And Know You Know More: The Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee National Forest of Illinois

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By Thomas Best

I had originally thought to frame this podcast around my wife’s and my wonderful opportunity to view the recent solar eclipse which crossed over our state. In a way, I am going to do this by advancing that day’s timeline to what we actually did after viewing the total eclipse of the sun in southern Illinois.

Joining tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of excited travelers as we made our way south on Monday, April 8, we stopped to see this celestial spectacle just about 10 miles north of Carbondale. Not wishing to battle the endless line of vehicles any further we called a roadside brewery our ecliptic center.  It was phenomenal to be there for some four minutes of totality.  However, this was not the only reason we traveled into southern Illinois.

Over the last several years, I have been describing to Pam the natural splendor and rugged beauty of our southern counties.  Not touched by the scraping forces of ancient glaciers (as is the northwestern “driftless” region around Galena), this area of Illinois looks little like what most visitors envision when they enter this region. Yes, there are scattered meadows, but look further and you see “real hills” similar to what you would picture in the eastern regions of the country in states such as Pennsylvania or North Carolina.  Rocky cliffs, steep precipices, dense forests, waterfalls, and more eye-catching scenery awaits you here.

However, there is one spot in this vast region of the Shawnee National Forest which best typifies this area more than any other—it is a relatively small section of land called “The Garden of the Gods.”

I have visited this site multiple times and it never ceases to amaze me. Rumbled-appearing mounds of stones, tall thin rocky pinnacles, craggy broken rocks with small trails traversing through them, and some rocks that even appear to resemble people’s faces and animal heads (such as “Camel Rock”) attract visitors from far and near. Making the 90 minute drive through traffic exiting the eclipse zone, by the time Pam and I arrived at the Garden of the Gods, much of the bumper to bumper traffic had left the area closest to these rocks. Although, it was a thrill for us to talk to sojourners who had come to the Garden of the Gods to witness the eclipse amidst this other worldly natural site. One young man told me they had arrived at 4 a.m. to get a good parking spot. 

With each step during our roughly two-hour visit here, we laughed and sometimes breathed heavy in climbing up rocks. Pam, who had never been here, loved the rock scrambling, gazing across this vast vista of forest, and engaging in the natural bliss of hiking in the woods.  I, not surprisingly, enjoyed all this, but especially the chance to chat with a myriad of folks from all over the country who both assisted us in taking photographs and recounting their eclipse experiences.  One lady even chatted for some time in talking about how she loved physical exercise—especially pickleball, one of my favorites as well.  I am sure we will go back there again.

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