Roughing it in the Midwest

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of March 20-26, 1997
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Roughing it in the Midwest
Question: My friends and I love camping and we try to go any time we're not in school. The problem is that every time we go we end up having a fairly boring time because of poor campsite planning. We keep getting sites with open field camping only. What we're looking for is a good place in the state of Illinois (or any of its adjoining states) for some good RUGGED camping. We would appreciate any help you can give us.

Tim Chamberlin
Hanover Park, IL

Adventure Adviser: I'm guessing that, from your fervant use of the word "rugged" (and in caps, no less), that you're not talking about car camping. I hear your pain and have a couple of suggestions. The one I originally had in mind is in your home state--let's just refer to it as "the Land of Lincoln"--a good half-day's drive from you, in the Shawnee National Forest. But considering that parts of the River-to-River trail zig-zag through the Ohio floodplain, it's probably a good idea to save it for next year.

That said, consider heading east into southcentral Indiana, where the 58-mile Knobstone Trail makes for a good weeklong trek or, if you can't spare the time, a variety of overnights and weekend trips. Granted, it's not as rugged as, say, the Wind River Range in Wyoming, but still--running along a rocky sandstone escarpment, 300 feet above the low-lying Indiana farmland--it's not bad for the Midwest.

You'll hike through hardwood forests and across gently rolling hills, but what makes this camping "rugged" is the fact that the Knobs are so dry, you'll need to truck in all your water, carrying it with you or caching it at the regularly spaced road crossings along the way. Tent sites are also evenly-spaced along the trail, and are easily identifiable on the topo map of the area (free from Indiana's Division of Outdoor Recreation, 317-232-4070). The best jumping-off point is the trail's northern terminus at Delaney Park, about 65 miles southwest of Indianapolis, off Indiana 35. Before strapping on those packs, remember to register at the park entrance. For more details, call Delaney Park at 812-883-5101.

If, however, you're not averse to driving to your campsite, unloading the tent, and hiking in a mere three-quarters of a mile to your site for the night (and why should you be, this is not the KOA experience), you might try Pondsite Backcountry Campsite, in the Middle Fork State Fish and Wildlife Area. The upside of this option is that it's only three hours south of Chicago, which means you can leave town on Friday evening and be in your sleeping bag at a reasonable hour.

Here are the details: First of all, this isn't an open field; it's a thick forest of deciduous trees banked by sheer (dare I say "rugged"?), 100-foot cliffs on the banks of the Fork of the Vermillion River. Aside from camping, there's plenty to do on the river, which is usually running briskly in spring: Kickapoo Canoe Rentals (217-354-2060) rents boats for $34 a day and the bass-fishing is excellent as well. On land, strike out on one of the many interconnected hiking trails that radiate out of the campground; mountain biking is prohibited in the Fish and Wildlife Area, but if you must ride, head to the aptly named Bike Trail in nearby Kickapoo State Park.

For camping info, call the park office at 217-776-2614). Driving directions: Take I-57 south out of Chicago to Champaign, where you'll head east on I-74 to Oakwood; from there, it's another 6.5 miles to the park entrance, off Country Road 2400.

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