By Jennifer Young

Most of the state of Illinois is characterized by huge tracts of flat land. It is a plains state, after all. But as visitors venture to the tip of the state, heading into the Ozark and Shawnee Hills, they’ll discover the area has more in common geologically with hillier states like Kentucky. Within this region is the Shawnee National Forest.

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The forest encompasses 280,000 acres of land filled with hardwood trees, hilly tracts, rock formations, caves, bluffs, waterfalls, hiking trails, and campgrounds. Although most people head into the forest to enjoy its wilderness experiences during summer and the early weeks of fall, visiting now affords some arresting views–as well as an opportunity to cut down your own Christmas trees to enjoy for the holidays.

In November, officials of the Shawnee National Forest announced they would be offering permits for Christmas trees this year. Only one permit is allowed per household and permits cost $5.00. The permit entitles holders to harvest a Christmas tree, a pine tree (not a bald cypress), on national forest land. In short, you can bring your own chainsaw, harvest a pine tree of your choosing, and haul it home for $5, providing you adhere to the forest’s motor vehicle restrictions. According to reports, this is the first time that the Shawnee National Forest has allowed the public to harvest Christmas trees from its lands.

Of course, a $5 Christmas tree shouldn’t be the only draw to this majestic part of the state. There are some excellent reasons to visit the national forest during this time of year. For example, plan on visiting the Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area. The area, steeper and rockier than most other parts of the state, is celebrated for its distinctive rock formations. Because most of the wilderness foliage has fallen by this time of year, the rock formations and cliffs are even more dramatic to view and photograph.

You can also time your Christmas tree harvest with a stay at the Timber Ridge Outpost & Cabins , which is open year round. The cabins are cozy and feature heat as well as kitchenettes. Even at this time of year, visitors can enjoy hiking and exploring the regions caves, rock formations, and amazing bluffs. Timber Ridge has been featured in the Saturday Evening Post and offers discounts to visitors at this time of year.

Other areas and activities of the Shawnee National Forest you might wish to enjoy this time of year include the Little Grand Canyon Trail (featuring views of the Mississippi floodplain), the Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour by zipline, hike to the Pomona Natural Bridge or the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, or experience events at area wineries on the Shawnee Wine Trail such as the Holiday Open House .

Keep in mind that if you visit to harvest a Christmas tree, all permit conditions are reviewed when you purchase your permit at from the Shawnee National Forest Service. For instance, you may not cut down a tree from a restricted area. According to forest officials, visitors can purchase permits at any of the three service offices that are located in Harrisburg, Jonesboro, and Vienna.