We left Chicago before sunrise. By noon, the Shawnee Hills cloaked the horizon and the flags — American, Confederate, Trump, Thin Blue Line — spread like kudzu along the highway, clustered like knotgrass in the side streets of tiny Omaha and Enfield and the scrappy thickets of hickory and pine. We hadn’t yet entered the national forest — our final destination — but it was clear we had arrived somewhere else, somewhere vastly different from whence we came. Some call it the “Illinois Ozarks.” Others call it “Egypt” or “Little Egypt,” a nickname derived, some say, like the nearby town of Cairo, from the fertile bottomlands that once resembled its namesake. Philosopher Baker Brownell, in his penetrating 1958 book, called it simply “The Other Illinois.”

“From this Illinois a black report drifts northward now and then, foggy with rumor of a mine disaster, a massacre, or some other desperate instance of life and death, but that is about all that most people hear of it,” he wrote. “This southern Illinois sits on the back doorstep as poor as Job’s turkey, as beautiful as redbud trees in spring. It may be more passionate, more violent, stubborn, stringy; still it is a sweeter Illinois with soft southern linguals, magnolia blossoms, and a generous heart.”

Two years ago, my wife and I moved from Nebraska to Chicago. It’s an easy city to love: the kinetic skyline, the neighborhood variety, the moody lake and the rumble of the L overhead. But it didn’t take long for us to realize that Chicago and greater Illinois — especially the southern wedge — are two distinct creatures, and rarely do they mingle. Chicagoans looking for a weekend getaway head to Door County, Wis., or Saugatuck, Mich., or the Indiana Dunes. Rarely do they head south. The feeling, it seems, is mutual.

“What experience truly screams Southern Illinois?” Jeff Manuel, an associate history professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, tweeted recently. “Probably complaining about Chicago.”

Love it as we do, my wife and I were looking for a reprieve from the city and, perhaps more so, from the 2020 hellscape. And because we’d resolved to burst our Chicago bubble, to experience the rest of the state we now call home, we chose the Shawnee National Forest, roughly 325 miles south of the city. Blanketing nearly 290,000 acres, the forest boasts more natural spoils than we could possibly experience in just a few short days, and because it lies within nine of the least populated counties in the state, we could recreate safely, we reasoned, especially in the dead of winter.

We booked a small, dog-friendly cabin online at Timber Ridge Outpost, on the eastern side of the forest, just minutes from Shawnee’s most popular attraction: a surreal gallery of sandstone formations called Garden of the Gods.

We soon found ourselves in the heart of Shawnee National Forest, trees hugging us in every direction, sandstone peeking through naked limbs, blue jays and cardinals darting overhead, deer quietly foraging in the occasional stretch of private cropland — and with it all, that always-welcome sense of both adventure and escape. In the back seat, our rowdy goldendoodle, Costello, finally shuffled awake and was now excitedly fogging the glass.

With just a few hours of daylight to spare after dropping our bags at the cabin — a quaint two-story affair equipped with a full kitchen, bath and lofted bedroom — we drove 20 minutes south to Cave-In-Rock, a town of fewer than 300 people named for a ­55-foot-wide hole in the limestone cliffs above the Ohio River. Now a state park, the cave itself once served as a hideout for outlaws and river pirates. Unfortunately, the path to the cave was flooded when we arrived, but it wasn’t our only reason to visit. A free, privately owned ferry service at the Port of Cave-In-Rock, continuously operated since the early 1800s, carries roughly 500 vehicles across the river every day.

Christened the “Loni Jo,” the ferry chugged back from the Kentucky shore and dropped its gate at the foot of Illinois Route 1. The lone crew member waved us forward with a cigarette between his lips, and 10 minutes later, Loni Jo pushed off the banks with just four other cars on board. My wife and I stood on the deck and watched the limestone cliffs rise above the muddy Ohio while a Marathon Petroleum barge vanished in the offing. We drove 15 aimless miles in rural Crittenden County, Ky., before returning to the ferry, anxious to cross again and catch one more sight before the sun dipped below the hills.

We sped back to the forest, past a campy “Sassy” the Sasquatch statue, and north another three miles to the parking lot at Garden of the Gods. The designated wilderness area offers almost 17 miles of hiking and equestrian trails, but an easy quarter-mile “observation trail” leads directly to the celebrated rock formations.

Once the shoreline of a great inland sea, the sandstone here is roughly 320 million years old and reaches four miles below the surface. A major uplift later exposed the bedrock to the elements, which then carved away for 100 million years. The result is the bulbous, swirling, alien sculptures on display today: Anvil Rock, Monkey Face, Mushroom Rock and Camel Rock, featured on the 2016 Illinois state quarter. Soon we had the entire garden to ourselves — we encountered fewer than a dozen people the entire weekend — and as the light dimmed behind an overcast sky, the three of us perched on a ledge near the trail’s end. The trees below merged into a hazy carpet of gray, as if a great fog had lifted from the Ohio. Farm lights flickered in the distance. And somewhere deep in the forest, hidden among the shadows, a band of coyotes howled into the ether.

The next morning, we set our sights 30 miles west on Bell Smith Springs, a National Natural Landmark recommended by Sam Stearns. A late-blooming environmentalist, Stearns grew up in the coal mine spoils that once littered the forest. His father was a miner. His uncles were miners. His brother was a miner, and Stearns himself spent a year below ground.

