Okay, so Willow Springs and Oak Forest isn’t exactly Chicago, but they’re located in the same county — Cook County — and when you talk to anybody around here they consider those cities to be Chicago’s natural side.
So yes, there really is camping near one of America’s most-iconic cities, and in a week we experienced two of their five county preserves that also provide camping.
The first was Camp Bullfrog Lake. As the name would lead you to believe, there’s a very large lake here, home to plenty of fish (yes, catch-and-release fishing is permitted), turtles, geese…and bullfrogs. There’s no swimming in this lake — one look at the water would keep you out of it anyway — but there is kayaking and other motor-free manners of boating available. If you don’t bring your own then you can rent the vessels.
The geese seem to live at the park day and night. During any given time there were geese in campsites (ours as well as others), walking the loops, roaming the paved and unpaved trails, swimming, and flying. One time we joked that, although we were amused by the large birds that we don’t see in Florida, they were probably the locals’ version of our pigeons and sea gulls: entertainment for tourists and annoying to those that lived there.
While Papa ‘Skiy was at work Mama ‘Skiy and the boys took to walking around, scootering, bike riding, and playing some of the various lawn games we’d brought along with us. Of course, the boys had to complete daily school assignments first and she had a few loads of laundry to do here and there. (No, there’s no laundromat at the campground; Mama invested in a small washer and dryer. Yay!)
Friday and Saturday nights bring activities in the form of a group bonfire where you can roast marshmallows (provided by the park for free) followed by a night hike through some of the park’s amazing trails, which there are plenty of for both walkers and bike riders…and are used a lot. We didn’t see any animals during the walk we got to attend Friday night, but we did learn about some of the local foraging plants (especially the wild plantains) and explore the habitats of a fallen log. We were also informed there are coyotes at the campground — three packs, to be exact — which would explain why we suddenly heard what sounded like a pack of dogs howling and barking late one night.
There are showering facilities and bathrooms, plenty of trash receptacles and dumpsters, a dump station (free for campers), electricity at the RV sites (20-, 30-, and 50-AMP), a picnic table and fire ring at each site, and a station and store open and staffed 24/7 and modestly stocked with necessities and souvenirs. At this time the campground is working to improve the water filtration system, as the water right now is well water and neither potable nor consumable, and water is not available at individual sites. Instead the campground allows you to collect bottled water — free of charge in your own water jugs — from the main office and has dish-washing locations outside each of the bathroom facilities. In order to do laundry we purchased gallons of distilled water from a nearby Walmart and used that.
As far as campgrounds go, Camp Bullfrog Lake was amazing. This is a very young campground, so trees and plans are still growing and taking root and there isn’t any canopy or tree coverage over any of the sites, but if you want a nice camping experience near Chicago that’s away from any busy streets and noise, this place totally fit the bill. If you’re looking for “glamping,” you’ll be disappointed. If you want camping for RVs, trailers, tent campers, or those who’d prefer to rent a cabin, and true camping is your style, give this place a try. Oh, and the RV sites are quite large, with ample space on either side of and behind each site.
After six nights we had to relocate to another campground because Camp Bullfrog Lake was booked up for the Labor Day weekend and when we made our reservations we’d done so too late and couldn’t extend our stay. We decided to check out another of Cook County’s preserves, Camp Sullivan.
Sullivan was much different compared to Bullfrog. There were fewer campsites — and even fewer that comfortably accommodated RVs — and more canopies and trees. There were still a lot of walking and bike-riding trails, but there was no lake here.
The focal point of this campground was their very large red barn, which was actually the campground office and store…and location of their very-popular 2-story indoor wall climb, free to campers and open on the weekends!
The day we checked in here the boys also took part in the wall climb. We’re proud to say that, of the dozen of people who attempted the wall climb — including kids, teens, and adults — our sons were the only two to scale the wall, and not once but multiple times. This is one of their favorite activities.
Like Bullfrog, there is no water at the campsites, only electricity. There are also a picnic table and fire ring. On Friday and Saturday nights Sullivan hosts a bonfire with free marshmallow roast followed by a night trail walk. We were there Saturday and this particular night we got to see a great horned owl and check out some cools spiders on one of the bridges of a paved trail we explored.
Pretty much everything else was similar to Camp Bullfrog Lake, but I can say we probably wouldn’t return to Camp Sullivan. Very few sites comfortably fit RVs or rigs larger than approximately 25 feet, and although we made it perfectly clear that our rig is 35 feet long we were in a site that made us grateful we arrived during daylight hours, as we had to thread our fifth wheel between a large post on one side — meant for lanterns — and the power hookup on the other. It took trial and error to figure out how to back in our rig without taking out a corner and allow our slides to open. As a result, the nose cap of June was at the end of the site and we blocked the road in front of our site with our truck when we unhooked and hooked back up again. Supposedly the campsites are big-rig friendly, but we can attest that sites one through five really certainly aren’t. Also, Sullivan is located near a very busy, noisy intersection. Inside an RV or cabin the noise is somewhat muffled, but if you’re in a tent, it’s likely you won’t get much sleep.
Cook County did well in its effort to provide nature-packed and pleasant locations for those wishing to camp outside of but still close to Chicago. Camp Bullfrog Lake would certainly be our go-to if we ever returned to this area again.
We’ve checked out of Camp Sullivan now, on our way to where we intend to stay the remainder of our trip in Illinois: Jellystone!
To be continued…