Prairie Fever » Camping

New books released!

Just in time for the arrival of summer in the Midwest, I’m thrilled to announce the release of four new outdoor recreation guidebooks that I wrote. Here they are.

I’ve been busy posting photos and putting together slide show/videos highlighting many of the destinations in the books. Here’s one of the slide shows that prominently features my friend, Tim Merello.

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New guidebooks coming

Tunnel Hill Trail in Southern Illinois

Tunnel Hill Trail in Southern Illinois

Anyone who’s passed within 100 feet of me during the past year knows that I have four new guidebooks that will be released this coming spring.

Three of the books—Best Illinois Rail Trails, Illinois Road Biking, and Camping Illinois—required many months of research and writing. While researching the books, I camped for several months and I drove and bicycled for a few thousand miles. I explored Illinois from head to toe, visiting nearly every major park and most of the state’s historic attractions. I explored the rocky cliffs in the Shawnee National Forest and I cycled along the banks of the state’s big rivers. I traveled for many miles on old farm roads where the only sound was the twittering of sparrows.

All in all, it’s been the best job I’ve ever had. I love the process of exploring new places, gathering information, and then shaping the details into something that is eminently useful and fun to read. While this process gives me a special thrill, even more satisfying is the next step—getting the books into the hands of readers.

The other book to be released this spring is a new, shorter version of my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago. It’s called Easy Hikes Close to Home: Chicago and it’s geared specifically toward newbie hikers who are interested in less strenuous local hikes. Like the other books, I’m eager to see this book put to good use. Enticing new people to explore local trails is an exciting prospect.

All four books are now available for pre-order on Amazon.com. Titles listed below link to a description of each book, its full table of contents, and a page for pre-ordering.

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Biking and paddling the Michigan coast

My friend Kari Lydersen recently interviewed me for a short piece for the Great Lakes Town Hall, a website where she served as a guest writer. She wanted to learn more about a trip I took in August bicycling the west coast of Michigan. As I explain below, for much of the trip, I was hauling my folding kayak with a bicycle trailer.

After reading the interview, be sure to check out Great Lakes Town Hall. It’s an excellent website with plenty of news and views on the Great Lakes.

My kayak awaits assembly on North Manitou Island.

My kayak awaits assembly on North Manitou Island.

Q: How exactly did you travel by kayak and bike down the coast of Lake Michigan?

The idea for the trip was to combine a couple of my favorite outdoor activities–cycling and kayaking–while exploring some of the west coast of Michigan’s lower peninsula. For much of the trip, I was hauling my sea kayak (it folds up into a suitcase-sized bag that weighs about 35 lbs) behind me in a bike trailer. I stayed as close to the shoreline as possible and camped most of the time at the numerous parks along the way.

I started the 10-day trip by paddling around North Manitou Island off the coast of Sleeping Bear Dunes. From there, I bicycled my way down to Muskegon, stopping frequently for paddling, lollygagging on beaches, bike rides and exploring parks and towns. When I reached Muskegon, I took the ferry to Milwaukee and then rode home to Chicago.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Q: It was a windy and stormy few weeks; how did you deal with the weather? Were there times you wanted to be comfortable and dry at home?

Sure, there were a handful of times when I would have liked to be home on the couch. I’ve learned that having a fairly loose itinerary helps a lot. That way, you don’t feel compelled to push yourself to ride or paddle through conditions that may be uncomfortable, or perhaps dangerous. Since I was paddling by myself, I took a very cautious approach to paddling in the lake, and avoided it if lake waves were more than one foot.

During the trip, it rained three days or so and a couple nights. Fortunately, for a couple of those days, I was able to forgo campgrounds and stay in an affordable little motel right on the lake. I had stayed in the motel on my prior travels in the area. It’s located in a village called Arcadia, just 40 miles southwest of Traverse City. There are big beautiful dunes, excellent beaches, and a recently opened nature preserve with miles of hiking trails. And surprisingly, no tourism to speak of. That’s the beauty of this area–unbelievable natural beauty and, if you look for it, plenty of places where you can have a beach or a towering dune all to yourself.

