Primitive Camping in the Shawnee National Forest

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 

  • Primitive camping not allowed in designated recreation areas; along lakeshores, streams, or trails; or in natural areas. 
  • Camp and wash at least 150 feet from any water source
  • Do not cut down live trees or vegetation
  • Clean up after yourself and make sure all fires are completely out
  • Stays of up to 14 consecutive days are allowed
  • Leave vehicles at overnight parking lots
  • You may not camp with horses in wilderness areas


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.


Jackson Falls

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!). 


Camp Cadiz

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.

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