7 Tent Camping Locations Around Chicago To Try This Fall

by Justyna Frank
best tent camping around chicago

We love tent camping, especially in the Fall!! And we love finding places to camp that are a little off the beaten path and away from crowds.

The best known camping areas around Chicago tend to be dominated by busy, RV-accessible parks. As tent camping enthusiasts, each year we set out to explore campgrounds that offer a more quiet, rustic, down-to-earth experience suitable for a microEscape, but are still easy to get to from Chicago on short notice.

Here are some of our favorite campgrounds, easily accessible within 1-3 hours drive from Chicago.

Thomas Woods Marengo Ridge (IL)

Just over an hour drive from Chicago, Marengo Ridge offers beautiful hiking trails, ranging from open prairies to deep woodland, and the cozy, secluded campsites in the adjacent Thompson Woods.

Campsites are available May through October for weekend camping reservations. Both car and hike-in campsites are available, and there really isn’t a bad one among them for tent camping. They’re situated in small bays cut into the woodland, and have a private, self-contained feel, perfect for cozy fall evenings by campfire.

Campsites have tent platforms, fire rings and picnic tables. Thomas Woods offers 818 acres of open space, and is relatively unknown, which makes it and ideal place for local explorations and discoveries. This tranquil corner of the Midwest makes you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.

Located about 76 miles, or 1.5 hours’ drive from Chicago (map). Accessible by bike via a combination of the Prairie Path, Great Western Trail, Fox River Trail and local roads.

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Bullfrog Lake (IL)

Of all the Cook County campgrounds Camp Bullfrog Lake is my favorite, because of the beautiful small lake against which it is nestled. The site offers year-round camping, group activities and water-based recreation such as kayak rentals and fishing.

Although this campground offers cabins and plenty of RV sites, it’s the tent camping sites that get the prime real estate along the edges of the lake itself. On a recent trip, I was lucky to score a tent site directly adjacent to a small, secluded dock on the lake, where I enjoyed a solitary spaghetti dinner, watched the crescent moon rise over the quiet waters, and drank hot tea in the morning mist while listening to the gaggle of migrating geese.

This campground is literally in the heart of the vast, hilly Palos Preserves with miles of hiking, mountain biking, birding and paddling trails. I recommend this campground in the fall, when it is far less crowded, and you can enjoy sounds of nature and silence, far from city noise.

Located 22 miles (30 minute drive) from downtown Chicago (map), this is one of the closest places that offers tent camping near the city. It’s certainly bikeable, however you’ll mostly be riding on roads. For an alternative option, from downtown you can board the train to Orland Park with your bike, and take the Orland Park bike path to the Tinley Creek Trail. The last leg of your journey has to be over some local roads with moderate car traffic.

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Harrington Beach and Kohler Andrae SP (WI)

These Lake Michigan parks located in Wisconsin, and separated by a distance of about 17 miles, can certainly be enjoyed individually, but I list them together, because their proximity to the Ozaukee and Sheboygan Interurban Bike Trails makes it easy to string them together into a very enjoyable mini bike camping tour.

Kohler Andrae SP campground is located directly on the shores of Lake Michigan, and has a large number on non-electric sites along the southern section. Though not completely rustic, they are more likely to be occupied by tent-campers. They are surrounded by nature trails you can use to hike up to the lakefront beach.

The campground at Harrington Beach SP is about a mile inland from Lake Michigan. Shuttle service is provided, but having a bike makes it easy to explore all areas, including getting to the highlight of the park: a deep, serene 26-acre Quarry Lake surrounded by limestone ledges and lined with white cedar trees. Like Kohler, Harrington Beach features non-electric campsites along the southern loops, but is also has a small number of secluded walk-in or bike-in sites for an even more rustic experience ideal for tent camping.

The Lake Michigan location makes these parks ideal during the summer months, however trail access by bike during peak season means long hours of pedaling in hot sun. Though you may not be able to enjoy Lake Michigan swimming in the fall, the cooler weather makes for much more pleasant bike riding. Here are the details of my own train/bike/camping trip to Harrington Beach.

Harrington Beach SP is located 136 miles or 2 hours drive from Chicago (map), and Kohler Andrae SP is 151 miles, or about 2.5 hours away (map). An interesting way to travel is to take your bike on the train from Chicago to Milwaukee, and from there follow a series of fantastic dedicated trails (Oak Leaf Trail , and the above mentioned Ozaukee and Sheboygan Interurban Bike Trails) to access the parks. The last section of your journey to either park consists of very lightly traveled rural roads.

