Prairie Fever » Illinois

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.


Down the lazy river

A July morning on the Fox River

A July morning on the Fox River

The following article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Competitor Chicago magazine. Thanks to the magazine for allowing me to post the article here.

Ten feet above my head, a single swallow twirled through the air, every so often dipping down to skim the water in front of my sea kayak. After spraying a bit of water along the surface, the little bird flapped feverishly to regain its former position above my head and start the process again. Getting a drink of water on a warm summer day never looked so fun.

I was paddling a dozen miles on a mid-section of the Fox River as it flows through the western suburbs of Chicago. I decided to launch in Elgin and pull out downriver in Geneva because both cities contain Metra stations, allowing access to and from the river with my 13-foot folding sea kayak. The kayak and all the necessary gear stuffs into a large backpack that weighs about 45 lbs.

The Fox is a wide, slow-moving river. Multiple dams keep the water moving at a sluggish pace, often creating the feel of a long lake rather than a moving river. Some paddlers find lazy rivers like the Fox boring because the only navigational imperative is to keep yourself from drifting into the private docks and colliding with the occasional motorboat whizzing past. As someone who typically prefers paddling narrow, fast rivers that run through woods and countryside, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the Fox’s calm, steady flow. It provided an opportunity to decelerate, let my thoughts wander, and enjoy a day of dawdling.

First portage: smooth and short
My lazy river vanished when the wind picked up, causing small waves to splash over my kayak’s bow. The wind blew north while the river flowed south, canceling each other out. When I stopped paddling, I remained stationary or started drifting toward shore. The wind relented as I approached the first portage.

To get around the 8-foot dam in South Elgin, I pulled the boat up a small embankment of rip-rap, over a guard railing, and then dragged the kayak 75 yards through Panton Mill Park. After lounging in the park and filling up my water bottle, I rejoined the river and soon glided past another park—this one containing a collection of old trolley cars on display at the Fox River Trolley Museum. A steady stream of cyclists cruised up and down the Fox River Trail.

Heading under a railroad bridge south of Elgin

Heading under a railroad bridge south of Elgin

The current quickened as the river threaded its way around a cluster of islands, most of them wooded. One was just a sandbar where someone had installed a birdhouse high on a steel pole. After passing through the supports for a pedestrian bridge for the Fox River Trail, the river runs between two forest preserves. Red oak, silver maple, and occasional willow trees decorate the banks of John J. Duerr Forest Preserve on the right and Tekakwitha Woods on the left. Kingfishers chattered from nearby branches; turtles plopped off logs, and patches of tiger lilies grew on islands mostly covered with floodplain forest.

From where the river makes its famous hairpin turn, the banks intermittently expanded and contracted for the next four miles to St. Charles. Wooded bluffs accompanied the river for much of the way. When the woods receded, river houses sat shoulder to shoulder, often with inviting waterside decks and nearby motorboats perched on metal stands. For the moment, I was relieved that the huge fleet of ski boats and beer boats sat idle along the shore. At Norris Woods Nature Preserve, a sandy patch of shoreline in the shade of silver maples offered a good location to take a break from the river, stretch my legs, and eat lunch.

Gazebo in St. Charles

Gazebo in St. Charles

Second portage: long and complicated
It was heading toward late afternoon when I returned to the river only to discover the motorboats were alive and well, and now using the river as a drag strip. A couple of the boats hauled kids around in big inflatable donuts; others were out for scouting fishing or swimming spots; and some boaters were simply joyriding the length of the river. Within this last category, the most puzzling development was the guy on the WaveRunner who passed me at 5 minute intervals, throttle fully open, the engine screaming. He sped downriver and then headed back up, down and then back, again and again. I wondered if something was wrong with him, like a record that keeps skipping.

Arriving in St. Charles, a big paddleboat containing two decks of passengers rumbled upstream. I pulled my kayak out of the water at the back door of the St. Charles Police Department—about 50 yards before the 10-foot drop of the dam that marked my second and final portage. Rising up next to the dam is an Art Deco-style white marble municipal building with an 84-foot octagonal tower. A quick glance downriver revealed that a construction project next to the municipal building prevented access to the regular launch site just below the dam.

After seeking advice from the police department staff, I scouted an alternative put in that required a one-half mile walk downstream. Hauling my fully assembled boat that distance would be grueling. The steady wind would have made it exceptionally awkward to carry it on the narrow sidewalks and across Highway 64, which was mind-bogglingly busy with afternoon commuter traffic. Fortunately, folding kayaks shine in situations like this. In 10 minutes, I knocked the boat down, stuffed it in its backpack, and started walking to the new launch site.

No surprise that the river grows quiet between St. Charles and Geneva—the distance of less than two miles between the dams in each town means fewer homes and fewer people using the waterway. Water birds seemed to prefer this serene stretch of river: herons appeared more frequently, as did geese and ducks; cormorants showed up for the first time, and I’m nearly certain an osprey, rarely seen in the region, briefly soared overhead.

