Pretty much from the time I moved to Chicago the first time, almost 30 years ago, I’ve had a visit to the Garden of the Gods Wilderness on my bucket list. Last weekend, for Thanksgiving, that dream became a reality.
Millions of years ago, this area was covered by a giant inland sea, with sandstone and other sediment along the shore, which eventually became layers of rock. After a great uplift occurred, draining the inland sea, weather, water, and wind started sculpting the exposed rock into the amazing features seen today.
Thanksgiving morning found us driving down the 6 hours to the Shawnee National Forest, home for the Garden of the Gods. We had a lot of trepidation going into the weekend, as much of the camping in the Forest is first come, first served, so we had no idea if we’d even find somewhere to pitch our tent. Dispersed camping is allowed, but I couldn’t see us humping in all our car camping gear, along with our kids, to some remote section of the Forest. A hotel was our backup plan should it be needed.
When we got to the campground, we had to laugh, because a) it was freezing cold and b) there was only one other diehard camping couple to share the campground with us. Another bucket list item checked off was winter camping, though in this case it was totally unplanned – the weather report had forecast slightly warmer temps, but we made do.
A hike around the short Observation Trail got us warmed up and primed for Thanksgiving dinner, and was the perfect opportunity for the kids to climb on big rocks, squeeze through narrow clefts, and learn a bit about the area we were viewing. Stunning does not do the views justice – it is literally unbelievable that the Garden of the Gods is in Illinois.
While a traditional Thanksgiving feast would have been nice, practicality dictated a slight change in menu. Rather than turkey, we had pesto parmesan chicken meatballs (yum!), with a side of cranberry jelly (I forgot the sweet potatoes). Dessert was pecan pie, gobbled down happily by one and all.
No complaints from anyone when it was time to get in the tent and out of the cold. Making sure everyone had sufficient layers and wasn’t going to freeze overnight, we were soon sleeping.
Our tent is a 3 season tent, so pretty much everybody but me was really, really, really cold during the night. For a special treat and to get everyone warmed up, I made hot cocoa or coffee for all, then packed them into the car for a pancake breakfast, much appreciated by one and all. On the way back into the campground, we stopped for a long hike at Indian Point, a beautiful walk with views that stretch forever into the distance. While a small section of the trail is flat gravel and dirt, much of the walk was very technical, with slippery rocks, exposed roots, and numerous ups and downs to keep things interesting. The kids had a blast scampering up onto ledges, climbing up and over gaps between the enormous rocks, and generally showing a keen appreciation for the environment they found themselves in. We even found a geocache off the trail, which made a nice side trip as we were following the trail. A mid-hike trail mix break kept them fueled for the rest of the time – nearly two hours and not a peep of protest is pretty impressive.
After the initial freezing cold night, it was 3 – 3 whether we should camp again or head home. It seemed prudent to keep those on the fence happy, so we had hot dogs and s’mores for lunch (yes, all the campground food groups in one meal!), broke down camp, and headed home. Though we got home quite late, it was a relief to shower and fall into our own beds, knowing the next day would be a rest day and not one filled with driving.
All in all a really great trip, definitely an area we plan on returning to for more exploring. It was great to try winter camping and to survive, even though we were not at all prepared. Apparently a lot of winter car campers use a propane fueled heater called the Mr Heater, which safely keeps you toasty through the night. We learned about this from our neighboring campers, who made us look like rank amateurs when it comes to car camping. The heater is definitely on my xmas list!
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