Metro-East News

Shawnee National Forest areas temporarily close due to overcrowding

Several Shawnee National Forest areas temporarily closed for safety concerns due to overcrowding from visitors to see the 2017 total solar eclipse in Southern Illinois.
Several Shawnee National Forest areas temporarily closed for safety concerns due to overcrowding from visitors to see the 2017 total solar eclipse in Southern Illinois.

Garden of the Gods and two other areas in Shawnee National Forest have temporarily closed due to safety issues as eclipse visitors pour into the parks.

Bell Smith Springs and Jackson Falls, along with the forest’s most popular area, Garden of the Gods, have also been shut down for safety concerns due to high traffic. Shawnee National Forest in Herod is in the path of totality for Monday’s solar eclipse, making it a popular viewing destination.

Tracy Fidler, public affairs officer of the National Forest Service, said it’s difficult to tell how many people are in the area right now, but they had originally estimated as many as 300,000 could come to the forest for the eclipse.

The problem with so many people, however, is that the narrow roads around places like Garden of the Gods have become packed with cars either parked on the side of the road or trying to get closer to the parking lot.

With the increased traffic limiting space, there are concerns about whether emergency vehicles would be able to quickly get to where they need to go and be able to leave again.

“At some point, only some many cars fit in and if people park along the side of the road, there isn’t enough for room emergency vehicles to get through or to turn around,” Fiddler said.

Fiddler said they may have to close some of these spots tomorrow as well.

“It’s very unusual,” Fiddler said. “You hear about this happening at Yellowstone National Park but not at Shawnee National Forest.”

The National Forest Service, which usually has nine campgrounds spread across Shawnee National Forest’s 280,000 acres, opened three additional camping areas in preparation for the eclipse. As of Saturday, all of the campgrounds were full.

Fiddler said with some overnight work, they were able to open up more areas for people to camp in order to watch the solar eclipse. Oakwood Bottoms, off of Great River Road, and the Johnson Creek Recreation Area by Kinkaid Lake were available for campers on a first-come, first-served basis as of Sunday afternoon.

“We’re trying to make sure everyone will have a really great time,” Fiddler said. “But what’s most important is safety first.”

Shawnee National Forest also offers free “primitive camping,” where campers can set up their tent anywhere in the forest. People are also welcome to hike to spots like Garden of the Gods and leave their cars elsewhere, Fiddler said.

The service’s Facebook page also lists different spots to visit outside of campgrounds, including natural attractions like Pounds Hollow, Rim Rock and Iron Furnace.

About a million people per year visit Shawnee National Forest, Fiddler said, but this is the busiest she’s ever seen the forest. The busyness, however, is a positive rather than a problem, she said.

“We love to have the opportunity to share America’s great nature with people,” she said.

Kaley Johnson: 618-239-2526, @KaleyJohnson6

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