This guide to Shawnee National Forest camping is brought to you by Wenzel, whose pop-up shelter provides protection from the sun or the perfect reprieve from wet weather. With both screened-in and open-air models, it’s the ideal item to bring along on your next adventure.

The Shawnee National Forest is a haven of the Midwest. At around 280,000 acres, the forest is the largest publicly owned piece of land in Illinois, and it offers an array of outdoor activities for those hoping to indulge in what this often overlooked state has to offer.

Notably, the Shawnee National Forest is home to the Little Grand Canyon, a 200-foot deep canyon carved over time by a small creek, which leads down to the Big Muddy River. Perhaps even more notable than its geology, however, are the wide variety of camping opportunities within the national forest. Although Illinois may not be the top destination when you think of getting outside, Shawnee National Forest camping is out to change the Prairie State’s reputation into an outdoor juggernaut with opportunities galore for adventure and exploration.

Explore the Diverse Wilderness of the Shawnee National Forest by Camping at these 8 Top Spots

1. Lake Glendale Recreation Area

woman standing in front of frozen waterfall in the shawnee national forest

Image from The Dyrt camper Annie C.

One of the most popular options for Shawnee National Forest camping due to its central location and large number of sites, Lake Glendale is the perfect place to camp for families seeking to enjoy the water and the surrounding trails of the region.

With 34 electric sites and 59 non-electric sites, this campground is more than large enough to accommodate families and large groups interested in taking in all of what the Shawnee National Forest has to offer. This highly developed campground provides access to a boat ramp, a popular beach for swimming and several hiking trails that surround the lake. Reservations may be made at the USDA website.

“Located in the Shawnee National Forest, this sweet little campground has it all. Wooded, semi- private sites (at least for tents), full hookups for RVs, great campground hosts, CCC buildings, new shower house, amazing trails at Lake Glendale and other nearby areas.” –The Dyrt Camper Annie C.

2. Camp Cadiz

Located on the former site of a Civilian Conservation Corps work camp, this campground is uniquely situated in that it offers an off-the-beaten path option for campers hoping to escape the normal summer traffic. Open year-round, this eight-site campground is a quiet yet accessible way to approach Shawnee National Forest camping. Sites are reservable on a first-come, first-served basis; the campground also offers water and restrooms to all visitors.

“This is a very cool, little, basic campground with two stone fireplaces and several other sites with shade. A pit toilet and water source — that’s about it. This is a campground you wanna use if you like being off the beaten path out on your own. Would also be a good group outing. This is the eastern trailhead for the River to River trail; there is also a shorter trail, Beaver. Good one to practice your backpacking skills on. Very dark at night, so bring your headlamp.” –The Dyrt Camper Shelly S.

3. Garden of the Gods Recreation Area

Sunset visible beneath rainclouds at Garden of the Gods in Illinois

Image from The Dyrt camper Crystal L.

Not to be confused with its illustrious Colorado counterpart, the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area is marked by an extraordinary amount of geological beauty, most of which is made up of rich sandstone rock formations placed throughout the region.

Camping at the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area offers visitors close access to the interpretive center as well as a quarter-mile observation trail that provides views of the surrounding area. Campsites are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis and can accommodate up to eight people and two vehicles. The campground is open year-round.

For backpackers, there is a parking lot at the Indian Point Trailhead, where overnight parking is permitted year-round.

“The Shawnee National Forest is a geological paradise that remains somewhat off most people’s radar (luckily). Garden of the Gods may be considered its crown jewel, which does cause it to attract a lot of visitors. The campground is small and basic with pit toilets. It is clean and with friendly staff, but the real campsites are those that you hike into. There is nothing better than hiking in and stumbling onto a perfect cliff overhang that you can call home for the night.” –The Dyrt Camper Stacia R.

4. Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area

A hikers haven, the Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area is as family-friendly as it gets when it comes to Shawnee National Forest camping. The campground is small, offering only 21 borderline primitive campsites on a first-come, first-served basis, but the perks of staying here are plenty: smaller crowds, excellent trails and an authentic wilderness experience marked by summer flower blooms and unique rock formations.

“This campground had just over 20 primitive sites. A well is near the entrance for drinking water, and the sites are very clean. It’s very quiet and remote. The park ranger said the campground is rarely used, but the upkeep is amazing. Miles of trails to explore with canyons, waterfalls and the famous cliff jumps of Bell Springs.” –The Dyrt Camper Nick D.

