Welcome to Paria's “Hike of the Week” series. Each week, we aim to inspire you to get out there and see the best trails the U.S. has to offer. Pictures and trail descriptions are great, but nothing beats seeing nature's beauty in person!
This week's spotlight is on a section of the River-to-River Trail in southern Illinois.
Featured Photo: Garden of the Gods (photo by Asif A. Ali)
Why This Hike?
Many people have commented that it's easy to forget you're in Illinois when you're visiting Garden of the Gods (GoG). Its main draw is its unique geological formations, especially for southern Illinois and the Midwest. A rocky reprieve from farmland, GoG features undulating hills, rocky outcroppings, and precipitous sandstone cliffs. 320 million years in the making, these stones used to be part of an ancient sea bed. Now, they make great vantage points for viewing the surrounding Shawnee National Forest.
- Distance: 26.5 miles
- Type: Point-to-point
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Elevation change: ~450-500 feet (The most strenuous part is the climb into the Garden of the Gods area from the valley.)
- Best time to visit: Spring and Fall (It's less buggy during these seasons. Plus, you can experience the beautiful fall colors in autumn.)
- There are water sources near your campsites for filtering.
- Several established campsites can be found along the way. But, dispersed camping (and campfires) are allowed too.
- Several stunning vistas await, especially in the GoG area.
- Some of the awe-inspiring rock formations include Camel Rock, H Rock, and Noah's Ark.
- If flora is your thing, you'll enjoy the serene pine forests mingling with mixed forests. There are lots of ferns and moss too, giving the forest some color even in the off-seasons.
- You can expect typical Midwest woodland creatures, such as deer, squirrels, raccoons, and beavers. You might even come across some armadillos!
- This is a popular hiking area in the Midwest. This makes it a good choice even for beginners with good map reading skills.
Before you pack your bags, keep the following in mind:
- There are several creek crossings near the beginning. Be sure to bring some extra socks!
- Of course, be careful on the rock formations and near edges, especially if wet!
- There have been several re-routes made to this section of the River-to-River Trail over the past 5 years or so. These may lengthen or shorten your distance slightly.
- While trail signage is pretty good, it can still be easy to take a wrong turn in some areas with heavy networks of trails and re-routes.
How Do I Get There?
Lambert St.Louis International Airport is the closest major airport. But, it is 167 miles away. If you don't feel like driving that far, Barkley Regional Airport near Paducah, Kentucky is your best bet. (It's only 40 miles from the trailhead.)
From here, turn left onto KY-305/State Hwy 724 and follow for 5.5 miles. Turn left to merge onto I-24 W. Continue 3.8 miles before taking exit 37. Merge onto US-45 S/Ohio River Scenic Byway. Turn left onto IL-145 N and drive 27 miles. Turn right onto Straight St. The parking area will be on your left after a little over 2 miles.
Map of Recommended Route
The following map outlines our recommended route. Click the "Load Interactive Map" button to load the correct map. Once loaded, you can navigate along the route and view recommended campsites.
For even more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, click the "Open in CalTopo" button at the top of the map once it's loaded into view.
- Day 1 - Lusk Creek Trailhead to Little Lusk Creek Campsite (9.4 miles)
- Day 2 - Little Lusk Creek Campsite to Overlook Campsite (14.7 miles)
- Day 3 - Overlook Campsite to Garden of the Gods Backpacking Parking (2.5 miles)
*Note: Please refer to the official River-to-River trail maps in the Resources section below for extending your route. There is actually a network of trails that you can take from the main one to the Camel Rock area, exit the trail in its parking area, then walk the rest of the way back to your vehicle on the park road. Unfortunately, these are not shown on Caltopo.
Another option is to have an extra long second day. Hike to the Pharaoh Campground, stay all night, and day hike the rest of the sights in Garden of the Gods.
Many hikers seem to prefer starting at Garden of the Gods. But this way, you save the best for last!
Day 1 - Lusk Creek Trailhead to Little Lusk Creek Campsite
From the Lusk Creek Trailhead parking area, cross over the road and head north into the woods. Start in dense pine forest, which eventually gives way to more deciduous trees. Rocky outcroppings greet you early on near the creek. There are several creek crossings in this first leg.