One evening while in a state park campground during pouring rain, instead of setting up my tent in the rain, I decided to sleep under a picnic shelter. I was nervous when the park’s cleaning crew visited the shelter in the early morning, and thought they might have some harsh words and even call the police. Instead, they wanted to hear about my trip and were eager to offer advice for the next leg of the journey. It’s a perfect example of how welcoming people tend to be toward those traveling on a bicycle.

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Q: Do your travels like this show people can explore the Great Lakes region even without a car or lots of money?

How lucky we are to live on the Great Lakes! All this beauty so close to home presents a strong invitation to explore. As the author of a handful of outdoor guidebooks focusing on Illinois and the Chicago area, I feel like part of my job is to convince people that the Midwest and Great Lakes region offer some wonderful places to visit. The famous parks of the nation are great to see, but how often can you do that? How often can people on a budget do that?

Michigan and much of the Great Lakes region is pretty well suited for bicycle travel. Plenty of quiet, scenic roads. Towns and parks appear frequently. Plenty of hills that are manageable on a bike. A minimal number of big urban areas to navigate. That said, I’ve learned to beware of heavily trafficked roads. Several years back, my brother and I bicycled around Lake Superior. Ninety percent of the route was great, but in a few places we were stuck riding alongside heavy truck traffic on the Trans Canada Highway with no alternate routes.

I like how traveling on a bicycle cuts expenses substantially. I also like how it puts you fully into the setting. Taking a vacation on a bicycle makes me think about things differently. I think about time differently because, of course, the pace is slower. I think about the wind, the sun, the landscape, and the plants and animals more fully. Having grown up in west Michigan, I had traveled this coast perhaps a dozen times. So I wasn’t expecting to discover much that was new to me. I was wrong. While cycling and paddling, I got to know the water and the terrain much better.

sunflower field and barn

Q: You said you enjoyed traveling alone, why?

I like traveling alone because I find that people feel more comfortable approaching a solo traveler. For me, a big part of the thrill of travel is meeting people from the area. I also find that I feel more compelled to strike up conversations while traveling solo. Traveling by myself, I sometimes get a little desperate for conversation–and need something to distract me from my own thoughts. I also want to learn about the area. To do this, I’ve become adept at finding people who don’t look like they’re in a hurry and asking them for directions, asking about local history, and just striking up idle chitchat.

Q: What is your favorite spot on the Great Lakes, why?

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on the south shore of Lake Superior. Years back, I paddled and camped for several days along Pictured Rocks, and was transfixed by the colored cliffs, waterfalls, and beaches. While paddling the shoreline, you can see house-sized boulders within the strikingly clear water. It looks like the ruins of a sunken city. A remote ambience adds much to this place. Lake Superior has always held a special place for me–I’ve been camping on its shore since I was child.

In second place is the Chicago shoreline. Instead of the sandstone cliffs at Pictured Rocks, the cliffs in Chicago are skyscrapers. The shoreline offers some 20 miles of parkland in the shadow of the most enormous and arresting buildings in the world. I love the Chicago shoreline because it’s where the city comes together; it’s the city at its best. Fortunately, the city has begun embracing the shoreline more fully, making it more accessible and giving it proper status as the city’s front yard.

The page where the interview appears is here.

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Hiking with kids means having fun

Hiking with kids means having fun.

There’s no arguing with the benefits of taking kids on a hike. It allows the family to spend time together, keep fit, and experience the pleasure of exploring the natural world.

When looking for a Chicago-area hiking spot to bring the family, keep in mind that some destinations will be better than others.

  • A visitors center with engaging nature exhibits is always a plus for kids.
  • Generally, younger children will prefer a shorter hike through a gentle landscape.
  • Avoid places that are overly busy. During summer weekends, Chicago’s Lakeshore Path or Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in DuPage County can be overwhelming, not to mention dangerous, for a small child on foot.
  • Build a child’s interest by asking him or her to help choose the destination. Consider your own preferences, too. If parents are enthusiastic, it will likely rub off on the kids.

