Dreaming of Travel: Shawnee National Forest

Published on October 20, 2020 - Updated on October 20, 2020

An oft-overlooked gem in the Midwest, this forest region is an excellent option for either a quick or an extended outdoor adventure!

Shawnee National Forest may be the best-kept secret in the Midwest, especially in the fall when the leaves are changing, and the weather is crisp and cool (and bug-free).  It’s 3 hours driving distance from Nashville, 3 hours from Louisville, 2.5 hours from St. Louis, and 5 hours from Chicago.  It has 279,000 remote and wooded acres and a ton of things to see and do.

My family drove from Nashville for a weekend and we only scratched the surface of what it offers.  We’ll be back for another weekend or two, potentially even longer.

I’ll describe our itinerary below, but I’d reiterate that the potential opportunities are endless.  I bought 20 Day Trips In and Around Shawnee National Forest (written by Larry P. and Donna J. Mahan) to help our family plan because I couldn’t find much information anywhere.  No one I talked to had ever been, and that showed when we visited because there weren’t many people at all. As a result, it was so nice and quiet - it truly felt like we had the place to ourselves!

Day 1: We drove in the late evening to Paducah (~2 hours from Nashville) and slept at the Residence Inn.  Since COVID, we’ve not been traveling much and had hotel points burning a hole in our pocket.  Rooms there, however, are only about $110 and the rooms (ours had a queen bed and fold-out sofa) include a small kitchen and free breakfast.  Masks were required and we found the hotel clean and comfortable.  We also saw several great rental options on Glamping Hub and AirBNB available in the area too.

Garden of the Gods Shawnee National Forest Illiniois.jpg

Day 2: We drove to Garden of the Gods, about an hour from Paducah.  Garden of the Gods has gorgeous views and amazing boulder structures.  Its name aptly describes how awe-inspiring it was.  The Observation Trail is only about ½ a mile long and meanders along the cliff overlooks.  You’ll want to spend a minimum of 45 minutes to an hour walking through it.  The walk is easy for even the smallest of hikers.  Look out for Camel Rock.   There are bathrooms in the parking lot.

Next, drive on about 25 minutes to Elizabethtown (population: 300) for lunch.  One of the few restaurants was E-town River Restaurant right on the river.  It has indoor and outdoor seating, cheap and mostly fried food.  No real kid menu, but they do offer basic grilled cheeses for kids or chicken fingers.  Before you leave the parking lot, walk up to the white pagoda at the top of the hill for great views of the Ohio River.  Also, I’m not sure why, but there is a mini Statue of Liberty there which my kids loved seeing.

After lunch, head towards Cave-in-the-Rock State Park.  This is an awesome cave at the edge of the Ohio River.  It supposedly has a very old and storied past of robbers, etc.  The cave is big and easy to approach (several flights of stairs down to the river and then you are there).  Even little kids can manage as it’s not very far to the cave entrance.  Go all the way inside even without a flashlight and there’s a “sunroof” of sorts that provides enough light at the back.  Keep your eyes open for swallow nests on the exterior of the cave (they look like large dirt dobber nests). 

Cave in the Rock State Park Shawnee National Forest Area.jpg

After visiting the cave, we enjoyed one of the two playgrounds at the park.  Both have a great slide/climbing area and swings.  The lower one also has an old merry-go-round.

On the way back to Paducah is Tower Rock, the highest point on the Ohio River.  If you put in “Tower Rock” in GPS, you’ll find yourself at a clearing near the Ohio River after driving through lots of woods.  Look close and you’ll see a trailhead to “Tower Rock”.  It’s a really easy 0.15 miles to the top and there is a great viewpoint of the river and the surrounding area.

Following our afternoon in nature, we drove back to Paducah to clean up at the hotel and get ready for dinner in town.  Perhaps the most surprising part of our weekend adventure was our meal at Freight House in downtown Paducah.  Founded by Chef Sara Bradley – runner up of season 16 of Top Chef – Freight House gets 5 out of 5 stars for its ambiance, food, kid-friendliness, and service.

