Chicago Sun-Times
With Lori Rackl

Best spots to camp in Illinois

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Outdoor enthusiast and Decatur native John Schirle literally wrote the book on camping in Illinois.

I asked the author of The Best in Tent Camping: Illinois (Menasha Ridge Press, $15.95) to share some of his favorite places to camp in our fair state. Here's what he e-mailed:

Best campground to really get away from it all:

I was most impressed with Trail of Tears State Forest, down in southern IL. There are just 14 established individual campsites, spread out along two one-way forest roads. They are well-separated from one another, but you can drive right to your site, and each is close to an outhouse. Plus four sites have a three-sided wooden Adirondack shelter. Water is available at the ranger station. Otherwise, nothing else but over 5000
acres of densely wooded forest covering hills and ravines. You're also fairly close to lots of neat places in the Shawnee National Forest if you want to hike/explore.

If you're a little more adventurous, there are some state parks/county parks with backpacking sites. Some are only a quarter-mile or so from parking, others several miles. And with certain exceptions, you can camp just about anywhere for free in the vast Shawnee National Forest -- check their web site for the details.

Most under-rated campground:

In general, I would say the county conservation districts/forest preserve district sites. Everyone knows about the state parks, many are familiar with the Shawnee National Forest in southern IL, but often the sites maintained on the county level aren't even well known in their own county. In your area, I like Sugar River Forest Preserve (Winnebago County), with a great RV campground, and also 12 walk-in sites along a very pretty river.

Also Marengo Ridge Forest Preseve (McHenry County) -- nice campground, with about half the sites fairly secluded walk-in tent sites, nice hiking trails. The area is perched atop the Marengo Moraine, a ridge left by the westernmost expansion of one wave of glaciers. From the observation area near the park entrance, you can get quite a view of the undulating prairie stretching out before you.

A little further south, near Danville, Forest Glen County Preserve (Vermilion County) features camping, hiking, a neat little visitor's center, and one of the only remaining fire towers in the state open to the public. (Most have been locked or torn down due to liability concerns.) It's quite a climb, but the view at the top looking out over the Vermilion River valley is impressive.

Best for families with kids:

I like COMLARA County Park. Nice swimming beach with things to play with, playground, lifeguard, tube rental, diving platform, for one. And even though it's a "lake" beach, the swimming area is actually a separate little "lake" off the big lake, so it doesn't have fish, etc., in it. Nice shower house at the beach. Boat rental, lots of well-maintained bike trails, some special activities scheduled during the summer.

A bit closer to home for your readers is Lake Le-Aqua-Na State Park, which also has a small swimming beach.

And in general, for families look for parks/forest preserves with a visitor's center, interactive exhibits, even site interpreters who can teach the kids or have activities for them. I know some places have something like an "explorer's kit" that you can check out of the visitor's center, with various things the kids can use to examine and identify things they see as they hike trails. (I know Argyle Lake State Park does, as well as some of the DuPage County Forest Preserve District sites.)

Best for camping rookies:

Not too far from you all, Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area is pretty good. 71 electric hook-up sites, 25 walk-in tent sites beneath pines, but you actually drive to the sites to set up camp, then take your vehicle back to a parking area. It's good for rookies in that it has showers (always nice), and a great store & restaurant. If you've forgotten something, they may have it, and if you struggle with cooking outdoors, hit the restaurant. They also rent canoes, paddleboats, rowboats and even trolling motors.

In general, a park with a good concessionaire (restaurant & camp store) is a good choice for rookies. You can usually purchase ice, firewood, camping supplies, food, plus eat in air-conditioned comfort.

Also, there are a number of state parks which have simple rental cabins. You have to reserve them well in advance, for weekends, in particular, but if you want to enjoy the camping experience without dealing with tents or an RV, they're a nice choice. This web page:
gives you a map of all the state parks with cabins.

Most beautiful:

Very hard -- so many good choices. As for the view from the campground itself, I like Pharoah Campground at Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee National Forest. I believe it's the highest elevation established campground in the state, and you've got quite a panoramic view from some sites. Plus it's in the midst of a designated wilderness area, so there are no truck noises, no city lights at night -- it's quiet, and you can certainly see the stars on a clear night.

A number of state parks have walk-in tent camping areas spread out on a point on a lake, and those are also beautiful. My favorite is Sam Dale Lake State Park. At most of these you don't have to walk very far at all, and you are rewarded with a nice site on the lakeshore, where you can cast a line in or just sit with a cup of coffee and watch the

And closer to home for your readers would be Apple River Canyon State Park. For peace & quiet & neat topography, Apple River Canyon State Park in the NW corner of the state is very nice. This corner of the state escaped the scouring of the glaciers, and there is left picturesque dolomite canyons with a clear, bubbling stream. Nice hiking, fairly private drive-in campsites suitable for tents or small RVs (no hookups).

What's your favorite place to camp in Illinois? Let me know and I'll post it here.

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Illinois sounds amazing. I am planning to try the camp sites you had mentioned. I guess, places you had shared are all worthy to try, right? Thank you for the information.

Lori & John thank you for the kind words about the Shawnee National Forest. Being a transplant from up north, I could not agree with more. Fifteen years ago me and my wife moved down for school with plans to head out west after that. The beauty of Southern Illinois has kept us here ever since! Southern Illinois is truly a hidden gem.

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This page contains a single entry by Lori Rackl published on June 16, 2010 4:00 AM.

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