So your kids are on the trail, now what? The trick, as many parents know, is making sure the kids have fun. The June 2009 issue of Backpacker magazine contains a short article with some great tips on hiking with kids. Here are a few of the suggestions offered:

  • Start hiking early and quit before their energy goes on a sharp decline.
  • Make sure you match the kids’ interests and hiking ability with the right trail and the length of time hiking. Take a rest break every half hour or so.
  • Play hide and seek by having the kids run ahead on the trail. After everyone walks by, the kids can surprise the family from behind.
  • Ask kids to find items along the trail: a purple flower, a red rock, or a type of leaf.
  • Consider bringing items such as binoculars, a magnifying glass, and a camera.

Local parks and county forest preserves throughout the region offer a host of fun programs geared toward teaching kids about the natural world. Keep watch for activities in your community on these websites:

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Parents may find it useful to check out my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago. It lists the top kid-friendly hiking destinations in the Chicago area and describes each hike in detail.

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7 tips for planning a camping trip in Illinois

Tent camping at Johnson-Sauk State Park in northern Illinois.

Johnson-Sauk State Park in northern Illinois.

Preparing for a camping trip is mostly an intuitive process. In broad terms, you choose a destination, pack your food and gear, and then make your escape. Pretty simple. But as seasoned campers know, snags can occur rather easily in the process. The goal is to avoid becoming the camper who arrives at the full campground or the one who realizes the site he or she reserved sits alongside a busy expressway.

Here’s a list of tips on planning a camping excursion gleaned from my experience researching Camping Illinois, a guidebook that required many weeks of camping and traveling throughout Illinois. Some of the suggestions will be familiar; perhaps others are not.

1. Head to the public campgrounds. If you’re looking for scenic terrain, the best hiking and fishing, and generally well-maintained facilities, go to public campgrounds operated by a host of governmental agencies, from the local to the federal level. While there are exceptions, private campgrounds focus less on scenic beauty and more on a mildly resort-like atmosphere with game rooms, activities, and opportunities for socializing.

the walk-in campsites at Kinkaid Lake in southern Illinois occupy a finger of land reaching into the lake.

The walk-in campsites at Kinkaid Lake in southern Illinois occupy a finger of land reaching into the lake.

2. Chat with park rangers. Park staff people are not consulted enough. They offer a deep well of useful information that never appears within brochures and websites. As soon as you start to seriously consider a particular destination, give the park a call and share your plans. They’ll tell you about expected number of visitors for a certain time, amenities in the park, and, of course, if a campground is closed for maintenance, modifications, or soggy ground.

Illinois contains dozens of riverside campgrounds that often close with little notice due to flooding in spring and sometimes during summer. Once the floodwaters recede from the campground, a great deal of cleanup must occur. Strained park budgets and limited staff can prolong the cleanup process, sometimes for the entire season. I once visited a campground in southern Illinois that was shuttered because a landslide had blocked the access road four months prior to my visit.

Another reason to call the campground before arriving is to find out if hunters will be present. Many state parks allow hunting in fall and winter.

While checking in with the park staff, you can ask about nearby attractions, the best trails to hike, the best local fishing spots, favorite campsites, and what flowers will be blooming when you arrive. If wild turkeys or bobcats live within the park, park rangers will know. Just remember to be extremely polite and thank them for their generosity.

3. Expect plenty of company on holiday weekends. As an anti-social camper, I dread hitting campgrounds on holiday weekends. While researching Camping Illinois, I sometimes stayed in hotels on holiday weekends just to avoid the crowds. Not all campgrounds fill up on holiday weekends, but most do—especially the more popular campgrounds.

Here’s another reason to rethink the holiday weekend campout: In 2008, state parks in Illinois jacked up their fees considerably for camping during holiday weekends at sites with amenities like electric hookups.

If you feel compelled to camp on a holiday weekend and prefer a quieter camping experience, you might choose a campground with walk-in sites, which tend to have fewer visitors. The further campers must walk, the fewer people you’ll find. Another option is to hit one of Illinois’ backpacking trails at places such as Sand Ridge State Forest near Peoria, Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois, or Forest Glen County Park near Danville.

The campsites at Rauchfuss Hill State Recreation Area in southern Illinois sit on high bluff above the Ohio River.

The campsites at Rauchfuss Hill State Recreation Area in southern Illinois sit on high bluff above the Ohio River.

