The Great Escape

Kick-Ass Camping Trips to Take from Chicago

Nature calls.

Devil's Lake State Park
Devil's Lake State Park | MarynaG/Shutterstock
Devil's Lake State Park | MarynaG/Shutterstock

When you're not packing your schedule with the coolest activities Chicago has to offer this summer, why not take a break from it all and hit the road for a gloriously secluded outdoor retreat just a short drive outside the city? Situated along the sand dune-lined Great Lakes or within forested and canyon-filled parklands, these choice campgrounds within a six-hour radius of Chicago make perfect warm-weather escapes. Be sure to check your getaway destination’s local COVID restrictions in advance—and don't forget to mask up around people outside your crew. (Psst: If sleeping in a tent isn't your style, check out these glam Airbnbs instead.)

Kankakee River State Park

Bourbonnais, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 60 miles; 1-hour drive
Stretching along 11 miles of the Kankakee River, this namesake state park just an hour south of Chicago boasts a wealth of social distancing-friendly nature adventures both on the water and within its 4,000 wooded acres. After a day of canoeing, kayaking, and fishing or hiking, biking, and horseback riding, the park's 200-plus campsites offer a quiet and relaxing retreat with shower and electricity hook-ups alongside more primitive experiences. Note: The Chippewa campground is currently closed due to renovations and repairs, but the Potawatomi campground is open for reservations May through October.
Things to do nearby: One of the best ways to see the state park is by horseback. Make a reservation at the Kankakee River State Park riding stables for guided trail rides through the gorgeous scenery atop a trusty steed. Kankakee County is also rife with small farms, making it one of the best regions in the state for picking your own produce. Follow the whole thing up with a few locally-brewed beers at Brickstone Brewery.

Chain O’ Lakes State Park

Spring Grove, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 67 miles; 1.5-hour drive
Unplug among the largest concentration of natural lakes in Illinois. Water enthusiasts will love this park's prime access to three large natural lakes—plus seven smaller ones along the chain—all stemming from the mighty Fox River. With nearly 6,500 acres of water and 488 miles of shoreline, it's a paradise for swimming, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, boating, and waterskiing. Set up camp for a weekend of water-oriented activities and hiking or horseback riding amid the scenic trails. The park's 230 campsites can be all be reserved online.
Things to do nearby: The area boasts plenty of conservation areas and nature preserves worth exploring, including the McHenry County Conservation District's 400-acre Glacial Park, surrounded by 3,000 untouched acres. Roam the cattail marshes, bogs, and kames (gravel hills) left behind by ice age glaciers.

White Pines Forest State Park
White Pines Forest State Park | Eddie J. Rodriquez/Shutterstock

White Pines Forest State Park

Mt. Morris, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 108 miles; 2-hour drive
Unwind in the wilderness at one of the oldest state parks in Illinois. This 385-acre getaway features one of the region’s southernmost white pine forests complete with concrete fords that span two creeks, allowing visitors to cruise straight through the flowing streams or stop to observe nearby wildlife. Picnic, hike, fish, and camp year-round surrounded by wildflowers, shady groves, and moss-covered cliffs. Reserve a campsite—each equipped with a fire ring and picnic table—for a serene stay under the stars. Note: Cabins at the White Pines Inn, originally constructed in the 1930s, are temporarily unavailable.
Things to do nearby: You're a stone's throw away from Castle Rock State Park. Located along the west bank of the Rock River, it's one-stop-shopping for hiking the trails and taking in sweeping views of the area’s rolling woodlands, sunset-colored sandstone bluffs, and winding river. Alternatively, you could head out to watch bison roaming the Nachusa Grasslands, one of the largest and most biologically diverse of its kind in Illinois.

