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Garden of the Gods, IL

Photo by Nick Storm.

On summer evenings following rain, low clouds play over the hollows beneath the rock formations of Garden of the Gods. Sitting on the bluff you can imagine the surrounding 3,300 acres covered by a vast sea. That was millions of years ago. Today the sandstone that once was a sea bed is a playground and a photographer's wonderland. A world of solitude awaits in the forest beneath the storybook rock formations.

During the height of fall color, the 1/4-mile Observation Trail is packed with families soaking in a final view of the forest before the leaves fall. People cluster around Camel Rock, Monkey Face, Devil's Smokestack and other formations named, forgotten and renamed.

John O'Dell, chairman of the River to River Trail Society, has led many newbies to Camel Rock and the surrounding area he dubs Garden of the Gods Country. He says, "With my own family and people I take up there, when they walk up to Camel Rock they say, 'Yes, that's it!' It's like they have seen a picture and know what they are seeing is a famous picture that has manifested and they are thrilled by that.”

The backpackers parking lot is often full with vehicles sporting license plates from Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois. The Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area has trails that lead to unofficial campsites with eye-popping views to enjoy along with morning coffee. Four miles of the River to River Trail (traversing the Ohio to Mississippi rivers) passes through some of the best campsites at Garden of the Gods Wilderness area. Camping in the backcountry is free and fires are permitted, but groups are limited to 10 people in the wilderness area. Backcountry campers be aware that water is limited – make sure to bring plenty for everyone, especially after climbing Suicide Hill with a backpack in the summer. Water is available at the Observation Trail trailhead and at the Pharoah Campground.

"Garden of the Gods remains as dazzling for locals as for out of area tourists. So many people go back time after time to see it. It's a family ritual," John says. If you don’t want a strenuous backcountry excursion, try Indian Point, a loop hike of about a mile beginning at the south of the backpackers parking lot. The point awards a view of the ridgeline stretching miles across the Garden of the Gods Wilderness and into the hills of Kentucky to the south.

Where it's at: About 3 1/2 hours from Louisville; take IL 34 south to Herod and turn east on Karbers Ridge Road. Follow the brown signs.

Contact: Shawnee National Forest at 1(800) MY-WOODS or for maps; River to River Trail Society at (618) 252-6789 or for a copy of the River to River Trail Guide, shuttles and advice

Digs: Pharoah Campground has 12 campsites available in the park with a water pump and vault toilet. Private cabins are up Karbers Ridge Road at Rim Rocks Dogwood Cabins, or (618) 264-6036.

Grub: Harbison's at Karbers Ridge sells sandwiches, barbecue and pizza; there are several restaurants in Harrisburg available, with southwest cuisine in an old Mexico decor at Tequila's, (618) 252-4267