Be sure to take a gander at the grand Natural Arch rock formation and saltpeter cave. Past here find more quiet pine forest. Fill up on water at Little Lusk Creek. Head to the ridgetop above here as it has some nice flat areas for setting up shop for the night.
Day 2 - Little Lusk Creek Campsite to Overlook Campsite
Start the day with another creek crossing and pine forest. You'll reach Bethesda Church before long and have a brief walk along the road. Be sure to follow signs for detours past this area as you head towards One Horse Gap. Lots of sandstone slabs make for a flat, open spot to take a break. It's a tight squeeze through the gap past here.
Rock formations get bigger and more interesting with all their lines and grooves. Rocky Top offers the first really good views of the surrounding forest. Fill up on water in Hart Creek before reaching Herod. You'll make another short jog on the road here before heading north again through the woods.
The climb from the valley up to the hilltops inside Garden of the Gods is the hardest part of the trip. Luckily, you will be bedding down for the night shortly after reaching the top. The views here are so incredible, you'll likely have a hard time forcing yourself to leave in the morning! The open campsite faces an open vista of the rolling, wooded hillside, visible for miles and miles into the distance.
Day 3 - Overlook Campsite to Garden of the Gods Backpacking Parking
After heading back down into a canyon, you'll find “H” rock. This is followed by a hike below the rock ledge. From there you'll follow a rocky, mossy creek for a while. Climb out of the canyon to find Noah's Arc rock features, which supposedly look like animals. Regardless of whether you “see” them or not, this area makes for great vantage points. Take in the sprawling views yet again of the nearby geological features and mixed woods below. There are some really interesting swirly-patterned boulders along the trail here too.
Finally hop on the Observation Trail within GoG and take in the multiple epic views. Explore at your leisure since you don't have much mileage back to your vehicle. If you weren't already impressed with the sandstone features, this area is the one that will truly make you forget you're in one of the biggest agricultural states in the U.S. After you've had your fill, head back down the trail to the parking area. Be sure to explore more of the area before you leave!
What Will I Need?
The average highs for March-May and September-November are 58-76 and 57-81 respectively. Average lows are 35-53 and 35-56. As you can see, temperatures are pretty similar for both seasons. A down sleeping bag will work well for colder times. Opt for a down quilt for warmer ones. (No worries if it cools down one night on your trip. They're versatile enough to keep you warm during the Midwest's finicky weather.)
A solid 3-season backpacking tent will serve you well in spring and fall. For warm weather, you might just want to tarp camp if that's your cup of tea. There are plenty of trees around if you prefer hammock camping.
The Zion 2P Backpacking Tent makes a great 2-person shelter for this gorgeous Illinois trail.
Although the trail isn't very technical or difficult, you might consider some trekking poles to help with creek crossings.
If there's anything else you need to complete your pack, visit our full line of high-quality, affordable backpacking gear.
Shop Backpacking Tents
Shop Ultralight Tarps
Shop Backpacking Quilts
Shop Down Sleeping Bags
Shop Insulated Sleeping Pads
Shop Backpacking Pillow
Shop Folding Trekking Poles
Shop Titanium Cookware
Shop Tent and Tarp Accessories
Finally, to make sure you don't forget something at home, use our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List. It even includes a convenient printable checklist!
Do I Need a Permit?
No, you do not need a permit.
If you're looking for a surprisingly scenic backpacking trip in the Midwest, you can't beat this section of the River-to-River Trail in southern Illinois.
Have you done this or any other section of the R2R Trail? We'd love to hear about your experience in the comments below!
If you're looking for more hike ideas, read our “Best Backpacking Trips in the Midwest” round-up post. Also, the following Hike of the Week articles cover other great trails in the region.
Hike of the Week: Ozark Highlands Trail
Hike of the Week: Lake Ouachita Vista Trail
Hike of the Week: Triple Crown Loop
For even more amazing backpacking trips, visit The Trailhead, our interactive hike map. It contains a curated list of dozens of hikes, each with a detailed write-up like this one.
Finally, check out our comprehensive list of backpacking articles that cover just about everything there is to know about backpacking. If you're just starting out, our Backpacking 101 section covers all the basics. If you already have a few trips under your belt, you can find more advanced topics covered in our Expert Articles.