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/