What's the most photographed scene in Southern Illinois? A short list would have to include Pomona Natural Bridge, Bald Knob Cross, LaRue-Pine Hills, and the Superman statue in Metropolis.
There's no question, however, that Camel Rock at Garden of the Gods Recreation Area tops the list.
When I visited on a sunny fall October day, Garden of the Gods was swarming with camera-toting tourists. The parking lot for the Observation Trail, the home of Camel Rock, Monkey Face, and other rock formations, was overflowing.
Luckily I was able to dodge the thundering herds while capturing photos of other landmarks, including the Devil's Smokestack:
...the bizarre banded rocks:
...and the squeeze:
I've been reluctant to write about Garden of Gods, since this popular destination doesn't fit into the "Pavement Ends" theme of obscure places to visit. Appearing on the cover of almost every Southern Illinois tourism brochure, this attraction is anything but obscure.
And yet most visitors completely miss two other sights that are just off the entrance road. A large, but unnamed, natural arch graces a bluff that overlooks the access road on the right side.
The Natural Arch and Bridge Society reports that the span is 21 feet. Separated from the main bluff by only a few feet of daylight, the arch makes for an impressive sight from below.
Meanwhile, the Backpackers Parking Lot, located on the left side of the entrance road, provides access to the Indian Point Trail and a selection of even more impressive rock formations.
The bluff has weathered to reveal several large shelters and rooms. Eventually, over geologic timespans, these nooks and crannies might erode to create additional natural arches and bridges.
Soon the loop trail reaches its namesake feature, Indian Point.
Perched at the top of some tall cliffs, Indian Point provides a stunning view to the south.
Between the bluffs, shelters, natural arch, and panoramic views, there's plenty of things to photograph at Garden of the Gods that don't involve Camel Rock.
Driving and hiking directions
From Cape Girardeau, cross the Emerson Bridge and follow Highway 146 across Southern Illinois through McClure, Ware, Anna, Vienna, Golconda. Drive 9.5 miles past Golconda and turn left on Highway 34. Go 7.5 miles and turn right on Karbers Ridge Road. After 1.4 miles, turn left on Garden of the Gods Road, then turn left on the entrance road at the sharp curve.
Look for the Backpackers Parking Lot on the left and park here. Take the Indian Point Trail #108G at the back of the lot. At the fork in the trail, you can choose to continue straight (to Indian Point) or turn left to reach the bluff and interesting rock formations. Either way, the trail will loop back to the fork; the total hiking distance is 1.7 miles.
From the parking lot, walk across the paved entrance road and continue straght ahead on the short trail spur toward the bluffs. Then turn right at the trail intersection and follow the base of the bluffs until you reach the natural arch on the left.