Devil's Lake State Park

Baraboo, Wisconsin
Distance from Chicago: 189 miles; 3.5-hour drive
Wisconsin’s most popular state park provides a gorgeous panorama of the 360-acre Devil's Lake from high atop quartzite bluffs. Situated along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, the over 9,000-acre park contains nearly 30 miles of hiking trails, lakeshore picnic areas, and swimming beaches. Complete your lakeside adventure by renting a rowboat, paddleboat, kayak, or canoe. While the park's campsites don't offer views of the lake, you can reserve a spot at one of several year-round and seasonal campgrounds.
Things to do nearby: Aside from diving into the area's rich natural history via rock climbing, bouldering, hiking, and lakefront activities, there are other historical elements to discover. For example, Ringling Bros. once made its headquarters in the town of Baraboo—there's even a museum devoted to its circus-related history.

Garden of the Gods in Southern Illinois
Garden of the Gods in Southern Illinois | anthony heflin/Shutterstock

Shawnee National Forest Garden of the Gods Recreation Area

Herod, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 321 miles; 5.5-hour drive
Spend some time wandering the forest within one of seven wilderness areas in this 280,000-acre expanse stretching across the tip of southern Illinois. Characterized by unique natural sandstone rock formations and cliffs that register at around 320 million years old, this amazing geological playground is well worth the road trip. Stretch your legs by traversing 70-foot bluffs then spend the night under the stars surrounded by serene forests, rivers, and canyons. First come, first served camping at the Garden of the Gods is available for a fee while dispersed primitive camping within the park (outside of public recreation areas) is free all year long. 
Things to do nearby: After working up a sweat on the trails, embark on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, a 35-mile scenic drive featuring 11 award-winning countryside vineyards. Most wineries are currently open for outdoor seating only, and are slowly reopening indoors at limited capacity, so call ahead for details.

Kettle Hole Woods
Kettle Hole Woods | Flickr/Joshua Mayer

Kettle Moraine State Forest

Campbellsport, Wisconsin
Distance from Chicago: 140 miles; 2-hour drive
Wisconsin's expansive 30,000-acre state forest encompasses gorgeous glacial landforms and hilly terrain plus your pick of 750 campsites (not to mention 250 miles of hiking trails and 75 miles of off-road cycling trails). Divided into sections—the larger Northern and Southern units and smaller Pike Lake, Loew Lake, Lapham Peak, and Mukwonago River units, to be exact—the park covers a 100-mile stretch. Reserve a spot in the Northern Unit’s year-round Mauthe Lake Campground near Kettle Hole Woods and don’t miss the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, where 31 miles of the nearly 1,200-mile path follows a maze of sinuous eskers, tumbled moraines, bogs, and deep kettles.
Things to do nearby: Take the 115-mile Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive—covering six different counties—to soak up the striking beauty and fascinating geology of southeast Wisconsin. There are ample opportunities to picnic, hike, bike, swim, and engage in local history along the way.

Illinois Beach State Park
Illinois Beach State Park | Jacob Boomsma/Shutterstock

Illinois Beach State Park

Zion, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 46 miles; 1-hour drive
Pitch your tent a stone's throw away from the longest public swimming area of any state park. During the campground's peak season, May through September, you'll need a reservation and permit to access more than 240 sites with showers, firewood, and electricity. In addition to relaxing on the beach, campers can explore the unique landscape of sand dunes, marshes, forest, and cacti-speckled prairies or take advantage of rugged bike trails. 
Things to do nearby: If glamping is more your style, stake out a room at Illinois Beach Resort inside the park, the state's only resort on Lake Michigan. The area’s many golf courses, fishing expeditions via various outfitters departing the park’s marina, and other nearby forest preserves offer myriad ways to extend your weekend beyond working on your tan.