Everything was fresh, high quality, and approachable.  Though there is no formal kids’ menu, they happily served our kids' quesadillas.  My husband and I got deviled eggs as a starter and delicious scallops as a main and then we shared a family dessert of chocolate cake.  After dinner, the sweetest and pregnant Sara Bradley gave our girls a tour of the kitchen and showed them the walk-in freezer, the giant dishwasher, and then handed us freshly baked cookies to go.  It’s these kinds of touches that make meals memorable.

Day 3: After breakfast at the hotel, we headed up to Bell Smith Springs Natural Area.  We decided on Mill Branch Trail (orange blaze) for a hike but there are a few others to choose from.  Mill Branch is a two-mile loop that goes along a rocky gorge and then circles back to where you parked.  There are big expanses of exposed rock and in October there was some water but not a lot, so we felt comfortable getting down in the gorge.  Both the walk along the gorge and through the woods were magnificent.

Bell Smith Springs Natural Area near Shawnee National Forest.jpg

This is one of the most treasured family hikes I’ve ever done.  The fall foliage made it beyond compare.  I’d recommend going counter-clockwise on the loop because if you don’t do the whole loop, you can enjoy the most rewarding part of the gorge and then simply turn back.  It gets a little confusing towards the end if you do the whole loop.  I forgot to download AllTrails which was a mistake.  Just keep in mind when you see an opportunity to go towards the white blaze - don’t. Instead veer hard to the left and go down towards a valley. Keep watching for orange blazes that will lead you back to your car.

If you don’t opt for Mill Branch, we heard the Natural Bridge (yellow blaze) is also excellent.  We planned on checking out Burden Falls and Jackson Falls – both are very close to Mill Branch, but the waterfalls were dry in October, so we decided to skip these additional stops and head back to Nashville.


Cell phone signals can be very limited and weak.  Download any maps you may need in advance.

There is limited accommodation in and around the forest.  Plan or bring a tent or be prepared to drive to Paducah for a hotel.

Restaurants are limited in and around the forest.  Bring food and water with you.

Mill Branch Bell Springs Natural Area Shawnee National Forest.jpg

Happy Adventuring!!

What’s your favorite road trip destination? Share your highlights on Instagram @gethappyly.

Explore more of our Dreaming of Travel series in another music lover’s paradise like Memphis, or find your happy place on Nantucket or Tour Michigan's Great Lakes. If you’d prefer, Make Nature Your Focus in Harper’s Ferry, Plan a Trip to Tahoe and The Sequoias, Explore Yosemite, Wander the Beaches of Chincoteague and Assateague, or further fuel your wanderlust in the Dry Tortugas or at Mojave National Preserve. You can also explore the happyly app!

If you have a perfect getaway or a favorite landscape, please reach out to us at team@happyly.com and we'll be excited to cover it! 

Thoughtfully captured by:
Emily O'Grady
Emily O'Grady lives with her daughters Eloise (5) and Charlie (3.5), husband Mick, and their two senior dogs Porter and Francie, in Nashville. They’ve called Music City home for 7 years this September. After Emily and Mick met in New Zealand over 15 years ago, they’ve hiked and backpacked extensively across the globe for months at a time. In their new roles as parents, they’ve hit pause on their most extreme adventures for now, but they are consciously raising their daughters to love and appreciate nature, getting outside and exploring as much as they can in the hills of Tennessee and beyond. During the weekdays, you can find Emily leading teams across Asurion’s Product Development team, bringing the company’s service strategy to life across carrier clients. Before joining Asurion, Emily was an Engagement Manager for McKinsey & Company for 4 years, as well as held Analyst roles with Telephia (Nielsen) and Bank of America Global Corporate and Investment Bank. Emily holds a BBA in Finance, French and European Studies from Southern Methodist University and an MBA from Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management.
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