchen Boat Dock, which is about eight miles from the Panther Den Loop Trailhead.
If you don’t have your own boat, don’t worry: there is a rental option nearby. Located nearly ten miles from the trailhead and 3.5 miles west of the Devil’s Kitchen Lake Boat Dock, the Little Grassy Lake Campground and Marina offers canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, jon boats, and pontoon boats.
Hunting and Fishing
If you are a skilled marksman or markswoman, embracing nature means bringing home a trophy buck or a turkey large enough to feed your family for a week. During the appropriate hunting seasons, large and small game is permitted in Panther Den. Deer and turkeys are the most popular game, but you may also shoot dove, upland game, furbearers (such as raccoons and foxes), and waterfowl.
To hunt in Panther Den, you will need a valid Illinois hunting license, and remember that you will have to carry what you shoot since vehicles are not allowed in wilderness areas. Although it may seem obvious, you are not allowed to build permanent structures such as deer stands in Panther Den (or in any part of Shawnee National Forest). Hunting is prohibited within 150 feet of any building, recreation area, or any otherwise occupied space. I have provided links to permitting information and hunting regulations at the end of this article.
Perhaps you prefer the serenity of the lake to the forest and would like to bring back an edible memento. If so, Devil’s Kitchen Lake is the destination for you, as it has abundant populations of largemouth bass, yellow perch, and rainbow trout. While there is a boat dock on the northern end of the lake, there is no boat rental on Devil’s Kitchen Lake, so you will need to bring your own canoe or fish off the shore. Alternatively, you can travel a few miles to nearby Little Grassy Lake, which has boat rentals available.
Has your horse been cooped up in the stable all week? Treat him to a Saturday trek in Panther Den! The well-trodden paths of the Panther Den Loop reflect its popularity among horseback riders. It is so popular, in fact, that new trails are being created to save the existing trails from excessive wear and tear.
However, don’t plan to stay overnight in the Panther Den Wilderness with your equine friend. For a more extended stay, you will need to check out one of the horse-friendly campgrounds, such as Camp Cadiz or Johnson Creek Recreation Area.
In short, Panther Den provides some of the most beautiful natural scenery in Southern Illinois. Explore the mazes of the rock formations. Have a slumber party with dozens of other species. Photograph the plant life stretching toward the sun. Bring home dinner for your family. Whatever your hobby may be, Panther Den is the perfect getaway from the stresses of civilization.
Links to Official Resources
USDA. “Panther Den Wilderness.” https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/shawnee/recarea/?recid=34603
USDA. Primitive Camping. https://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/shawnee/recreation/camping-cabins/?recid=10669&actid=34
Illinois Hunting and Trapping Regulations, 2019-2020. https://www.dnr.illinois.gov/hunting/documents/HuntTrapDigest.pdf
Leave No Trace: https://lnt.org/
Does the idea of getting out and experiencing nature sound amazing and a little scary? It did to me when I first started heading out into the woods on my own. That reckless abandonment and curiosity I had as a child had been buried deep inside. As an adult I had fears of getting lost for days in the woods or being so out of shape that I couldn’t get myself back to my car. I wanted to remember what it felt like to be a kid. As a child, playing in the woods meant building a fort out of a random pile of sticks or spending an hour looking for the perfect smooth rock to skip across the creek.
I found myself with quite a bit more free time after my divorce. The first time I sat in my new little apartment alone, when the kids were at their dad’s house, it was eerily quiet. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was in my late thirties and had no real hobbies. I needed to find something to fill my time.
Shortly after my divorce I decided to take my first solo vacation. I planned a trip out to Colorado Springs. I hoped this new adventure would inspire me. I packed up my Prius and headed west. My dog Fernando, a 120 pound mastiff/lab mix, filled the passenger seat. The cute little cabin I rented was rather secluded. After turning off the highway I drove several miles into the mountains on a dirt road. The highway was the last place I had cell phone service. I spent the week relaxing in the old rocking chairs on the little wooden porch and exploring the surrounding mountains. This is where I rediscovered my love of hiking and the outdoors.
As soon as I made it back to the Midwest, I started looking for hiking trails in the area. I was out on the trails every weekend the kids weren’t with me and even sometimes a short hike on week days. Over the years since, I have hiked and backpacked all over, including some epic hiking adventures like Havasupai in Arizona and The Narrows in Zion National Park in Utah.
Before I started hiking regularly I was someone that had been overweight for years, I was depressed and I had no idea how to navigate the woods. I had no friends that hiked, so I watched a lot of Youtube videos and joined hiking Facebook groups to learn the do’s and don’ts of how to hike safely.
My new found love of the outdoors led to so many amazing changes in my life. In my first couple of years of hiking I lost almost 100 pounds, I went from going on hikes of 2-3 miles to backpacking trips that lasted days and covered 10-12 miles a day. Hiking had an equally impressive impact on my attitude. Each time I would step on the trail, I felt more confident. The hiking community is filled with incredible and supportive people. I have met some wonderful people and made some lifelong friends.
This is why I decided to create the Single Mom Adventurer blog. I want to give you the resources and confidence you need to get out there and enjoy mother nature safely and responsibly. Most people tell me they don’t know where to start or are worried they aren’t physically ready. I’m here to help calm your fears and answer your questions.
Every time I go on an adventure, I come home with a new perspective. My trip to Havasupai was no exception. For those unfamiliar with Havasupai Falls, it is located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in the Supai Indian Reservation. The only ways to get there are on foot, horse or helicopter. What makes campground an epic destination is that it sits between two incredible waterfalls of crystal clear blue water. The creek that runs between them goes right through the campground. Reservations (Permits) are limited so they sell out immediately every year.
