Stock up on the s’mores ingredients and flashlights: Camping season is here! There is a lot of rugged wilderness and great scenery in the upper Midwest—which means plenty of room for your kids to roam and explore nature. Whether you’re looking for an adventure in the great outdoors, a jam-packed schedule or a night of luxury, these camping locales can’t be beaten. Read on. . . there’s something for every family only a short and painless drive away.
Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park
Located: Millbrook (1 hour away)
The setting: With play equipment and character meet-and-greets—all against the backdrop of unspoiled Northern Illinois—a trip to Jellystone is more like a theme-park vacay that incidentally includes camping.
The activities: Mini golf, hayrides, arts and crafts, outdoor movies, a playground, numerous pools (including one just for kiddies), a game room, bonfires and appearances by the furry bear character clan shouldn’t be missed. Be sure to check the schedule before your visit, as weekend themed activities are a hit with the kids.
The essentials: Tent sites are available with or without electricity and less rustic cabins are available for rental.
For more information, call 800-438-9644 or visit jellystonechicago.com.
Lincoln Park Zoo
Take note: Lincoln Park Zoo hosts camping nights several times throughout the summer, however, the dates sell out very quickly. Registration for 2019 dates opens April 9 for members and April 16 for general public, so be sure to keep tabs on their website and book immediately. The dates for 2019 are June 8 & 22; July 27 and August 3, 10 & 24.
The setting: Yes, you read that right...during several weekends throughout the summer you can pitch a tent on the South Lawn at the Lincoln Park Zoo while being only a stone’s throw away from an African Savannah and Arctic Tundra.
The activities: Campouts include tours of the zoo, animal activities, and everyone’s favorite camping pastime—a campfire and s’mores. Early risers can take advantage of a morning tour and then enjoy breakfast before wrapping up the adventure.
The essentials: The cost is $65/person, $55/person for members. You can bring your own tent or rent one for a $15 fee. Activities are designed for children 5-12, though older kids are allowed as part of a family group.
For more information, call 312-742-2000 or go to lpzoo.org.
KOA Wisconsin Dells
Location: Wisconsin Dells (4½ hours away)
The setting: The waterpark capital of the world has 3,200 campsites (really!). Start at this franchise which, because of its friendly, hands-on owners, makes campers feel they are being hosted at a mom-and-pop. Located just a mile or so north of downtown, you are close to the Dells action (mini golf, arcades and more) but remote enough to bask in the company of tall trees and the winding Wisconsin River.
The activities: Onsite there is a heated pool with a splash pad, free Wi-Fi, fun-cycle rentals, a game room and outdoor family movies (nightly in summer).
The essentials: Park your camper at a long, level pull-thru with a patio and cable TV hookup; or relax on a beautiful, shaded RV site. Camping cabins and deluxe cabins are equipped with AC/heat. Visitors love the trees, immaculate restrooms with showers and full-sized propane grills. Camping season at this spot is April 20-October 13.
For more information, call 608-254-4177 or go to koa.com.
Location: Utica, IL (1½ hours away)
The setting: About as rocky as Illinois gets, this park is characterized by sandstone rock formations, 18 canyons, waterfalls and views of the Illinois River. You'll love walking in the quiet forest, home to deer, birds, squirrels and rabbits. Plus, tons of beautiful wildflowers blooming all around you.
The activities: Hiking, fishing, picnicking, paddle boating and canoeing. Oh, and did we mention fantastic photo opps? Prep your kids ahead of the trip by checking out the activities available online at the kid’s corner.
The essentials: Campsites are equipped with showers, flush toilets, grill pits and a children’s playground. If you're not ready to rough it, Starved Rock Lodge has cabins in the woods (with beds and private bathrooms) that are within walking distance of great hiking trails.
For more information, call 815-667-4726 or go to starvedrockstatepark.org.
Location: Sawyer, MI (1½ hours away)
The setting: Famous for towering sand dunes (Tower Hill, 260 feet above the lake, has knockout views of Lake Michigan), the park also lures with three miles of shoreline and six miles of trails that wind through duneland and woods.
The activities: Dune surfing, swimming, hiking and picnicking.
The essentials: Campsites range from rustic (meaning a vault toilet) to modern (with electricity and restrooms). Some cabins are also available for rental, and an updated concession stand at the beach provides hot dogs for those who don’t know their way around a camp grill.
For more information, call 269-426-4013 or go to michigan.org.
Located: Bloomingdale, IN (3 hours away)
The setting: Trails wind through ravines, sandstone gorges and exposed bedrock, accessed by an unbelievable suspension bridge. This is truly one of the Midwest's natural wonders, best seen on horseback or canoe. Flowing through the heart of the park, scenic Sugar Creek is great for beginning paddlers.