4. Consider reservations on summer weekends. If you’re visiting a park with a reputation for being fairly busy (state parks within range of Chicago, for example), make reservations. Before you make reservations, though, contact the park. Staff will know the expected turnout for a particular weekend. Reservations are likely a prudent choice also if there is an event in the area, or if there are no alternative campgrounds in the immediate the area and your travel plans hinge on local camping.

In the Illinois State Park system, reservations are made through individual parks and must be mailed or dropped off in person (no e-mail reservations accepted). Reservations require the first night’s camping fee as well as a nonrefundable $5 reservation fee. Some parks have their own reservation form and others use a generic form (download the forms).

If reservations are accepted at campgrounds operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, make the reservations online or calling (877) 444-6777. For the county and local campgrounds that accept reservations, contact the local management agency.

5. Be prepared for bothersome bugs and plants. A nasty encounter with poison ivy can put a big damper on your outdoor vacation. Poison ivy is a common plant throughout most of Illinois: it occurs as a vine or groundcover, three leaflets to a leaf. It contains urushiol, which is responsible for the skin rash. After contact, raised lines or blisters will occur on the skin. Don’t scratch it. Wash and dry the surface, and then apply calamine lotion to dry it out.

Most often, mosquitoes and other biting insects are more of a nuisance than a danger. Using insect repellant, wearing pants and long sleeves, and avoiding areas where the insects congregate all are strategies to keep from getting bitten.

If you’re spending ample time outdoors you should know about the diseases spread by some insects. Individuals can become infected by the West Nile virus if bitten by an infected mosquito.  Culex mosquitoes, the primary varieties that can transmit West Nile virus to humans, thrive in urban rather than natural areas. Insect repellant and protective clothing are the best preventative measures. Remember to follow instructions on the insect repellant, especially when applying to children.

Ticks are often found on brush and tall grass waiting to catch a ride on a warm-blooded passerby. While they’re most active in early and mid-summer, you should keep an eye peeled for them throughout spring, summer, and fall. Deer ticks, the primary carrier of Lyme disease, are very small, sometimes only the size of a poppy seed.  For hikers, one of the most common places to find ticks is inside the top edge of your sock (ticks need some type of backstop to start drilling into the skin).

To minimize your contact with ticks, some people choose to wear light clothing so this dark-colored insect can be spotted right away. Insect repellent containing DEET is an effective deterrent. Most importantly, be sure to visually check yourself, especially if you’re out on a hike. If it’s prime tick season, you’ll want to check your exposed skin (particularly your legs, if they are exposed) every hour or so and then do a more thorough examination back in your campsite or in the shower. For ticks that are already embedded, tweezers work best for removal. Speaking of pesky insects…

6. Know the laws regarding firewood transportation.
The emerald ash borer is a green beetle, native to Asia, that has already killed 40 million ash trees in the U.S., and threatens to kill many more. To prevent the spread of this invasive insect, you should know the rules restricting the transportation of firewood. If you live in the 18-county area of northeastern Illinois or in certain parts of Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, you may not bring firewood from home. Instead, you must acquire firewood locally. (Most campgrounds offer some nearby options for purchasing firewood). Learn what parts of the Midwest have firewood quarantines.

Dense woods surround this walk-in campsite at Sangchris Lake State park in central Illinois.

Dense woods surround this walk-in campsite at Sangchris Lake State Park in central Illinois.


7. Keep the packing strategy and the gear list as simple as possible.
I keep my camping gear in a couple of large plastic containers all in one location. After a brief process of weeding and consolidating, the containers go right from the storage shelf into the car. I don’t have to go room to room looking for gear, nor do I have to transfer gear to a new container. When it’s easy to pack and make my escape, I find that I’m likely to head out more often.

Instead of cramming the car with gear for every possible need, I try to bring just enough gear to make my stay safe and comfortable. The quantity and variety of camping gear will depend on the time of year, the destination, and the level of comfort that one prefers. Along with a tent, sleeping bags, food, and a flashlight, you may consider bringing items such as a gas stove, a lantern, and large water container. Some campers bring extra items that will add to their comfort such as a hammock, a small weather radio, and a tarp to hang above the picnic table to block the rain and sun. If you plan to hike, be sure to bring a daypack with padded straps to carry items such as snacks, water, raingear, an extra sweater, keys, money, sunglasses, a camera, and binoculars.

