The trail can be a fun getting away from it all communing with Nature experience, or a scary, painful day you will not enjoy depending on your attitude and preparation.
The most important thing might be a Map. I did actually do a 3 day hike without one because I left it in the van, but I did have the big one on the overview page and winged it. The Park Ranger stations have free maps for all the popular sections around Garden of the Gods and the rest of the eastern half. The western half of the trail is less popular but they have some maps for this side as well.
Pack more water than you will need. You can always water the plants at the parking area when you leave. Take a compass. It is easy to get turned around and you want to have an idea what direction the trail you accidentally got on is going. Cell phones are great if they work. You came here to get away from it all. You will also get away from phone service. I carry an old Nokia with an antenna! It gets a couple bars where my wife’s Galaxy gets nothing, but it still can’t get a signal in some places.
You will notice most of my hikes are in the late Fall after the first frost, or early in the Spring. Southern IL is home to what surely is the most prolific tick population in the world. The fall is the best time to avoid them. There is no time in the Spring that is Early enough. One of the park rangers told me they got the first tick report last year in February, though they aren’t too bad until warm weather. The Chigger population is also second to none. They usually don’t get going good until May-June, but after that lookout. I made the mistake of looking for a nice overlook camping area by wading through a field of grass to get to the edge. I got a couple hundred chigger bites that night and hand towel washing off with shampoo didn’t make a difference after the damage was done.
NEVER walk through tall grass if you can help it through the warmer time of the year. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you get eaten alive by chiggers. You won’t know which until it is far too late to do anything about it. The bites last for weeks and don’t seem to lessen in intensity for days & days. Gives you something to think about besides the biting flies and ticks I guess. We use some of those sprays & ointments that are supposed to repel bugs on our skin & clothes. Nothing works 100% or I would be out in the woods every weekend.
Southern IL is also where all the Poison Ivy in the world came from. Some places on the trail are covered in poison ivy. In the Spring before it comes out or the Fall after it has dried up and the leaves are yellow are the best times to avoid it. The rest of the time wearing long pants and trying to avoid touching it are the way to go. The new route to Indian Kitchen that nobody uses is just a deer trail through acres of Poison Ivy in the summer. The horses that stomp in down are a good thing on these sections.
Avoiding mud & high water is something else to consider. The shared trails are mud bogs after a rain for a few days. Take boots and be prepared to change clothes & shoes when you get back to your car.
There are poisonous snakes in the Forest. Use trail sense and step onto logs instead of over them. Give them time to move and give them room if you see any.
I got a nice photo of a pair of Copperheads last Fall along a side trail (The red dot trail from the Giant City Campground) doing their intertwining mating ritual. It was all fun until they noticed me and looked at me, then it was time to head on down the trail.
Those were the second poisonous snakes I have ever seen in the Shawnee, the other being a Water Moccasin (Cottonmouth) over at a swamp in a tree along a trail in a different part of the state (I can’t remember where, its been 15 years). So they aren’t really common, but they do close a road below the bluffs at the West end of the trail every Spring & Fall for the annual reptile migration (Snake road its known as locally)to the Mississippi bottom lands.
Aside from the Bugs, Snakes, mud, poison Ivy and getting lost, it is a WONDERFUL place to see sights you never knew existed and the memories will last a lifetime, or in my case a year or two. That’s why I take lots of photos. There are a LOT of well traveled trails you can’t get lost on going to a lot of easy access viewing areas. As I have said before, several of the best areas you can just drive to. Some though are a couple of hour hike up and down hills. I’ll get particular in my next update.