When he was a boy, he didn’t question the blighted landscape. But when his father took him to play at Bell Smith Springs, untouched by the industry, something felt different. When he watched the tadpoles dart back and forth in the blue-green pools, when he climbed the rocks and ran his fingers through moss thick as wool, “it was like magic,” he says. Today he knows that magic was simply the diversity of a forest left to its own devices. Twenty percent of all known plants and lichens in the entire state of Illinois can be found in this small pocket of the Shawnee.

In 1992, when Stearns learned the Forest Service planned to allow clear-cutting on 3,800 acres just above the canyon at Bell Smith Springs, his journey toward activism began. Four years later, Stearns and an army of other grass-roots environmentalists won a court injunction that prevented logging and all other extraction at the forest for the next 17 years. The Forest Service recently proposed its first commercial timber harvest in three decades.

Stearns’s passion for Bell Smith Springs quickly bumped it to the top of our list. Halfway there, however, we passed two of the largest waterfalls in the state. We pulled off first at Burden Falls, where Burden Creek babbles over a series of small sandstone shelves before crashing 20 feet to the rocks below. The trail shoots into a valley of second-growth hardwoods enveloped by scalloped sandstone cliffs. We would have happily spent the rest of our day exploring every wrinkle of this enchanted valley, but our itinerary was long and January Saturdays exceptionally short.

Six miles later, we arrived at Jackson Falls, one of the most popular rock-climbing venues in Illinois. The view from above was inspired; the view below a postcard — and hardly the popular image of Illinois. But it would take a moderate hike and a perilous descent (for us non-climbers, anyway) to get there. Rounding the canyon rim, the path veered into a narrow crevice between massive sandstone blocks. As if the hazards weren’t obvious, the Forest Service had strapped an emergency spine board to a wooden post directly below. One step at a time, clumsily restraining an overexcited dog, we lowered ourselves into the valley. The stone now huddled around us like husky linemen. We squeezed our way through shadowy corridors, slick with moss, and carried on to the emerald plunge pool at Jackson Falls, where Costello lapped at the water like a parched castaway.

After meandering back to our vehicle, we finally drove the last nine miles to Bell Smith Springs. We descended a fantastical stone staircase, one of many highlights at Shawnee completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. At the bottom, several trails converged beneath a mammoth sandstone outcropping. Only after we finished our lunch along the creek did we realize Devil’s Backbone — the springs’ most popular landmark — was just yards away. Our initial perspective had obscured its full shape, but now here it was: two hulking triangular stones poking from a glassy green pool. From the front they resembled a pair of shark’s teeth; from the side, they merged to form its namesake, a long reptilian spine surfacing from the depths.

We then doubled back and followed the Yellow Diamond Trail toward the largest natural bridge at Shawnee. We hiked a 1.5-mile loop, a truly Edenic journey that skips across a glowing Bay Creek and scrambles up rugged valley walls festooned in green and black bryophytes. After catching our breath at the bridge, we passed a set of iron rungs jutting out from a cliff, a shortcut back to the valley below. We eyed each other and kept moving, but when we passed them again at the bottom, I couldn’t help myself. I strangled every icy rung before reaching up for the next. It did occur to me that a single misstep could leave me broken and bloody on the rocks below, but I was now halfway up and my pride was on the line. I raised my arms in victory after rolling awkwardly off the bars, then swallowed that pride and climbed down twice as slowly, ashamed of the instincts that led me there.

The clock was racing now, the forest growing dim. We rushed back to our vehicle and sped off to another geological novelty. Hiking Stone Face was, admittedly, a gamble; we didn’t know the length of the trail, or if we could reach the formation before sundown. Regardless, we hit the trail one more time. Fifteen minutes later, a wooden fence ushered us above the valley and an unmistakable profile — heavy brow, thick nose, sturdy chin — protruded from the cliff face. We stood on its head for several minutes, watching tiny headlights pierce the twilight below.

By the time we reached our car again, night had fallen. It was only 5:30, but we had hiked over 10 miles, crushed our to-do list, and more than anything else, we were hungry. A cursory Google search led us to Buckethead’s Catfish & BBQ in Stonefort, another small community roughly 20 minutes south. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant was closed for dine-in, but their takeout service was flawless. As we pulled up to the curb, a smiling waitress instantly stepped out the front door, ran our card and returned with a bag full of fried catfish, french fries, green beans, baked beans and hush puppies so rich they made me shudder.

And just like that, our weekend at Shawnee was nearly over. We packed our bags the next morning and hit the road, making one final stop on the way out: the Rim Rock National Recreation Trail. With Costello on the leash, we followed a cascading flight of wooden stairs that delivered us through another mossy stone corridor and down farther to the base of Ox-lot Cave, a colossal sandstone overhang where 19th-century loggers often corralled their livestock. We could have looped back, but instead followed a separate trail to Pounds Hollow Lake. In the summer, Pounds Hollow is a popular swimming and fishing hole, but now, with daggers of ice still dripping from the cliffs above, the lake was deserted. We leaned over the fishing pier and let the silence wrap around us. The lake mirrored the cinnamon forest floor, the skeleton trees, the slate gray sky. A woodpecker drummed somewhere behind us, resounding through the hollow.

“Chicago is the fingernails on the chalkboard of my life,” Stearns joked when I asked him about the Ozarks’ view of the city. “’But I’ve taken literally several thousand people from Chicago on tours of Bell Smith Springs and other places in the Shawnee, and having those people bond with that land is where we’ve gotten the greatest allies for protecting it.”

Go ahead, Sam: add three more to the list.

Vaughan is a writer based in Chicago. His website is carsonvaughan.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @carsonvaughan.

Please Note

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice web page.