The activities: Hiking, horseback riding, canoeing and fishing, plus a nature center with kids' programs and a swimming pool.
The essentials: Campsites have electrical hookups and modern restrooms with showers. Cabins and cabin rooms are available through the Turkey Run Inn.
For more information, call 765-597-2635 or go to in.gov.
Location: Eagle, WI (3 hours away)
The setting: This park is so big, it's divided into two units (Northern and Southern), each with their own unique features and landscapes. Expect tall grasslands, untouched prairies, lakes, forests and so much native wildlife. We recommend a trip to its Mauthe Lake Campgrounds for first-timers.
The activities: Swimming, hiking, horseback riding, fishing, bicycling, and swinging on the playground. Don’t miss a visit to the Ice Age Visitors Center where you might catch a Nature Storytime or can check out fishing tackle.
The essentials: Amenities vary depending on where you camp. On most designated campsites there are fire rings with cooking grates, showers and toilets, water fountains, electrical hookups and firewood for sale. At Mauthe Lake, there is even a Native American plains-style tepee available for rent.
For more information, call 608-266-2621 or go to dnr.wi.gov.
Devil's Lake State Park
Location: Baraboo, WI (3½ hours away)
The setting: Wisconsin’s largest and most popular state park combines beaches, woods, meadows and views of Devil’s Lake from quartzite bluffs. There is terrain for experienced campers and hikers, as well as quiet trails on flatlands that are great for those just getting their footing.
The activities: Swimming, hiking trails on both paved and challenging rock paths, biking, fishing, nature center programming geared toward kids, and canoe and kayak rentals.
The essentials: Tepees and tents (both with and without electrical hookup) are available, but fill up very quickly. Nearby campgrounds can be less crowded. Two concession buildings offer food and basic camp supplies. Not in the mood to camp? The proximity to The Dells means there are plenty of hotels and vacation spots nearby.
For more information, call 608-356-8301 or go to devilslakewisconsin.com.
Graduate Madison Hotel
Location: Madison, WI (3 hours away)
The setting: If the idea of getting back to nature leaves you feeling a bit squirmy, consider a night in the Camp Wandawega Suite at the Graduate Madison Hotel. This family friendly room includes bunk beds for the kiddos with a game console and camping movie classics, but it doesn’t skimp on luxurious details like toiletries and triple sheeting.
The activities: Located just a block from the University of Wisconsin campus, you can explore local shops or check out the view of the Capitol building. If you want to include a bit of nature on the trip, check out Camp Randall to learn some history or take in a football game.
The essentials: The Graduate Madison has made it easy to have a family friendly “camping” getaway with a coffee and juice bar on site, bikes available for rent and complimentary shuttle.
For more information, call 608-257-4391 or go to graduatemadison.com.
Illinois State Beach Park
Location: Zion (1 hour drive or 2 hours Kenosha train line)
The setting: The park boasts 6.5 miles along the sandy shore of Lake Michigan, with plenty of animal life and vegetation to explore. The nearby Illinois Beach Resort and Conference Center is a perfect place for a good family meal and a breathtaking sunset view.
The activities: Fishing is allowed along the beach area in both the North and South units. Bikers can travel between both units along the Zion Bike Trail. Hiking, swimming and picnicking are also popular activities along the shore.
The essentials: The campground is open year-round and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Be aware, during its peak season in summer, they tend to fill up quickly. The campground has 241 Class A Premium sites with showers, firewood and electricity. You must obtain a permit from park staff to camp at Illinois Beach State Park.
For more information, call 847-662-4811 or go to dnr.illinois.gov
Smokey Hollow Campground
Location: Lodi, WI (2 ½ hours away)
The setting: Tucked away in the woods in Wisconsin, Smokey Hollow Campground offers so much, it might considered more “glamping” than camping. Whether you choose to rent a campsite to pitch a tent or reserve a coach bus or Conestoga Wagon, the setting of this campground is really more about the activities than the nature.
The activities: Your kids will stay busy with the long list of activities to check out at this campground. From the traditional swimming pond to outrageous giant shopping cart rides, there’s something to keep everyone in the family busy.
The essentials: No matter the accommodations you choose, you’ll be responsible for bed linens and cooking supplies. If you’re worried about having to pack so much gear, you’ll be pleased to know there is a general store and dining options on site.
For more information, call 608-635-3806 or go to smokeyhollowcampground.com
— Maria Chambers & Anli Chen
Featured photo credit: Josh Willink via pexels.com