National Treasures Here in the Middle.

By Phil Nwafor \

National Treasures Here in the Middle.

It’s National Parks Week (April 17th – 24th)!
And while there are more than 400 National Park sites throughout the US, due to the pandemic, many may seem so much further away this year, especially for us Midwesterners (aka ‘flatlanders’).
The idea of National Parks likely conjures up images of impossible Arches, vast deserts and endless canyons. Many of us have childhood memories filled with family vacations to these very destinations. The long road trips before the advent of iPads and in-vehicle wifi took on a different tenor with needed distractions. Armed with maps and snacks, families spent hours upon hours playing road trip games such “Eye Spy” or “21 questions”, engaging in sing-a-longs, and watching the varying landscapes roll by. Upon arriving at the National Park of choice, the hours spent in the car were soon forgotten! Taking in the scenery, hiking, swimming, and exploring served as a great reward for hours spent in the car.

Garden of the Gods Overlook.

Some of the moments that stand out in my memory are the herds of Bison wandering by in Badlands National Park, the majestic “giants” and rich air of Sequoia National Forest, and taking in the colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring along the boardwalks of Yellowstone. Hardly typical of the terrain in the heartland. Yet, there are still opportunities to appreciate the park system locally, celebrate these incredible national treasures, while recreating responsibly at the many locales you may not have considered “National Parks” – our beautiful National Forests and Shorelines.

Ready to set up camp.

Shawnee National Forest is a prime example. Located about 6 hours from Chicago, this area contains over 250,000 acres of beauty in Southern Illinois that many people don’t even know exists. Filled with rock formations and hidden waterfalls, it offers biking, walking, and horseback trails galore. There is even a large lake in Glendale Recreation Area where families can rent non-motorized boats. Our preference is to go in the fall, to avoid the humidity and to take advantage of the fall foliage and colors.
Some of our favorite areas within Shawnee are:
  • Garden of the Gods: Observation Trail contains stunning panoramic views and sunsets here are breathtaking!
  • Bell Smith Springs: Walk along the series of clear, rocky streams and scenic canyons bordered by high sandstone cliffs and an abundance of vegetation unique to IL. Amazing place with unique rock formations such as Devil’s backbone, Boulder Falls, and the great natural bridge. It is not unusual to be deep in the forest among, the streams, ferns, and rock formations without seeing another soul. 8 total miles of interconnected trails, most of them being kid friendly.
  • Ferne Clyffe: If you’re looking for one of those picture-perfect hikes often seen in travel brochures where the kids are playing in a small stream with great views behind them, the waterfall hike at Ferne Clyffe is the place for you. All along this hike there are beautiful rock formations that just beg to be explored up close and personal.
  • Rim Rock: Scenic trail leading around the edge of a rock escarpment. Mid-way through the trail you have the opportunity to descend wooden stairs and pass between rock slabs to the hollow below.

Plenty of campgrounds can be found at and on the way to Shawnee.
It is always cozy inside the Cricket no matter what the season.
Savoring some down time.
A somewhat secret (and vertical) passage in Bell Smith Springs.
Comfortable shoes are a must as you discover the many rock formations in Shawnee National Park.
Walking along meandering streams is another highlight in Shawnee.

Another one of our favorite “local” destinations is the Indiana Dunes National Seashore which hugs 15 miles of the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Yes! It too is a part of our vast park system. It is perfect for a few days of swimming, sunbathing, climbing & running down giant dunes before finally retreating to our campsite at night feeling content and exhausted.

Why does campsite food always taste so good?!?
Feeling accomplished after hiking a sizable dune.
Everyone in the family has to pull their own weight when camping.
Bedtime stories in the Cricket are extra special (mood lighting included).

As you consider plans for the year ahead, we hope you strongly consider adding one (or more) National Parks, Forests, or Seashore, to the itinerary!
The National park app is very handy in providing information on trails, parking, admission and safety guidelines.
Go out and explore! And perhaps we will see you out on a trail someday.

One of us is feeling extra worn out from all of the dune climbing.
Time for a refreshment and escape from the sun.
Family adventures bring out the smiles.
Highlights of the summer usually include the Cricket.
Beach + Dune Climbing = Perfect Day
Confident she can make it up this hill.
What a view!
Breathtaking sunset views at Garden of the Gods.