Gravelly banks allow you spots to pull out.

Gravelly banks create spots to pull out.

This small slice of the Fox proved to be more welcoming than I expected. I thought I’d quickly grow impatient with the river’s lackadaisical progression. Instead, it allowed me to fully relax while watching tree branches brush the surface of the water and listening to fish jump on the opposite shore. A slow river leaves more time to feel the pull of the water as it gently carries you downstream, around bend after bend, over ripples, crosscurrents, and eddies. In Geneva, 12 miles of easygoing paddling behind me, it was time to disembark for the day. Returning the boat to its bag, I strapped it on my back and started a one-mile walk to the Geneva Metra station to catch a train back to the city.

Stopping for a break

Stopping for a break

If you go
In some ways, the Fox River is a great option for beginning paddlers: it’s wide, slow, shallow, and numerous parks offer spots where paddlers can pull off. Not so great for beginners are the frequent portages around dams and the number of motorboats on some sections. The river’s slow-moving current allows for a type of paddling trip unheard of on most rivers: out-and-back excursions.

Rent a boat: Geneva Kayak Center, the most extensive kayaking store in the region, is located at the take-out point in Geneva: 34 North Bennett Street, Geneva; (630) 232-0320. Will pick up and drop off the boats for you.

Decide when to go: Many stretches of the Fox can get busy, particularly on the weekends; consider paddling during the week. You’ll find more solitude earlier in the day. Ask local outfitters about water levels. Some sections of the Fox—between Geneva and Batavia, for example—tend to be very shallow during low water.

Know the dams and portage spots: Openlands publishes maps showing the dams and portages. Local outfitters will know if portages are clear. Construction will be finished on the St. Charles portage in spring 2010. Be very cautious while paddling near the dams. Fatalities have occurred in recent years at dams on the Fox River.

The trip is now in the bag.

The trip is now in the bag.

Entering the fold
Folding sea kayaks serve as the perfect solution for apartment dwellers who have limited space for storing a sea kayak. They’re also great for the traveler with an urge to paddle and people who like the idea of car-free paddling trips.

Manufactured for the past century and then overtaken in the 1950s with the introduction of fiberglass kayaks, folding Kayaks look and feel much like the original sea kayaks developed by seal and walrus hunters of Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland over the course of 4,000 years. A boat-in-a-bag will tend to be more expensive than the average polyethylene kayak, but it likely will have a longer lifespan and more stability in the water. With a minimal amount of upkeep, folding kayaks are surprisingly durable. Their sturdiness was demonstrated as far back as the 1950s when a German man crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a standard 17-foot Klepper folding kayak.

Not quite built for crossing an ocean, my 13-foot boat is better suited for inland water and Lake Michigan on a calm day. With a little practice, I can put together my Feathercraft K-Light kayak in 15 minutes. The heavy-duty nylon and rubber skin fits over a frame of aluminum poles. Instead of airtight bulkheads used in the typical sea kayak, inflated bags inside the folding kayak maintain buoyancy in case the boat gets swamped with water. Folded up, the boat fits inside a bulky but very manageable backpack that I’ve hauled into taxicabs, onto trains and buses, and on a trailer pulled by a bicycle.


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 Titles listed below link to a description of each book, its full table of contents, and a page for pre-ordering.


Tick season comes to northern Illinois

During June and July when ticks are most active in Illinois, be sure to check your exposed skin frequently while out hiking. At this time of year, I find ticks most frequently appear inside the top edge of my ankle-length socks. I’ve also found them, ahem, inside the waistband of my shorts. I’m told that ticks appear often in these places because they need a backstop to drill into the skin.

The good news is that these these little vampires have to be attached for at least four hours before they can transmit an illness such as Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

The Illinois Department of Public Health has some good information on preventing tick bites and what to do if a tick is attached to you or your pet.

This article from the Bollingbrook Sun mentions that Will County had 16 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in 2006.


Moraine Hills trails garner national attention

Wetlands and ponds cover much Moraine Hills State Park

Wetlands and ponds cover much of the landscape at Moraine Hills State Park

In observance of National Trails Day on June 6, the trail system at Moraine Hills State Park in McHenry County was designated a National Recreation Trail.

The Moraine Hills trail system is one of only eight Illinois trails that have been designated as National Recreation Trails. Two of these trails are in the Chicago area: the Danada-Herrick Lake Trail and the Springbrook Prairie Trail. According to American Trails, the National Recreation Trail designation is given to “exemplary trails of local and regional significance.” I’d say that’s a concise description of the trails at Moraine Hills.

To learn more about these trails, read the chapter from my book that focuses on Moraine Hills State Park. Also, take a look at some of my photos of Moraine Hills.


Rolling through the big woods of Wisconsin


In northern Wisconsin’s Chequamegon National Forest, the mosquitoes can be fierce in their search for blood. But once you understand the transaction–a bit of blood and a few itchy spots in return for basking in the great beauty and remote feel of the North Woods–the skeeters can be tolerated.

