Our copy editor’s top fall trip of 2020: An excursion with another couple to hike in a national forest and see Garden of the Gods (the one in Illinois).

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Fall staff road trips southern Illinois
Garden of the Gods
| Credit: PAUL NORDMANN

Name: Diane Penningroth Title: Copy Editor

My Story

During the pandemic, I developed a habit of walking off my worries, pulling my husband, Tom, along for state park hikes throughout Iowa. Looking for an out-of-state getaway with our great traveling friends, Jeff and Jenny, I convinced the group to take a jaunt to the new-to-us woods and hills of Southern Illinois.

Map It 184 miles south of Springfield Our Playlist We took turns: Vampire Weekend, Ed Sheeran and 2020 election news

But First, Food

Breakfast Crown Brew Coffee Company in Marion takes the coffee craft to an elevated art form. They use unique brewing methods and even offer occasional classes.

Lunch Does a snack lunch count? We filled our packs with hearty fuel and ate alfresco along the trails.

Dinner We opted for the original 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro (a second restaurant is in Marion). Fried pickles; pimento cheese and sausage; and BBQ pork and brisket, both with their signature Magic Dust, quickly filled our picnic table—and just as quickly disappeared.

Fall staff road trips southern Illinois
17th Street Barbecue
| Credit: JEREMY KOHM

Fresh Air

Shawnee National Forest spans some 289,000 acres, posing a challenge: Where to explore first? We started at Bell Smith Springs, where 8 miles of trails cross streams, secret aquamarine springs and a natural rock bridge. (Hidden springs throughout Bell Smith reminded me of the Fairy Pools in Scotland.) You'll see natural landmarks like Devil's Backbone and Boulder Falls. Consider waterproof boots and sticks—many trails take you over (or in if your balance is off!) the streams.

Fall staff road trips southern Illinois
Bell Smith Springs
| Credit: Diane Penningroth
Fall staff road trips souther Illinois
Bell Smith Springs
| Credit: Diane Penningroth

After a few hours, we loaded back into the car and drove to Garden of the Gods. There will be more people here, but don't let that scare you away. A short, often steep trail with stairs leads up to massive sandstone formations, where you can (carefully) clamber up and over for miles of forest views. Once your inner-kid scrambling needs are fulfilled, pick a spot to settle in and watch the sunbeams shift through rocks and over golden trees.

Fall staff road trips southern Illinois
Garden of the Gods
| Credit: Diane Penningroth

Next Time

We only stayed one night in a chain hotel near Shawnee, but I have a long list for a return visit.

Rocky Comfort Cabins offers unique but luxe accommodations (with fireplace, hot tub and hobbit vibes). A few miles from Shawnee National Forest, outside Ava, Scratch Brewing Company sells farmhouse beers brewed with foraged ingredients, such as juniper and chanterelle mushrooms.

Within the national forest, at Giant City State Park, bravehearted souls can climb or rappel (while I watch) on the huge bluffs. And at the state's southernmost tip, the wetlands of Cache River State Natural Area shelter huge cypress trees, some 1,000 years old, that can be seen on hikes or in canoes. (Maybe paddling my worries away will be my next hobby?)

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