It felt late to set out on our first camping trip of the season at the end of May, but we’ve been spending all our time and money on a construction project at home, spring softball and track schedules, and getting the gardens planted.
We were doing things we loved, but it was time to leave those behind for a long weekend in the woods.
We made the six hour drive to Shawnee National Forest for Memorial Day weekend. It’s located in southern Illinois, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. And that’s saying something, because we live outside Indianapolis in the middle of nowhere. But this is even more in-the-middle-of-nowhere.
Shawnee National Forest is 280,000 acres of forest in the Ozark and Shawnee Hills between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. It seems close to home yet the terrain is foreign, like something that should be out west with the mountains.
We camped at Dixon Springs State Park which is in the national forest. The park had a great pool and waterslides, but the weekend we were there it was too chilly to swim. I didn’t think the campground was that great. I wouldn’t stay there again; some sites seemed to be okay, but site 7 (where we stayed for four days) was horrible. We were on a pull-through site that dropped off after the parking pad. The designated fire pits were built on concrete blocks and the rain water had washed away the surrounding land which meant it was just this concrete block holding a grate surrounded by a valley. We could maybe put one chair near the fire. You couldn’t roast marshmallows or hot dogs, couldn’t sit near it in the evening, couldn’t drink coffee in the early morning while the fire smoldered.
Like most people, a fire is a big part of our camping experience. The weather was chilly and perfect for fires—yet here we were in a campsite with a fire pit we couldn’t access. It was super frustrating. Thankfully, we don’t really rely on the fire for meal prep, but evenings without a fire while camping feel weird.
I would not recommend camping there.
Our days were spent away from the campground. We spent the first full day exploring Garden of the Gods. It was a 45-minute drive from the campground to the trailhead. The Garden of the Gods loop is 1/4 mile and should take 30 minutes. We spent over 3 hours hiking, climbing, and exploring. It’s really beautiful and fun to explore. We got there early to make sure we found a parking spot. We wanted to hike before it got too busy. It was a Saturday on a holiday weekend, so by the time we were done it was packed and parking was a mess.
I’m always entertained by what people wear and bring for hiking. This trail is moderately difficult. I’d wear tennis shoes or hiking boots. It’s fine for small kids, but don’t try to bring a stroller. We passed families in flip flops and other families loaded down with hiking backpacks filled with extra clothes, snacks, and med kits, carrying hiking sticks, and wearing camelbacks. It’s a great place to spend a morning, but you’re never more than 15 minutes away from the car so you don’t need much with you. Even if you’re a Boy Scout.
After lunch, we headed to the Outpost for ice cream, souvenirs, and Bigfoot pictures. Apparently, Shawnee National Forest has some pretty regular Sasquatch sightings. You know Chris Graham was on board and on the lookout. A local guy installed a large Bigfoot statue across the road from the Outpost that’s fun for pictures. Then on the other side of the road is a family of Sasquatch walking and eating ice cream. As Sasquatch are known to do.
My dad’s family is from southern Illinois, and I grew up hearing stories of the crime families and shady characters that ran the area. The Outpost has some neat books written by descendants of those people so I picked them up for my dad. I can’t wait to read about the southern Illinois crime lords who rivaled Al Capone in the mid 1900s. I’ll let you know how it goes.
After ice cream and Bigfoot, we drove to Cave-in-Rock State Park. It was a 30 minute drive to the Ohio River where we played at the shore, explored the cave (in a rock, duh), and hiked a few trails.
From Cave-in-Rock, it was 45 minutes back to our campsite.
The next day, we made the trek to Rim Rock National Rec Area. It was 40 minutes from our campsite. We got there early again (early = 10:30 AM) and the parking lot was already beginning to fill up. We did the Ox-Lot Cave trail loop. It was about 1.25 miles total, but we took the jaunt off to Pounds Hollow. It was about 1/2 mile to the water and worth the hike. It was too chilly to swim (although some crazy people were); if it had been warmer, I’d have packed towels and swimsuits. It’s a nice beach and beautiful lake. Their bathrooms were clean and nice so changing into swimsuits and spending an hour or two swimming before hiking back would be fun. The girls waded into the freezing cold hollow as long as they could stand it and then we headed back. We spent about 3 hours total on the trail.
From Rim Rock we headed to the nearest small town that had outside dining. We ate at E-Town River Restaurant in Elizabethtown. It sounds fancier than it was, but when you’re in the middle of nowhere, it works. We were hungry after hiking, the sun was shining, and we ate on a patio floating on the Ohio River. No food can taste bad at that point.
Then we headed back to the campsite for the evening. We made a stop at the Dollar General to rent a Redbox movie and spent the evening watching movies and reading. We love a movie night in the camper when it’s raining, but it felt kind of weird to do that when the weather was nice.
I guess that’s what happens when you have a crappy campsite with no real way to have a fire.
We spent a lazy Monday morning walking around the park, riding bikes, and packing up. Then we headed home. It was an odd trip to start the camping season, and I’d like to never camp at Dixon Springs again, but the day trips were worth the weird campsite and it’s officially summer so, really, nothing can be that bad. If you’re planning a trip, I’d fill up on gas before you head into the forest, be ready to drive each day to see the sights and trails, and pack all the food you need before you go.
[P.S. Have I been MIA from the blog for a while? Yes. Writing full time as a job means I’m less likely to write after work because, well, that’s a lot of writing. But I’m not complaining. Most writers write their whole lives and never make it a career. I’m living the dream. But the blog is suffering. I think of a million things to write but never want to sit down and write them. I’m trying to change that this summer, if nothing more than to document our trips. I get a lot of questions and requests for recommendations because we travel so much and everything is starting to blend together. I’m forgetting too many things. It’s a good problem to have, but I don’t want to forget this summer, the trips, the friends, the beginning again. So I hope to show up here more, not just to talk about camping and traveling, but to talk about life and books and growing and grief. We’ll see how that goes.]