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Dunewood Campground (IN)

Smaller and more secluded than its nearby Indiana Dunes SP neighbor, the Dunewood Campground is part of the National Park system.

Because it does not offer electrical hook-ups for RV’s, it is also quieter and considerably more rustic. The eastern-most Douglas Loop offers tent camping only, with 13 sites that have hike-in access. The property is wooded and quite shady, and therefore perfect for fall camping, when insect population wanes and direct proximity to Lake Michigan is less essential.

The lake, and all the trails The Dunes have to offer, are still easily reached by bike. There is an especially nice, easy bird-viewing trail with a boardwalk through the restored marshland, where you may spot an enormous variety of wildlife, especially as the fall migrating season draws near.

Located 59 miles, or 1 hour drive from downtown Chicago (map). Indiana Dunes is of course accessible from Chicago by bike via a series of bike trails including the Lakefront Trail, Burnham Greenway and the Oak Savannah trail, plus some street connectors, with the final stretch taking you over the Calumet Trail, which is unpaved, and can be a bit rough going (but a more protected alternative to riding on Route 12).

However, if you’d rather not ride the whole way, your can still turn it into a car-free trip: the Beverly Shores train stop on the South Shore line is within ¼ of a mile form the park entrance. You can bring your own bike, or rent one at the convenience store near the station.

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Covert Campground (MI)

This is another example of a fantastic campground that is largely overshadowed by its proximity to a larger, better known neighbor, Van Buren State Park. Covert Campground is a township park that offers 63 sites on 50 acres, with a nice stretch of Lake Michigan beach accessible via a short walk over a boardwalk through the dunes.

We’ve been camping at Covert for years, and we recommend the single-digit sites located in the smaller, northern loop, as they are more widely spaced, and nestled into the woods.

However, the real gem are the walk-in rustic sites dedicated exclusively to tent camping. You may be able to score one with some luck, advance planning, and maybe the flexibility to camp mid-week.

The best two are nestled in the dunes alongside the boardwalk leading to the beach. Though you will have a little traffic from other campers accessing the beach via the boardwalk, the campsites are spacious enough to afford good privacy, and they have the advantage of being closer to Lake Michigan than any of the others.

The remaining primitive sites are tucked away in the woods behind and uphill from the larger camping loop. They are definitely the most private, as other campers have no reason to walk through and disturb your solitude.

Located 120 miles, or 2 hour drive from Chicago (map). An interesting option is to drive to and park at a point along the Kal-Haven Trail, and ride your bike to South Haven, and from there connect to Van Buren Trail, which takes you within 3 miles from Covert Campground. The last section of the journey is along the Blue Star Highway, which features a very wide shoulder for a fairly safe trip to your destination.

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Thomson Causeway USACE Recreation Area (IL)

This is possibly my favorite camping discovery of the last ten years.

About 3 hours from Chicago, but worth the drive. We found it quite by accident while trying to escape ungodly heat and vainly seeking shade on the Great River Trail, and loved it so much we made a return trip the following year.

This campground has two distinct loops, and it is it the smaller, northern River Birch Campground that we heartily recommend. From the parking area near the shower house, a steep descent carries you over a verdant wetland, and down to the very edge of the great Mississippi, which literally takes your breath away.

Although this is a fully-improved, RV-friendly campground, there are a total of only 20 campsites in this loop, and 5 of them are situated directly on the banks, giving unbelievably intimate access to the charms and secrets of the Great River. The thick cover of water lilies teems with birds and aquatic life, bald eagles and flocks of white pelicans travel overhead, and the night sky is a glimpse of infinity.

Located 150 miles, or just under 3 hours from Downtown Chicago (map), this campground is directly adjacent to the 60-mile Great River Trail. You can park your car along the trail, and bike in to your camping experience. We recommend starting in Port Byron and traveling north to the campground, as that takes you through the most scenic and enjoyable parts of the trail.

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Now What?

Well, go!

Try some of these great tent camping destinations around Chicago during your Fall adventures, and let us know what you think. Also, please feel free to share great places where you love to camp. We hope to make this a regularly-occurring feature of this website, and add more great tent camping locations as we get to know them.

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