The Run Down
There’s something about pitching a tent and sitting around a campfire to make us forget about our worries. For Chicagoans, a camping trip normally means driving over an hour outside of the city into Michigan or Wisconsin. While those types of trips can be great, they also can be a hassle to plan out when all you’re looking for is a quick retreat from the city.
This guide is for those times when you’re looking for an easy overnight getaway, and you’re looking to leave now. We’ll be camping at one of Cook County’s forest preserves to do a bit of hiking, grilling, and star gazing. If coming from downtown Chicago, you can be out the door to having a camp site set up in about 45 minutes.
*Here’s another important note. If I had to rate the camping difficulty level on a 1 to 10 scale, where 1 is backyard camping at your parent’s house, then this is a 2.
1. Checking – In @ Camp Sullivan
Over the past several years, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County has been setting up public camping options all across the 69,000 acres of land it manages. In 2016, they finally opened up a number of different public camping sites, including Camp Sullivan, located in Oak Forest, IL.
To give you a sense of how much planning went into this trip, we decided to go camping at 3pm on a Saturday. We called to book a reservation, took an hour to pack our gear, and by 5pm, we were finished setting up our tent. Here are some other tips as you plan your trip.
– For tent campers, they have 15 sites setup across the park. They also have other lodging options including small cabins and large bunkhouses if that’s the experience you’re looking for.
– From Thursday – Saturday, it costs $35/night to tent camp.
– Call ahead or book a reservation online in advance to make sure you have a spot. Contact and other details here.
– Even if you don’t have your own camping gear, you can rent everything onsite. A 2-person tent will run you $27/night. They have a whole host of stuff to rent which you can find here.
This is the gate when you pull up to the camp site. Camp Sullivan is a recently converted boy scout camp ground so facilities look new and shiny.
To give you a sense of the environment, you’ll notice that the entrance is located along a moderately busy street with some large and modern looking homes nearby. You’re not in some remote back country part of Illinois, but it’s quiet enough inside that you’ll feel isolated from everything else.
The first thing you’ll need to do is follow the signs to the check-in. The camp offices are located at the bottom level of a large red barn. This is where you’ll get a map of the campground and nearby trails.
Across from the barn are a network of cabins and bunkhouses. Most of the people staying in this area were large families and scout troops. The tent sites are on the other side of the camp grounds.
2. The Tent Camping Sites
Below is a picture of the road leading you to the 15 tent camping sites. On the right is a restroom, which I have to say was perhaps one of the cleanest campground restrooms I’ve ever seen. They really do make this whole camping thing easy. There are a few parking spots at the end of the road. The tent sites are a bit further in so you won’t be able to park right next to your site.
This was our setup. Each campsite has a picnic table and a small fire pit with a hinged grill over top.
Our neighbors in the distance had a sweet setup as their site had a mulch padded ground for their tent. That makes a huge difference when trying to get a comfortable sleep.
Here’s another nice thing about camping here. You get a complimentary stack of firewood each night you stay. You can get this at the barn where you check-in.
There’s a grocery store less than 10 minutes away (by car) from Camp Sullivan. We brought back corn on the cob and other camp fire food for dinner.
3. Trails and Night Hikes
Connected to the campground is a network of 13 miles of hiking trails. There are paved trails for biking and other trail paths taking you into the woods. Starting on Memorial Day weekend, the campground has a program on Friday and Saturday nights where staffers lead registered camp-goers on night hikes through the woods.
We went before Memorial Day but considered doing a night hike on our own. With only two head lamps, we walked to the trail head in the pitch dark, but immediately realized that this was eerily familiar to the opening scenes of every single horror movie set in the woods. We didn’t want to get blair-witched so we decided to do the hike the next morning instead.
Here are some pics of the first few parts of the trail. The path is clearly marked and fairly wide for the most part.
After about 15 minutes on the trail, it opens up to a huge open green space with a large fire pit at the edge. If we knew about this the night before, it would have been fun to bring our stack of firewood to hang out in this space for the night.
Keep going further in and you’ll find a maze of trails that take you on a loop through the woods. About 30 minutes into our walk, we came across a fork in the trail. One path led down this tunnel. The other went to the left of the tunnel and deeper into the forest. We chose to go to the left of the tunnel for fear of trolls.
If you do this guide and come across this tunnel, report back and let us know how it went.