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Hiking Southern Illinois - Garden of the Gods

Family Hiking Tour of Southern Illinois

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With summer in full swing, now is a great time to get out and enjoy a nature walk with the kids. My family has visited several national and state parks in the area, and here are some of our favorite places for hiking in Southern Illinois with kids.

Giant City State Park – Makanda, IL

Situated in the Shawnee National Forest, Giant City State Park is named for the massive sandstone bluffs formed by geologic processes over thousands of years. There are several hiking trails that allow you to enjoy the natural scenery, depending on your hiking style.

The best hike for families with young children would be the Post Oak Nature Trail, which is a half-mile trail that is stroller and wheel chair accessible. It’s a great way to experience the bluff views if you are short on time or an inexperienced hiker.

For more beginner to intermediate hikers, the Giant City Nature Trail is your best bet. The one-mile loop is easy hiking, but portions of the trail are primitive. The sandstone passages between the rocks are called “The Streets of Giant City,” and it really does feel like you are in a towering sandstone village at certain points along the trail. One landmark is called Fat Man’s Squeeze, and while I recall my college-age self squeezing through the passage, I dared not try it on my last visit. My kids easily sidled through the gap, and my husband and I met them on the other side.

Hiking Southern Illinois - Giant City State Park

The towering sandstone at Giant City State Park is awe inspiring.

To complete our Giant City hike, and to negate any calories that we had potentially burned off, we stopped at the Giant City Lodge for dinner. We chose the specialty of the Lodge, the Family Style Chicken Dinner. My kids enjoyed making their own plates from the generous selection of home-cooked favorites: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, dumplings, green beans, corn, coleslaw, and biscuits. Giant City State Park is also home to Giant City Stables, which offers guided trail rides and pony rides, March through October.

Hiking Southern Illinois - Streets of Giant City

The “Streets of Giant City” are one of the best places for hiking in Southern Illinois with kids.

Garden of the Gods – Shawnee National Forest, IL

The Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest is a hiking spot that I frequented as a college student at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. I remember that the views were breathtaking and that the photo ops were fantastic. What I did not remember before I ventured the trail with my 8- and 3- year olds, was that it is pretty dangerous, as in “Hold my hand the entire time. Where is the nearest hospital?” dangerous.

We had a nice hike, but I think I got a few new gray hairs when my son was rock hopping and my daughter was peering over the rock cliffs with wonder. I would recommend this hike for an older crowd, ages 12 and up, because there are no guard rails and no signs to tell you about dangerous areas. If you are super athletic or have the “I’m not going to die” kind of attitude, you can leap across the giant boulders and get some breathtaking photos of atop a giant weathered boulder among the treetops.

Hiking Southern Illinois - Garden of the Gods

Enjoy the gorgeous view, but please hold hands with little ones on the Garden of the Gods trail.

Lake Kincade Spillway – Murphysboro IL

The Lake Kincade Spillway is somewhat of a local secret, and it’s obvious why. It is one of the most beautiful places that I have visited in Illinois. Once you have located the spillway (Hint: Set your GPS to 1 Spillway Rd, Murphysboro, IL), you are in for an unforgettable experience.

The spillway is a three-tiered stony waterfall that empties into a large natural pool. The swimming hole is popular among college students and locals and can get quite full on the summer weekends. If it’s too chilly to take the plunge when you visit, you can still appreciate the view and enjoy a picnic in the grassy areas near the falls.

As you’re heading back from the Spillway towards civilization, make a stop at the original 17th Street Bar and Grill in Murphysboro, IL or the second location in Marion, IL. The 17th Street restaurant has won numerous local and national BBQ contests and has been featured in Bon Apetit, the Food Network, and the Travel Channel. In cities famous for barbeque, you can wait hours in line for food like this. I must concur with Bon Apetit‘s dictate that these are best ribs I’ve ever eaten. I regret that I have no pictures of our bountiful dinner due to our lack of self control once the food arrived. I recommend trying a local craft beer such as the 17th St. Amber Ale from Big Muddy Brewery to go with your BBQ.

A great place to stay for some southern Illinois hospitality, that is centrally located to each of the hiking spots in this article, is Hampton Inn Marion. Each nature area is between 10 and 40 minutes away from the hotel, so you can easily do more than one in a day, or take your time at each over several days. Especially for my Chicago-based friends, I hope that you’ll take the opportunity to experience nature in our beautiful state of Illinois!

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Rachel is from Peoria, Illinois. She works full-time as a software implementation consultant in the healthcare field. Her family includes her husband Justin, also an IT professional,…

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