Unlike camping in remote parts of the country, while camping in Illinois you’re never far from civilization. Only a handful of campgrounds in the state will put you more than 30 minutes away from a convenience store and 1 hour from a hardware store or a sporting goods store.

Any suggestions to add? Please let us know in the comments below.

And now a message from a Prairie Fever partner:
While exploring what nature has to offer, take advantage of deals on vacation Rental Homes from Homeaway.

icago has set the tone in the region with a host of initiatives and programs that have made
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The best small campgrounds in northern Illinois

Large, busy campgrounds have never appealed to me. Instead, I like to pitch my tent at places that are fairly quiet with a minimal number of other visitors. Good camping spots also should offer hiking trails to explore, picnicking grounds conducive to cooking out and napping, and rivers and lakes that give one’s mind opportunities to wander.

Here are a few places in northern Illinois that qualify as top-notch camping spots. All of these destinations are included in my book, Camping Illinois.

Apple River Canyon State Park
Located about 130 miles northwest of Chicago, this off-the-beaten-path campground offers one of the most beautiful settings in northern Illinois. The campsites are nicely spaced out; thick groves of oak and maple provide campers with plenty of shade and privacy. The Apple River flows through a series of limestone canyons within the park. The walls of the canyons are dotted with mosses, lichens, and small bushes that grow in the crevices. Hiking trails allow visitors to catch the views from atop the limestone bluffs, explore the deep ravines, and wander alongside the Apple River.

Sugar River Forest Preserve
Sugar River Forest Preserve

Sugar River Forest Preserve
Winnebago County in north central Illinois claims an impressive collection of scenic, well-maintained forest preserves. One of the best contains an attractive campground set within a dense grove of pine trees situated near the Sugar River. The surrounding terrain features prairie, wooded bluffs, and a perfect grassy picnic area beside the meandering river. This forest preserve also offers 5.5 miles of hiking trails, as well as a collection of riverside walk-in camping sites (a great avenue for those of us city dwellers who ache for solitude). Sugar River Forest Preserve is located about 100 miles northwest of Chicago.

Marengo Ridge Conservation Area
Situated up on a ridge left by the last glacier, this wonderfully wooded landscape provides visitors with an unusually isolated atmosphere about 60 miles northwest of Chicago. The pine tree-laden tenting campsites offer lots of privacy; about half of them require a short walk from the parking spot. The hiking trails at Marengo Ridge are reason enough to visit this remote little forest preserve–they run through hilly terrain crisscrossed with intermittent streams and blanketed with dense groves of oak, hickory, and conifers.

White Pines State Park
This charming 385-acre park invites visitors to explore the hilly terrain, traverse the many log footbridges over Pine and Spring Creeks, and trace the route of the creeks as they flow past moss- and vine-covered limestone cliffs. From the semi-open camping area, you’ll walk less than a mile for breakfast at the park’s log-cabin style lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

A bit larger than the other campgrounds listed here, White Pines wins the prize for the niftiest stuff to do in the immediate area. Nearby are the pleasant little towns of Oregon and Dixon along the Rock River. Also close are Castle Rock State Park, Lowden State Park containing the 50-foot concrete statue of a Native American on the river bluff, and the strange, shrine-like John Deere museum and historic site. White Pines is located about 90 miles west of Chicago.

None of the destinations listed above are known for being overly busy, even on weekends. All bets are off, however, on holiday weekends. The best approach is to call the park and ask what they expect for a particular weekend. If visiting during the week, expect plenty of solitude.

