We are now fully settled back into real life here in St. Louis. Even though our lives were very different — dirtier, more exposed to the elements, more awe-inspiring — six months ago, we snapped back into reality in almost no time.
Cole and I love living in St. Louis, primarily because almost all of our friends and family live here, too. But the fact that there are not many mountains around is not lost on us. We haven’t explored the surrounding park-ish areas of southern Missouri, Arkansas, and Illinois too much since we’ve been back, even though it was our intention.
So last weekend, to celebrate a late Valentine’s Day, we got away from the city life and went, well, back home. Back outside.
Because it was February and also the Midwest, we booked one night in a little cabin in a KOA just north of Shawnee National Forest, a park that has been on our list for a few months.
Shawnee National Forest is located in the tippy-tip of southern Illinois, about 1.5-3 hours from St. Louis (depending on where you are headed within the park). The park is known for its unique geologic features and diversity of plants and animals. At 286,000 acres, Shawnee National Forest is the largest publicly-owned portion of land in Illinois. It is full of recreation opportunities, from hiking to backcountry camping to horseback riding, giving everyone an opportunity to use the land as they wish.
Being from the St. Louis area, I’m shocked that I’ve never made the weekend-able drive to this gorgeous park. Cole and I started looking into the hikes available, and we were so excited to lace up our boots and get out there — especially after realizing the temperatures would be in the 60s all weekend.
You can see how we ended up spending our time in the park on this map below. Our route wasn’t the most efficient, but we wanted to stay in a comfy cabin overnight.
Here were our weekend waypoints:
- Jackson Falls Trail
- Benton-Journey KOA
- Giant City State Park
- Pomona Natural Bridge
- Little Grand Canyon
This little out-and-back trail to the base of Jackson Falls is such a beauty. We actually approached the falls from the camping area, which did not lead us to the base of the falls, but the top. We had to wrap way around to where we could descend into the canyon. We highly recommend starting from the trailhead 🙂 Still, even in the rain, it was a gorgeous waterfall and entire trail to get there was pretty, too.
Our KOA cabin
Overnight, we wanted to do a little glamping, and this cute KOA camper cabin (electricity but no water) was perfect for cozying up, with the comfort of amenities. The reservations were easy (online) and there were only a few other RVers at the park, so it was a quiet night spent watching Redboxes and eating ice cream.
Giant City State Park
On Sunday morning, we drove to Giant City State Park, located adjacent to the National Forest. This park had plenty of trails — we took a couple short ones — that showcased some of the best rock mazes in the area. It was so cool to wander around them.
Pomona Natural Bridge
The sun came out, and on our way to the Little Grand Canyon, we stopped at another very short trail to the Pomona Natural Bridge. This easy loop hike lent some gorgeous views:
Little Grand Canyon
Finally, we reached our final destination, where we took the three-mile loop trail into the canyon. The best part was the “draw” section in and out. With green mossy rock wall rising high above you on both sides, you climb your way down along the rock steps and if you’re lucky, the sun might hit the draw just perfectly.