My cousin and I decided to get permits for 2018. The day they went on sale we were ready and waiting online. My cousin was a able to score permits before they sold out. We were set to hike Havasupai in late September. I was ecstatic.
In the months leading up to my Havasupai hike I trained. The reason helicopters and horses are an option is because it is a strenuous hike. Carrying all of your supplies on your back to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back is no easy feat. To train I spent extra time on local trails with steep inclines. My goal was to be in shape so I could enjoy my adventure. I also spent time curating the list of items I intended to pack down.
I decided to fly into Las Vegas and rent a car. I drove to the trailhead the day before our hike down to into the canyon. The recommendation is to start hiking before the sun comes up because the heat makes the hike much more strenuous. We decided to leave the trailhead at 4am. Some people choose to stay in a nearby town the night before. The closest town is over an hour away from the trailhead. For me, that meant sleeping in my rental car at the trailhead the night before.
The only person I knew in our group of 6 was my cousin. Everyone else I met for the first time at 4am at the trailhead. My group was made up of my cousin’s friend and her friend best friend, as well as another couple. Although we started as strangers, we bonded over those next three days.
It’s an 11ish mile hike from the trailhead to the campground with approximately a 3K foot elevation drop. Often people underestimate the toll that much downhill hiking can take on your body. The first hour or two we were hiking in the dark. We followed the light of our headlamps as we trekked down into the dark canyon. As the sun rose over the canyon, a beautiful landscape was revealed. We were enveloped with rich red canyon walls.
With pictures, water/snack breaks and exploring it took us almost 5 hours to reach the Supai village from the top of the canyon. This is where you check in and get your wristband to prove you have permits. Rangers patrol various parts of the trail to ensure all visitors have the proper permit. Once we were checked in, we walked the last mile or two to the campground. At that point it felt like it had been an entire day but it wasn’t even lunch time.
When you walk into the Havasupai campground there are no real designated camping spots. After some looking around we found a little island surrounded by arms of the Havasu Creek. You had to walk across a log to cross the creek to get to the site. My tent was less than 5 feet from the Havasu creek. It was amazing falling asleep to the sound of the rushing water every night.
Once we got our tents set up to claim our spot and ate some lunch we put on our bathing suits and walked down to Havasu Falls. I was mesmerized by the clear blue water. We lounged in the pools created by the sandstone and dove into the falls. The water was chilly but revitalizing after that long hike! We also did some exploring and met a few people that gave us some advice on our planned hike to Beaver Falls the next day.
Everyone was ready for bed early that first day. I believe I was in bed before 7pm. We had agreed to get up early to start our hike to Beaver Falls, which was around 8 miles roundtrip from the campground. We were all still tired that next morning but we had all heard it was a beautiful hike and a great place to spend the day.
The trail to Beaver Falls first takes you past Mooney Falls. Mooney Falls is breathtaking. It is nearly 100 ft tall. The trail down to the bottom of the falls, that continues on to Beaver Falls, is definitely a little scary. You have to scale the canyon wall down to Mooney Falls using chains secured to the sandstone wall and some rickety ladders. As someone that is a little scared of heights, I had to face my fear of slipping and falling. Sometimes there is a line of people waiting to go up or down the path. Some said it took close to an hour at busier times of the day.
Beaver Falls completely surpassed my expectations. The hike from the campground was absolutely incredible. So much vegetation for the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Several people have said it was like being in the movie Jurassic Park. There were several creek crossings, ladders and some rock scrambling which made for an exciting hike.
When we arrived at Beaver Falls we couldn’t believe it. It was like a playground of waterfalls. So many pools of water to lounge in and waterfalls to play in and jump off of. We played in the waterfalls for hours. It was amazing! We decided to leave when it started to get a little crowded. The hike back to Mooney Falls and the campground went quick. Our way back was slightly different because the trails are a little confusing and not marked but all led to the same place.
Later that night we headed back to Havasu Falls to enjoy our last night at camp. I also walked up towards the village for some homemade fry bread with nutella. It was just what I needed after putting in so many miles in two days.
At dinner we planned our hike out. It was going to be a tough hike. We had to go back up those 3K feet we hiked down. The plan was to get up at 4, tear down camp and be on the trail by 5 in order to beat the heat of the day. We hit the trail about 5:30 and kept a good pace. As we passed through the Supai Village on the way out we saw people lining up for helicopter rides to the top. Our group was pretty quiet on the hike out. It was time to focus.
I felt pretty good up until that last mile and a half. That last section is made up of very steep switchbacks. At that point the sun was beating down on us. My feet hurt and my legs were tight and my 35 pound pack felt like 70 pounds. I stopped in every shady spot I came across to catch my breath and get a break from the heat. It took all I had to get up that last quarter of a mile. Once I reached the top though and looked back I couldn’t believe all that I had accomplished.
I had such an incredible weekend with some truly inspiring people. I loved how encouraging and supportive everyone was to each other. One moment we would be joking around and the next in a deep conversation about love and life.
Roughly 10 years prior I hiked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim. I was about 70 pounds heavier than I was for Havasupai. I barely made it through that hike. I was miserable. It took me days to recover. This time was completely different. It really put how far I have come physically and mentally in perspective. Later that night, at my hotel, I had tears in my eyes just thinking about all I had accomplished. I left that Canyon more proud of myself than I have ever been.