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Paddling Chicago

Don’t let the summer end without exploring local waterways in a canoe or kayak. For those with an urge to paddle, here are a few resources to get you going:

  • The Chicago Area Paddling/Fishing Pages offer an array of resources about local waterways. The history and water quality information is particularly interesting.
  • The Chicago Area Sea Kayakers Association is a membership organization that has a nifty blog with plenty of trip reports and news about local kayaking topics.
  • The Illinois Paddling Council offers information on safety and outfitters, as well as an extensive listing of places to go for paddling instruction and courses.
  • The local nonprofit organization Openlands helped develop a series of local “water trails,” as they’re called. In addition, they created a series of helpful maps showing local paddling routes, dams, and launching spots.
  • Paddleaway.com has the most detailed information about where to launch your canoe or kayak. The interactive map is great for finding sometimes hard-to-find launch sites. The website also lists local outfitters according to the waterways they serve.
  • Since 1979, the Friends of the Chicago River have been working to improve the health of the Chicago River. Progress has been made, but there’s still much to do. The organization is always looking for volunteers.

Speaking of paddling, the Chicago Tribune featured a front page article about Ralph Frese, the 81-year-old local paddling guru, environmental advocate, and longtime owner of Chicagoland Canoe Base.

For decades, Frese has championed the exploration and care of local waterways. He has also built canoes, including a 34-foot-long voyageur canoe model that he would sell for more than $20,000. The article focused on Frese’s coming retirement and his inability to find someone to take over his business.

Also, last year, Chicago Wilderness magazine published a piece about Frese and his long-term efforts in getting people interested in caring for local waterways.

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Like to hike? Check out the new edition of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago.

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Why I love my hammock

Not to analyze the situation too much, but one of the reasons I dig my camping hammock is the vaguely womb-like atmosphere it provides. The hammock I use—called the Hennessy Hammock—is a green cocoon that offers the most comfortable sleeping experience outside of my bedroom.

Hammocks are perfect for hot weather snoozing. Within a hammock’s soothing embrace, air circulates all around you, and you feel just a bit like you’re floating above the ground. (This quality also leads to the primary drawback of a camping hammock, which I’ll get to in a minute.)

Maybe I’m easily impressed, but the Hennessy Hammock (pictured here) seems to be an engineering marvel. You enter the hammock through the bottom. As you lay down, the hole you entered seals up as a result the fabric tension. Admittedly, once inside, it takes work to get everything situated, and you may have to wiggle and twist and push and squirm to get everything just right. But once you do, it’s perfect.

Stretching out inside this hammock puts you in a slightly diagonal position that is not flat, but it’s much flatter than most hammocks allow. It’s flat enough for me to sleep on my side. Bug netting held aloft by a center string covers the top of the hammock. A removable fly kept me dry in several heavy downpours.

The downfall of camping hammocks is that they’re useful for only part of the year—at least in the Midwest. After a total of two weeks sleeping in the hammock, I discovered that below a certain temperature, I get too cold. Even if I’m wrapped in a down sleeping bag rated to 20 degrees, I get uncomfortably chilled if the temperature approaches 50 degrees. Sleeping on an insulated pad adds warmth, but it tends to slip out from underneath during the night.

Another drawback: Because it’s awkward getting situated once inside, the Hennessy Hammock—and camping hammocks in general—are probably not the best option for people who make frequent visits to nearby bushes during the night.

Also, I learned the hard way to spray the outside of the hammock with bug repellent if I’m not using my sleeping bag while dozing in the hammock (I’ll spare you the photo gallery showcasing many dozens of mysterious bites on my legs that I acquired through the hammock’s nylon fabric).

Despite these shortcomings, the Hennessy Hammock is the bees’ knees for summer camping. It comes in various models ranging in price from about $100 to $250. Outdoor gear nerds will salivate over the weight: the model I have weighs 2 pounds, 10 ounces. It usually takes me several minutes to set up.

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For more info: Backpackgeartest.org offers reviews of a number of camping hammocks, including the Hennessy.

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Camping out on regional rail-trails

Want to experience the thrill of hoboing without the danger of getting mugged while sleeping in a dirty train car? If so, an overnight trip on local rail trails may be just what you need.

Well, yeah, it’s true that you’re not going to find any trains along local rail-trails. But you will find that these long linear paths provide an adventurous way of seeing the countryside and experiencing a taste of local history.

For a longer rail-trail trip, most people prefer to saddle up on a bike. This is because hiking more than a couple of miles along a gently graded and straight-as-an-airplane-runway trail often induces the desire to nap. And, of course, schlepping your camping supplies is simplified immensely on a bicycle.

