UPDATED NOV 25, 2019
Need to unplug? Miss seeing the stars? You don’t have to go too far from the city to get the nature experience you're looking for. Check out our list of Chicagoland’s best campgrounds!
Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin is 22,000 acres of fine natural resources about two hours from Chicago. Within all that acreage, you’ll find over 100 miles of trails and a landscape designed exclusively by the notorious Ice Age of 10,000 years ago. There are options to camp at maintained campgrounds or backpack to a primitive shelter. Fitt Tip: Should you chose to backpack, make sure you’re parking in the right area — the forest is divided in two units (North and South), and this has confused some campers in the past.
Can you even call yourself a Chicagoan if you’ve never visited the Indiana Dunes State Park? Some of the best beach along Lake Michigan’s shoreline is found at the Dunes. In a place once called the “Everglades of the North”, there are tremendous opportunities to connect with the natural world. What do we love most about the area? Sprinting up the dunes for an incredible view of the lake (and an intense workout). The drive to the state park is about an hour, but you can also take the South Shore Line from Millennium Station to Dune Park Station.
Endless summer camp for adults? Yes please! That's the vibe of Wandawega Lake Resort, aka Camp Wandawega, a Wisconsin getaway just an hour and 45 minutes from the city. Here, you can stay in a rustic, fully furnished cottage, settle into the Bunkhouse, or post up in an old-school Boy Scout tent. You'll wake up to a full slate of recreational activities — think hiking, hatchet throwing, and shuffleboard. While there's no mess hall, there are charcoal grills for use and many nearby restaurants to visit. You're encouraged to read their Manifesto of Low Expectations to get the REAL low-down on what to expect.
Three hours from Chicago in the middle of Illinois you'll find expansive, forested sand dunes and rare, native habitats. The Sand Ridge State Forest is an area of 7,200 acres just southwest of Peoria, IL, constructed by a serious glacial outwash and nurtured by a meteorological phenomenon. Once the glaciers receded, the region endured a spell of arid conditions causing a number of plants and animals to migrate from the southwest. Visit the Sand Ridge for challenging hikes through unique landscapes like sand-oak savanna, sand prairie, and towering plantations of pine. Camp at front-country campsites or backpack your way to central Illinois’ best-kept secret. Bird-watcher? Poke your binoculars out of the tent flap to spot the vibrant indigo bunting or elusive scarlet tanager.
Take the scenic route (about a three-hour drive) to Turkey Run through the heart of the famous covered bridges of Indiana. Deep ravines, cliffs, and bluffs compose strenuous trails to hike, and you'll likely be tempted to canoe, float, or swim in Sugar Creek to cool off on those hot summer days, too. When each day is through, pitch your tent at one of over 200 electric campsites or two primitive youth group campgrounds. Not feeling the tent? Rent a cabin or go all-out and spring for a suite at the Turkey Run Inn.
In an area known as the Driftless Region, Apple River Canyon sits in the northwest corner of Illinois. Within the park, rocky, rugged terrain carved by the Apple River—mysteriously left untouched by the glaciers—provides scenic views and great hiking along five trails. Bring your fly fishing gear in the spring, as the trout always bite. The drive will take about two and a half hours, just enough time to feel like you’re truly getting away from the city.
Just west of Madison, WI, Governor Dodge State Park is known for its ancient sandstone bluffs and rich valleys, which are encompassed by over 5,000 acres of public land. Good luck finding the time to squeeze in all the available recreation, though; there are off-road trails for mountain biking, equestrian trails, bouldering, and more. Fitt Tip: do your research before bouldering at Dodge — the rock is sandstone so some areas are much better suited for the sport than others.
Curious to know what Chicagoland looked like before settlement and Mrs. O’Leary’s cow burned the place down? Chain O’Lakes State Park is a great representation of native Illinois, where you'll find prairie, savanna, marsh, and forest all in one place. The gently rolling terrain is perfect for a scenic trail run in the morning as the land around you comes to life. If you’ve ever been curious about local wildlife and habitat, this is a great place to learn, explore, and stargaze. And if you’re up for a journey, you can rent canoes or kayaks to paddle the Fox River and even make it across state lines to Wisconsin in two hours.
Don't want to leave Cook County? Lucky for you, the Forest Preserves District of Cook County has you covered. Camp Bullfrog Lake is the answer to the quick escape from cubicle country. Around the lake, you can rent a small craft from the park district or take to the well-known trail system of the Palos Hills. This is an area ravaged by glacial outwash, which means you can expect some varying terrain not typical of the Midwest. Fitt Tip: All Cook County campgrounds have basic camp equipment for rent and purchase.
The Rock, running through Grand Detour, IL, is formidable and has carved islands through supple turf over thousands of years. Privately owned, some islands are outfitted for camping. The campgrounds are spacious and offer a primitive experience right on the river. Flocks of white pelicans can be seen diving for fish, as can bald eagles and all kinds of wildlife doing their wildlife thing.