As I stood on the edge of a cliff in Southern Illinois' Garden
of the Gods, I felt like I could see for miles, taking in
breathtaking views of a gorgeous green landscape.
Aside from standing on the top floors of the man-made Willis Tower, it's not often that Illinois can provide views from these heights. The Shawnee National Forest's Garden of the Gods, roughly a six-hour drive from Chicago, erases the impression of Illinois as a flat Midwestern plain and offers a bit of adventure for families of all ages.
Likewise, on the same Southern Illinois trip, we found excellent hikes to do with our two toddlers in the wooded, rocky Giant City State Park, about 60 miles west of the Garden of the Gods. (Mom and Dad even got a special treat during stops along the nearby Shawnee Hills Wine Trail.)
The Garden of the Gods observation trail takes less than an hour, but winds through woods and onto rocky perches overlooking a sea of green. My 3-year-old was proud to have "hiked" on his own and to be higher than the tree tops.
To the west, Giant City State Park takes its name from the popular "Giant City Streets," towering slabs of rock that form giant walled passageways in the woods. As we navigated through the cool rocky hallways of the "Streets" on a hot day, it was like the air conditioning had been flipped on. The park offered great storytelling material as well-with names carved onto the walls during the Civil War and rock shelters that have ceilings blackened from fires set long ago.
The finely crafted Giant City Lodge and restaurant made a great home base for our Southern Illinois adventure. We stayed in a "bluff cabin," with a deck, living area and separate bedroom, where we could put the kids to bed. (Cabins range from $75-$150 per night.) As we sat on the deck with a bottle of wine purchased on the nearby Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, we were already plotting future trips back when the kids are older and ready to ratchet up the adventure a notch.