Camping options alongside local rail trails come in various styles, and range from a fire pit and small patch of grass to pitch your tent to red carpet treatment with spacious campsites, picnic tables, nearby hiking trails, and–rejoice–restrooms.

Most cyclists choose to ride rail-trails out-and-back. Some opt for leaving a vehicle at one end of the trail. However you do it, here are few options within a 3-hour drive from Chicago.

Rock Island State Trail

Initially running from Chicago to the Quad Cities, the Rock Island Railroad Line soon branched out to 14 states and played an important role in bringing white settlers west. The railroad acquired nearly mythical status by way of a folk song first recorded in a southern prison in the 1930s, and later recorded by everyone from Lead Belly to Johnny Cash to Pete Seeger.

North of Peoria, a section of the Rock Island Line has been transformed into a 26-mile-long path. Five miles outside of Peoria, you’ll encounter Kickapoo Creek Recreation Area, a spacious trailside campground within an oak savanna. The park’s campground is specifically for Rock Island Trail users, as well as people who are willing to walk a half mile from the nearest parking lot. While you’re there, take a hike along several trails that run through a restored prairie and alongside a stream.

Don’t miss: The graceful old trestle bridge over the Spoon River at the north end of the trail.

Distance: 26 miles one way

I&M Canal Trail

Completed in 1848, the 96-mile-long Illinois and Michigan Canal provided the final shipping link between Chicago and the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, Chicago became the largest grain market in the world. Mules were guided on a path alongside the waterway as they pulled canal boats halfway across the state.

Better described as a mule trail than a rail-trail, I&M Canal Trail now runs from the outskirts of Joliet west to the town of LaSalle. From end to end, the I&M Canal Trail wanders through a variety of landscapes: dense woods, marshes, prairies, riverbank, agricultural land, and small towns. Primitive campsites appear along the side of the path, as do small public campgrounds in the towns of Channahon and Morris. The best camping spots are alongside the Illinois River at McKinley Woods. (Call first: As of the late June, 2008, a couple sections of the I&M Canal Trail were closed–but not impassable–due to erosion damage.)

Don’t miss: Between Channahon and McKinley Woods, the route traces a thin sliver of land between the canal and the wide and mighty Illinois River.

Distance: 61 miles one way

Hennepin Canal Trail

After it was finished in 1907, the Hennepin Canal never gained the prominence of the nearby I&M Canal. The growth of railroads, the waning production of Illinois coal, and the dredging of the Illinois River all conspired to make it obsolete. Nine small campgrounds are spaced out along the 62 miles of the main Hennepinn Canal Trail running from north central Illinois to the outskirts of the Quad Cities (camping is not allowed along the 29-mile north spur of the path to Rock Falls).

Along the way, don’t expect to see any towns. But you will see big soft shell turtles basking on logs, great blue herons fishing along the banks, and kingfishers and hawks looking for meals from above. Small wooded bluffs often appear alongside the east half of the canal, while wide-open corn country dominates the west half.

Don’t miss: 32 locks that were used to raise and lower the boats on the canal and six aqueducts that carried the canal and its traffic across rivers and streams.

Distance: 91 miles one way (including the north spur)

Glacial Drumlin State Trail

Named for the many glacial mounds bulging up from the Wisconsin landscape on the eastern half of this trail, the Glacial Drumlin Trail runs from Waukesha to Madison. It cuts through a half-dozen towns and skirts the edges of numerous lakes, ponds, and wetlands. Plenty of farmland appears along the way. At the west end of the trail, you’ll meet up repeatedly with Koshkonong Creek and cross the southern tip of Rock Lake. Near Lake Mills, keep an eye peeled for a herd of bison.

The Sandhill Station State Campground, less than a mile south of the trail near Lake Mills, offers walk-in campsites near the shore of Mud Lake. Keep watch for the campground’s namesake bird, an enormous grey crane with a red spot on its forehead. At the west end of the trail on the outskirts of Madison, cyclists can continue pedaling on the Capital City Trail; the east end of the trail connects with the Fox River Trail in Waukesha.

Don’t miss: Between Dousman and Sullivan, the trail passes through a vast marsh busy with waterbirds.