A thimble-full of blood seemed a minor sacrifice for a weekend spent enjoying what is widely regarded as the best collection of mountain biking trails in the Midwest. Chequamegon (pronounced “sha-wa-maghan”) National Forest contains nearly one million acres of rolling glacial terrain punctuated by rocky outcroppings, dramatic ravines, and hills blanketed with maple, oak, and pine. Dozens of backwoods ponds, lakes, and wetlands provide homes for wildlife such as beavers, loons and bald eagles.

So begins an article of mine that just appeared in Windy City Sports magazine. Read the entire article here.

(Photo above courtesy of Chequamegon Area Mountain Biking Association.)


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

Climate change turns up heat on Chicago

What’s outdoor recreation in Chicagoland going to be like in future years as the climate continues to change? Well, you’ve already had a taste of this transformation. Since 1980, Chicago’s average temperature has risen approximately 2.6 degrees. And according to a new report drawn up by leading climate scientists to describe various scenarios for Chicago’s climate future, the city could experience more extreme heat, heavier, more damaging rainstorms, growing flood risks, and greater loss of habitat for native plants and animals.

The city-commissioned report, called the Chicago Climate Action Plan, provides an in-depth view of the effects of climate change on area temperatures, precipitation, human health, ecosystems, and infrastructure. Here is a thumbnail sketch of details in the report that will inevitably affect local outdoor activities:

Temperature: With 15 of the last 20 years showing above-average annual temperatures, it’s very likely that Chicago summers will continue to be hotter with a higher frequency of intense heat waves. Moreover, a likely increase in humidity could make hot days feel even hotter. By mid-century, Chicago’s climate could resemble that of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with summer temperatures reaching 90+ degrees on more than seventy days and 100+ degrees on more than thirty days.

Precipitation: As anyone who owns a pair of cross-country skis can attest, we’re already experiencing less snow in winter, and an earlier snow melt in spring. In years to come, expect more flooding and erosion as downpours increase in intensity. This could lead to trails getting washed out more frequently, and will likely create long-term trouble for parks and preserves prone to high water from nearby lakes and rivers.

Plants and animals: Those who enjoy identifying wildflowers and watching local wildlife may have already seen some changes happening in local ecosystems. Chicago’s “plant hardiness zone,” as it’s called, shifted to that of central Illinois in 1990. If left unchecked, plants from northern Alabama will be very comfortable growing in the Chicago region by the end of the century. Of course, when plant species go, the creatures that feed on those plants follow.

There is overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is mostly a human-made phenomenon resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases. Of the two main sources of greenhouse gases in Chicago, 70 percent of the gas emissions come from buildings or the energy production needed to serve them. Another 21 percent comes from the burning of fossil fuels to operate cars, trucks, buses, and trains. Most of the remaining greenhouse gas emissions come from waste and industrial pollution.

The Chicago Climate Action Plan states that the timeline for these changes depends on future levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The authors make it clear that there is time to lessen or even eliminate some of the negative effects of climate change in the Chicago area. In addition to laying out larger goals and action plans for business and government, the report offers plenty of suggestions for individuals.


The Fox River Trail

Located only 30 miles west of downtown Chicago, the Fox River Trail has plenty of good things going for it. As this pathway hugs the Fox River for 33 miles between Aurora on the south and Algonquin to the north, it passes more than a dozen community parks and forest preserves. These quiet riverside parks offer great views of the big winding river.

In Elgin, the Fox River Trolley Museum sits alongside the trail. In Geneva, the 300-acre Fabyan Forest Preserve contains a restored Dutch windmill that dates back to the 1850s. Also alongside the trail at Fabyan are a pristine Japanese garden and the Villa Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Fox River Trail

The Fox River Trail

Along with the natural and historic attractions, the trail also passes through a string of enjoyable downtown areas. Some of the towns—particularly Elgin, Geneva, and Batavia—have done great work in creating attractive urban riverfront areas with flower and sculpture gardens, pedestrian bridges, and scenic walkways.

A runner in Norris Woods

A runner in Norris Woods

Since you’re never far from one of the nearby towns, there is usually a variety of restaurants, ice cream parlors, and watering holes not far down the trail. In East Dundee, you can choose between two locally-owned trailside coffee shops.

The Dutch windmill at Fabyan Forest Preserve.

The Dutch windmill at Fabyan Forest Preserve.

If you’re keen on a longer trip, the Fox River Trail allows you to connect with a handful of other Chicagoland recreation trails. Heading north, for example, will connect you with the Prairie Trail, which will take you all the way to the Wisconsin border.

And finally, the gamblers among us will be happy to know that the Fox River Trail might be the only long recreation path in the nation with two riverboat casinos located steps from the trail.

Japanese Garden at Fabyan Forest Preserve

Japanese Garden at Fabyan Forest Preserve

Nearly the entire Fox River Trail is paved; only a few short sections are covered with crushed gravel. The trail is eminently reachable via Metra trains.


Ted Villaire, the author of this post, is also the author of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago (now available in a second edition).


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.