Garden of the Gods at Shawnee National Forest.
Accidentally hiking the Garden of the Gods backpacker trail at Shawnee National Forest.
The observation walk at Shawnee National Forest’s Garden of the Gods is a quarter mile loop. I knew that because I’d Googled it that morning and thought, “oh, that’s nothing.” That’s less than what I’d walk to get groceries. That’s probably less than I’d walk around a Super Target.
Before I’d left on my Great River Road road trip my friend Heather told me about Shawnee and said I had to go to Garden of the Gods. “Go to Garden of the Gods,” she texted me daily. “You have to go to Garden of the Gods.” And so, I added it to my itinerary.
Fifteen minutes into my trek, however, when I had yet to see anything that resembled a garden that could have been created by gods, I started to curse myself, Heather, and the internet.
“Is this what she sent me to?” I thought. “Was the internet wrong?” I thought. “I wish I had water,” I thought.
But I didn’t have water or a real idea of where the trek led. I had given up searching for more information online after seeing “a quarter mile” and thinking the whole thing would be easy and quick. Instead it was slippery and muddy and hot.
It was twenty minutes in when I came to the rocks. “I should have gotten here sooner,” I thought.
But, I had to admit, the rock formations were impressive and beautiful and huge and the kind of thing worth trekking out the the way for.
At that point I thought for a few moments that I could turn around, that that was what I had come to see. But the path continued and the internet had called it a “loop,” so I trekked on.
The narrow path led me through the trees and down to the bottom of the boulders. As dirt caked at my ankles and my t-shirt stuck to my back all I could think was that now I’d eventually have to hike upwards. And I again wondered if I should turn back.
I was convinced I was in the wrong place. Was this the Garden of the Gods at all? When I’d come here I followed a sign that said parking and trail but there were more arrows pointing forward that I ignored. Had I gone to the right place?
I wasn’t sure, but I kept walking.
After an hour I was standing on a cliff, overlooking the forest, debating my next move.
It’s not that I can’t handle an hour or two of hiking. I can, I swear, I’ve done it before. But I wasn’t prepared for an hour or two of hiking. I didn’t have water, my heavy camera bag was wearing on my shoulder, I’d allotted about a half hour of time.
I was prepared for a stroll.
I’d already been hiking an hour and figured it was another hour to turn around. But I had no idea what was ahead. I had no idea if the trail I was on, knowing that I couldn’t possibly be on the one I’d thought, actually made a loop at all. For all I knew it just continued and continued and continued.
So I turned around, walked, again, past the boulder bottoms, walked up the hill to the top of them, found my car and found the half bottle of warm Coke in the cup holder that I downed in one gulp. And I drove off, turning my car around a half mile up the road, at the giant paved parking lot for the much more touristy observation trail. The trail I most certainly was not on.
I debated parking and taking that trail, seeing what I had come to see. But I had already walked an hour and a half longer than I’d planned.
So I instead drove to a gas station for a bottle of water.