(Photo: Purcell Pictures, Inc./Alamy)
When Chicago emerges from its winter thaw, the locals can’t wait to indulge in all sorts of foreign things again. Grass! Sun! Patio margaritas! But unless you’re planning a visit to the Adler Planetarium, stars are usually not included in the list. The best way to escape the bright lights of the big city is to take advantage of the bevy of campgrounds located just a short drive from Chicago. Whether you’re craving towering sand dunes, scenic hiking trails, lush waterfalls or electricity-friendly campsites and cabins, the open air (and sky) can be easily found within two hours from downtown.
Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park. Got kids in tow? Pack them up and head to Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park. Located about an hour from Chicago in Millbrook, Ill., tents, pop-ups and RVs are welcome at this family-friendly spot complete with mini golf, wagon rides, fishing areas, summer activities (check out the luau late June or the corn boil early August) and three swimming pools. A handful of cabins are available for rent and there’s even a laundry facility. Biking trails, a golf course and hiking trails are within 30 minutes for adults that need a break from the little ones.
Indiana Dunes State Park. Kids, adults and workout junkies alike could easily be convinced to head 45 miles east of downtown Chicago to Indiana Dunes State Park in Chesterton, Indiana. The federally protected area offers 140 well-kept campsites equipped with bathrooms and full electric hookup sites. Or unplug completely as you hike 16.5 miles of trails, keep an eye out for migrating birds or climb the spectacular sand dunes. Marathoners might be down for the 3-Dune challenge, a 1.5-mile trail that traverses the three tallest dunes on the southern shore of Lake Michigan (Mt. Jackson, Mt. Tom and Mt. Holden). A nature center provides a hands-on area for kids, while the 15-mile beach is just as conducive to lounging with a book as it is to surfing. Reservations are highly recommended, so book early during peak summer months.
Warren Dunes State Park. Want to head up to Michigan to feel the sand in your toes? Warren Dunes State Park is only an hour and a half away from downtown Chicago in Sawyer, Mich. Try climbing the 260-foot Tower Hill dune, lounging on the 3-mile shoreline or hiking the 6 miles of trails with terrain that ranges from dunes to woods. Cabins are available for rent, while campsites cater to those who prefer to be closer to nature.
Starved Rock State Park. The most famous campsite in Illinois also fills up fast, but is worth the wait for a reservation. About an hour and a half from Chicago, Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Ill., is lush with natural beauty, from stunning rock formations to 18 canyons to cascading waterfalls. Set up camp at one of the 133 Class A premium sites (there’s electricity, showers and bathrooms), or glamp it up in one of the lodge rooms or pet-friendly log cabins hidden amid the shady pines. Twelve miles of well-marked trails (don’t miss the serene Owl Canyon Overlook) allow for hiking, horseback riding, while the Illinois River is ripe for kayaking, fishing, paddle boating, canoeing and more.
Matthiessen State Park. If you’ve got your cabin at Starved Rock and some extra time, head 4 miles south to the smaller and less crowded Matthiessen State Park in Central LaSalle County. Built by Frederick Mathiessen in the late 1800s, the locals call this place Deer Park Dells. Melting glaciers that flooded the area thousands of years ago left behind canyons, 90-foot cliffs and the 65-foot Lake Falls waterfall, created the stunning sandstone rock formations. There’s no camping, but it’s worth the trip to hike 5 miles of trails (wide enough to have once accommodated horse-drawn carriages). White cedar trees jut out of the rocks while rare plants like yellow partridge peas poke out during the summer.