Distance: 52 miles one way

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Overnight hiking trips near Chicago

Sleeping under the stars is one of the great pleasures of summer. Listening to owls, crickets, and tree frogs while drifting off to sleep promises a peaceful slumber. For many, camping is even better if you’re able to get further into the wild woods, away from parking lots and Dairy Queens. Of course, camping in remote places usually means carrying your own gear. Strapping a tent, sleeping bag, and food on your back will sound unappealing to some. For others, it instills a sense of adventure, freedom, and self-sufficiency.

While plenty of options exist for camping around Chicago, most of these places are very busy during the summer. Camping overnight on trails takes you away from the hubbub of a campground. Campsites along trails are nearly always empty and quiet; sometimes reservations may be required, but generally, few people entertain the idea of visiting regional trails overnight.

This is part one of a two-part article focusing on overnight excursions that can be found hiking and biking trails in the region. The first installment highlights a few backpacking trails within 3 hours of Chicago. The next installment will look at overnight biking trails in the region.

Forest Glen Preserve

Forest Glen Preserve is a surprisingly large county park nestled alongside the Vermillion River, just south of Danville, Illinois. The park’s 11-mile backpacking trail takes hikers through prairie, savanna, and bottomland woods. Dozens of ravines blanketed with maple and oak trees provide hikers with a thorough workout. (Be sure to hike clockwise so the trail markers are visible). Some of the campsites for the backpacking trail are perched on the edges of these ravines.

In spring, the trail comes alive with wildflowers. Some 230 species of birds have been seen in the park, including pileated woodpeckers, a variety of owls, and a full compliment of Illinois warblers. Don’t miss a climb up the observation tower overlooking the river valley. In addition to 25 miles of hiking trails, the park contains a pioneer homestead exhibit, a nature center with live animal displays, and an arboretum where visitors can walk among hundreds of native and non-native trees, shrubs, ornamentals, and conifers. The park is located on the Indiana border 180 miles directly south of Chicago.

Kettle Moraine State Forest North Unit and South Unit

When completed, the Ice Age Trail will follow a snaking route for some 1,000 miles through Wisconsin along the southernmost edge of the last glacier. Currently, 600 miles of the trail exists in discontinuous segments throughout this terrain dense with lakes, ridges, and rugged hills. Fortunately, a couple of excellent segments of this trail are within striking distance of Chicago.

A 35-mile segment of the Ice Age Trail runs through the Kettle Moraine State Forest’s southern unit and an 31-mile segment of the trail runs through the park’s northern unit. The north unit is 150 miles north of Chicago and south unit is 100 miles northwest of Chicago. While the southern unit is more accessible from Chicagoland, the northern unit boasts fewer visitors, more of an isolated ambiance, and less encroachment from nearby development.

Both parks feature rugged glacial terrain with ridges, bluffs, thick hardwood forests, and expansive hilltop views. Wetlands, ponds, and small lakes are a matter of course. Both parks offer a handful of primitive shelters alongside the trail for camping. Because you’re in Wisconsin where people like to spend time outdoors, call the park for reservations. Visitors thin out considerably midweek.

Sand Ridge State Forest

A sand desert in the middle of Illinois cornfields? Well, yeah, sort of. Fifteen thousand years ago the floodwaters of the most recent glaciers receded down the Illinois River Valley leaving a vast deposit of sand in the area. Shifting winds sculpted 100-foot high sand dunes that now are the wooded ridges for which the forest is named. Sand Ridge State Forest is one of few places in Illinois that supports an intriguing variety of plants and animals more associated with the Southwest than the Midwest. The rolling terrain is covered with oak-hickory woods, plantations of pine, open grasslands, and unique sand prairies. Prickly pear cacti thrive in the sandy soils.

At 7,200 acres, Sand Ridge State Forest is one of Illinois’ largest state-operated natural areas. A dozen primitive campsites are located along more than 40 miles of trails. The yellow trail is the longest loop at 17 miles, with tent sites along the way. Be warned, though, many of the trails have a sandy surface, which can be difficult hiking for some. Sand Ridge is about 15 miles south of Peoria and about 185 miles southwest of Chicago.

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Check out my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago, recently published in its second edition by Menasha Ridge Press.

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