5. Pounds Hollow Recreation Area

Overlook off a boulder at a beach in the shawnee national forest

Image from The Dyrt camper Jamie B.

Pounds Hollow Recreation Area includes the Pine Ridge Campground, which is open from March 15 to December 15, and offers 13 electric sites and 22 non-electric sites, each of which is available on a first-come, first-served basis. The nearby 25-acre Pound Hollow Lake provides endless opportunities for fun during your Shawnee National Forest camping experience, including fishing, boating and swimming.

Another campground that sits on a former Civilian Conservation Corps site, several of the original sandstone foundations can still be found by the water’s edge. While there are no public boat ramps at the lake, there are several swimming sites and a fishing pier open to the public between the months of March and December.

“The Pine Ridge Campground sits, you guessed it, on a ridge above the lake. There are access trails through the woods to the lake. There are nice size sites spread throughout the campground area. Tons of privacy. Electric sites as well as your basic sites with picnic tables, fire rings and those poles with hooks (I’ve seen them used for many things in addition to lanterns) and of course pit toilets. But newer, cleaner pit toilets. The lake was quiet and relaxing. Even though there was a large group present at the pavilion, the area of the lake makes it easy to find a quiet space to just float or fish.” –The Dyrt Camper Shelly S.

6. Tower Rock Campground

Among the most popular options for Shawnee National Forest camping, Tower Rock Campground is located on the banks of the Ohio River, meaning its scenery and access to fishing and boating activities is nearly unparalleled throughout the Shawnee region.

Due to its secluded location, Tower Rock offers free dispersed camping, meaning sites are available where visitors can find them so long as they remain inside the boundaries of the Tower Rock Campground. A short quarter-mile trail leads from the campground to the boat ramp, which can be used by anglers to head out into the river for some kayak-fishing fun. Visitors should bring their own food and water, though restrooms are provided on-site.

“Perfect for a getaway from the hustle and electronics of city life. The actual campground is basically a mowed area in the woods close to the river. There is a pit toilet but otherwise pick your area and settle in. There was plenty of room for a group gathering or to just string up your hammock next to your vehicle.” –The Dyrt Camper Shelly S.

7. Johnson Creek Recreation Area

picnic table visible in empty shawnee national forest campsite

Image from the Dyrt camper Em P.

Sitting on the shores of the placid Kinkaid Lake, Johnson Creek Recreation Area is a hub for outdoor enthusiasts seeking a well-rounded Shawnee National Forest camping trip. With access to hiking, kayaking, biking and even horseback riding, Johnson Creek is the ideal spot for families and groups with a wide range of outdoor interests.

The campground includes 20 first-come, first-served sites and is open from March 15 through the 15th of December. The campground also offers access to a boat ramp, picnic tables, toilets and drinking water. Great for fishing, the lake is also host to a kid’s fishing derby each May.

“The campground has three small loops. Two are more forested with smaller sites and one is more open on the edge of the forest and geared up for equestrian camping. There are very basic pit toilets that were fairly new and clean. You can get potable water at the entrance. We camped here mid-April and the campground water spigots had not been turned on yet. Camping is $10 a night; self check-in. No need to worry about finding firewood, as it is plentiful within the forest. Listened to owls at night before bed.” –The Dyrt Camper Stacia R.

8. Pine Hills Campground

At 13 campsites, Pine Hills Campground is a Shawnee National Forest camping locale that provides ample opportunity to escape the noise during the camping season. Pine Hills’ location is tough to beat in the Shawnee National Forest, as it’s located close to both the LaRue Swamp and the Mississippi River floodplain.

Its prime setting makes it a popular destination for hunters and nature-lovers alike, the latter of whom flock to the area during biannual migrations of the region’s large populations of amphibians and reptiles. The region is also a popular spot for birding as well. Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Toilets are offered on-site, though there is no drinking water available, so guests are encouraged to bring their own.

“Tent sites with no electricity or water. Clean toilets and a covered pavilion for getting out of the rain when needed.” –The Dyrt Camper Bob P.

Bonus: Where to Find Dispersed Camping in the Shawnee National Forest

In addition to the organized campgrounds listed above, there are several additional regions where dispersed camping is permitted within the Shawnee National Forest boundaries:

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