La Salle Canyon in Starved Rock State Park
La Salle Canyon in Starved Rock State Park | Eddie J. Rodriquez/Shutterstock

Starved Rock State Park

Oglesby, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 93 miles; 2-hour drive
While the campground isn't actually located within the bounds of this spectacular Illinois park best known for its fascinating rock formations and canyon waterfalls, the secluded and spacious year-round campsites are definitely still worth reserving. After a day of hiking, picnicking, fishing, canoeing, and horseback riding amid tree-covered canyons and sandstone bluffs overlooking the Illinois River, your tent's wooded surroundings (with access to electricity, showers, and restrooms) will be a welcome respite come nighttime. 
Things to do nearby: Starved Rock's big draw is the 13 miles of easy-to-navigate trails exploring moss-covered, glacier-carved canyons with waterfalls, but the nearby Matthiessen State Park, Buffalo Rock State Park, the historic town of Ottawa, and a string of local wineries are on hand to round out the experience. If you’re looking to upgrade your overnight accommodations, snag a room at the National Register of Historic Places-listed Starved Rock Lodge.

Palisades State Park
Palisades State Park | Vanessa Melton/Shutterstock

Mississippi Palisades State Park

Savanna, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 160 miles; 3-hour drive
This 2,500-acre state park sits near the confluence of the Mississippi and Apple Rivers in northwestern Illinois and contains a long and storied connection to Native American history. Campers can navigate the same dramatic bluffs, limestone caves, and wooded ravines the pathfinders of yore once coursed along the rock palisades. 15 miles of varied trails give hiking aficionados ample terrain, and rock climbers with their own equipment can tackle Twin Sister and Indian Head, two of the most popular formations open for scaling. The park campground has 241 reservable campsites (electrical hookups available at 110 sites), with access to hiking and cycling trails as well as to the Mississippi River.
Things to do nearby: Venture 30 miles north to one of the best small towns in America, Galena, and stroll cobblestone streets amid historic mansions and scenic rolling hills. From there, you can also book excursions like rafting trips or take on a number of cool bluff hikes along the Mississippi River.

P.J. Hoffmaster State Park
P.J. Hoffmaster State Park | Arthur Matsuo/Shutterstock

P.J. Hoffmaster State Park

Muskegon, Michigan
Distance from Chicago: 184 miles; 3-hour drive
Named after the founder of Michigan's state parks system, this 1,200-acre expanse features over three miles of Lake Michigan shoreline plus towering dunes and 10 miles of stunning footpaths and Nordic ski trails. The 193-step Dune Climb Stairway leads to panoramic views while three miles of trails turn into hilly cross-country skiing in the winter. Access the trail system from the park's day-use beach area, the seasonal forested 293-site modern campground (open for reservations from April through October), or via the Gillette Sand Dune Visitor Center, a nature center with interactive exhibits devoted to the state's freshwater dune ecosystem.
Things to do nearby: Learn about one of the most highly-decorated Gato-class submarines of World War II at the USS Silversides Submarine Museum or take a deep dive into history at Grand Haven’s iconic South Pier and Lighthouses before tackling the shoreline trails and forested dunes in Muskegon State Park.

Turkey Run State Park

Marshall, Indiana
Distance from Chicago: 158 miles; 3-hour drive
Situated just southwest of Crawfordsville along State Road 47, this Indiana state park gives visitors a chance to marvel at natural geologic wonders like cavern-like sandstone ravines and take in scenic views while canoeing Sugar Creek. Take a break from the rugged hikes and blazing sun by popping into the fully stocked nature center, customized with a planetarium, or checking out a cabin commemorating Colonel Richard Lieber, the father of Indiana's state parks. Stake out a sleeping and stargazing spot in one of the park's many on-site campgrounds or hit up trusted private outfitters offering camping and more near Turkey Run.
Things to do nearby: Known as the "Covered Bridge Capital," Parke County is home to 31 historic covered bridges—many you can still drive or walk through—plus Indiana’s largest festival, the Parke County Covered Bridge Festival. Get started by downloading the map.

Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes National Park | Matthew J Patenaude/Shutterstock

Indiana Dunes National Park

Chesterton, Indiana
Distance from Chicago: 46 miles; 1-hour drive
This national park’s 15,000 acres of federally protected Hoosier landscape offers the best of both worlds: beautiful forests and picturesque, monumental sand dunes. Campers can find solitude in 50 miles of hiking trails criss-crossing over said dunes and through wetlands, prairies, rivers, and forests. Crash at one of the lakeshore campgrounds, either in the national park or nearby state park. Both the national park’s Dunewood Campground, which offers reservable wooded campsites, and the Indiana Dunes State Park Campground near the Lake Michigan shoreline give campers the perfect place to soak up all the outdoor vibes from trail hiking to beach lounging.
Things to do nearby: When you're done testing your strength and endurance by tackling the park's 3 Dune Challenge, cool down with a dip in the lake or continue on your fitness journey via the area's many hiking and biking trails. Later, escape to a 69-acre farm turned artists’ residence or park yourself at the seasonal vintage drive-in movie theater for some much needed R&R.

Kelleys Island State Park

Kelleys Island, Ohio
Distance from Chicago: 294 miles; 5-hour drive/ferry ride
A longer road trip and short ferry ride out to Lake Erie's "Emerald Isle" will score you the ultimate getaway. Nature enthusiasts seeking a relaxing, secluded retreat will find a 677-acre state park on the island's northern shores complete with a coastline dotted with low cliffs and limestone shelves, glacial grooves, and quarries. Bring your own tent to the island campground, try out the reservable, hassle-free yurts and rent-a-camp units, or even book yourself a private cabin—just be sure to claim your spot before you depart from the mainland.
Things to do nearby: Make the most of your journey by extending your stay and hitting up Cedar Point's roller coasters. Not here for the thrill? Go island hopping with stops at nearby South Bass Island State Park, Middle Bass Island, and East Harbor State Park.

Van Buren State Park

South Haven, Michigan
Distance from Chicago: 125 miles; 2-hour drive
Further north along Lake Michigan’s majestic shoreline, you’ll stumble upon reputable high dune formations slicing through the pristine sky just a few miles from South Haven's charming shops and restaurants. Pick up snacks in town before strolling the mile-long sandy lakefront stretch or winding along the woodland paths in search of a prime picnic spot. While none of the 220 reservable modern campsites have views of the lake, it's a mere 400-yard jaunt to the beach and each site is equipped with a picnic table and fire pit. 
Things to do nearby: Free weekly concerts at Riverfront Park entertain guests throughout the summer while the Michigan Maritime Museum and Kal-Haven Trail State Park linking South Haven and Kalamazoo offer historical points of interest year-round. To the north, the nearby beach town of Saugatuck, known as the “art coast of Michigan,” is rife with art galleries, tasty bars and restaurants, and unique shops worth exploring.

Rock Island State Park

Washington, Wisconsin
Distance from Chicago: 291 miles; 5.5-hour drive/ferry ride
It's not often that you find truly primitive campgrounds within driving distance, but if you make the trek from Chicago to Wisconsin's Door County islands, you'll be rewarded with gloriously uninhabited territory. Stationed off the peninsula’s far tip, vehicle-free Rock Island is home to Wisconsin's oldest lighthouse, hiking trails, and a full 2,000 feet of sandy shores. The seasonal passenger-only ferry from Washington Island connects visitors to walk-in tent sites available for online booking. Picnic area flush toilets cover most of your bodily needs, but you'll have to do your bathing in Lake Michigan.
Things to do nearby: Affectionately dubbed the Cape Cod of the Midwest, Door County is chock full of seasonal activities, from picking your own cherries at pastoral orchards to touring charming towns the old-fashioned way (AKA by foot or bike). Book a kayaking tour and catch a glimpse of a kayak that's listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for logging 30,000 miles at Bread and Water Kayaks and Paddling Museum on Washington Island.

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Nicole Bruce is a contributing writer for Thrillist. She finds it's best to sleep on rocks after 10 hours of hiking or four hours of drinking while floating down a river. Share your happy camping escapades with her on Twitter at @nicoleabruce.
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