Chicago-area recreation getaways

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of April 24-May 1, 1996
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Chicago-area recreation getaways
Question: My college dorm plans a spring camping trip every year. However, vans must be reserved two months in advance, and the person in charge of setting up the trip has done nothing whatsoever. Therefore, I must plan this trip as fast as possible so I can see if, possibly, there are any vans left. My question to you is: What are the best camping sites within two or three hours of Chicago? By best I mean good hiking trails, biking paths, rivers and lakes, canoeing, canoe rental, horseback riding, quality of campsites (we sort of want to rough it, so nothing too facilitated), and overall excellence of the surrounding environment. And one more question: Could you also tell me when these sites open their facilities (riding, canoeing, etc.) and when the best time would be to go? Thanks.

Carolyn Kim
Evanston, IL
[email protected]

Adventure Adviser: Van quandaries and duty-shirkers aside, you can still hold out hope for a stellar spring camping trip in relatively close proximity to the Windy City. I recommend heading about three hours south to the Middle Fork State Fish and Wildlife Area, a hushed, serene atmosphere in a mosaic of deciduous trees and 100-foot bluffs on the banks of the Vermillion, Illinois' only National Scenic River.

The place for tents is Pondside backcountry campsite, an easy three-quarter mile lope in from the parking area on an unnamed multi-use trail. Most of the action here centers, for obvious reasons, around the river, which is ideal for canoeing, especially the stretch between Kinny's Ford, ten miles north of Pondside, and Kickapoo Bridge in nearby Kickapoo State Park. For a boat (about $34 a day) and shuttle service, call Kickapoo Canoe Rentals at 217-354-2060.

Non-river rats can take their pick of more than 35 miles of interconnected trails that radiate out from the campsite; a good leg-stretcher starts by taking the horse trail north a half-mile and connecting to the unnamed, seven-mile snowmobile trail, which loops back around to camp. Sadly, mountain biking isn't allowed in the Fish and Wildlife Area, but there is a knobby track in Kickapoo, the somewhat challenging and aptly named Bike Trail. Horsey types should sign on with one of Hitch'm Post Stables' one- or two-hour trail rides in nearby Kickapoo State Park for $12-$20 per person; call 217-446-8575. As for when to go, spring is prime time along the Middle Fork--not only will the river be running briskly (it can be disappointingly low in late summer), but you'll be privy to a stunning wildflower show, highlighted by the showy bluebells that carpet the forest floor.

Getting there from Chicago means taking I-57 south 138 miles to I-74 in Champaign. From there, drive 24 miles east to Oakwood, and then head north for six miles on County Road 900 East. Turn right on County Road 2400 North and go a half-mile to the park office (217-776-2614), where you can pick up camping permits ($6 per night). The parking area for Pondside is another half-mile north. For more information on Kickapoo State Park and their more than 200 drive-in and walk-in campsites ($7-$11 per night), call the park office at 217-442-4915, and be sure to check out "Wilderness Made Easy" in the Destinations section of our April 1995 issue.

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