Home away from home: 4 camp sites for beginners

Given a choice between a comfy bed or sleeping on the ground, I would usually pick the bed. The idea of sleeping outdoors on purpose isn’t at the top of my list of fun things to do. But in order to truly experience nature, you have to do more than just take a hike through the local woods. Spending the night outdoors allows you to hear the sounds, see the stars and introduce your kids to a side of Mother Nature they usually only see out of their bedroom windows.

So regardless of personal preference, you owe it to yourself, and your kids, to try camping this summer.  And here is the fun part—you don’t have to travel far to do it. Within 90 minutes of downtown, there are plenty of options for you and your family to spend the night around the fire sleeping among the stars.

Close and convenient

With 64 wooded and semi-wooded campsites, Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville is easily the closest option to the city to give camping a shot. Sites are $30 per night ($10 less if you are a DuPage County resident) and include a fire ring, picnic table, a parking pad for your vehicle and even electricity. The forest preserve offers its visitors more than six miles of hiking trails plus a beautiful lake where you can rent canoes, kayaks, rowboats and boats with small motors to take you around. Camping is mainly available on weekends only, but there are times when you can grab a spot during the week in the summer. To secure a spot, call (630) 933-7284.

History and housing

Easily the park with the most activities in and around it is Starved Rock State Park. Located just outside of Utica, it has more than 130 campsites awaiting your arrival. In addition to all of the fun you can have at your campsite, Starved Rock offers plenty of hiking (13 miles), waterfalls, boat rentals, boat cruises, eagle watching and even kid-friendly activities such as guided walks, trolley tours and canal rides. If you are OK with a short drive (15 minutes) from the park, you can even try your hand at horseback riding. Reservations are accepted at reserveamerica.com and daily rates vary between $25 and $35 per night. If you’re really feeling brave? Camping reservations are available 365 days a year.

A little more like home

For those looking to ease into the whole camping experience, this is for you. Chicago Northwest KOA is in Union. Part of the Kampgrounds of America family, this KOA park offers many amenities for families such as movie nights, haywagon rides, ice cream socials, flashlight candy hunts, an outdoor pool and mini-golf. They even have cabins with A/C available for rent in case you really aren’t up for “roughing” it outdoors. Of course, camping with such features comes at a price, so be prepared to shell out anywhere from $39-$45 per night (or up to $70 per night for a cabin). Aside from the on-site activities KOA offers, this location happens to be very close to one of the state’s coolest kids’ attractions, the Illinois Railway Museum. You can book online at koa.com or call (800) 562-2827.

On the shores of Lake Michigan

Combining the beauty of the forest with the waters of fifth-largest lake in the world, Illinois Beach State Park in Zion has more than 200 campsites within a few steps of the beach for you and your family to call home for a night or two. Be sure to bring swimsuits—there is plenty of beach available for swimming. And don’t forget to take advantage of the five-plus miles of trails in the park. Pets are welcome. Rates begin at $25 per night but go as high as $35 during the peak season, and reservations can only be made online at reserveamerica.com.

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