The Run Down
This guide has you going deep inside a forest preserve where you'll camp along the shores of a small lake, do a bit of hiking, and hang by a campfire. If this is your first overnight camping trip with kids, this is an excellent option, as the grounds are set up to make this as easy as possible. You're also only 30ish minutes from downtown Chicago, so you're not too far away if you need to cut the trip short and head back into the city.
1. Camp Bullfrog Lake
We’re setting up at Camp Bullfrog Lake, about a 30-minute drive southwest of downtown Chicago. It’s located inside the Palos Preserves, and at 15,000 acres, it’s the largest concentration of preserved land managed by Cook County. That means you’ve got plenty of activities and various trails to explore to keep the kids occupied.
Here’s a shot of the campground from the other side of a small lake at the center of Camp Bull Frog.
Here are some other tips as you plan your trip.
– For tent campers, there are 31 sites set up across the park. 26 sites are equipped with electric outlets for a full-on glamping experience. This was especially convenient for us as this was our three-year-old’s first time camping, and we could plug our air mattress into the electric outlet right next to our tent.
– Here’s a map of the grounds to better understand which sites have what.
– From Thursday – Saturday, it costs $52/night to tent camp at a site with electric outlets. It’s $37/night for non-electric sites.
– Call ahead or book a reservation online to ensure you have a spot—contact and other details here.
They also have other lodging options, including small cabins and large bunkhouses if that’s the experience you’re looking for. This is one of their small cabins that fit six people. There is no heating or A/C in those.
There are larger bunkhouses that fit ten people and have heat and A/C.
This is as easygoing as it gets in terms of camping difficulty levels. You’ve got restrooms, clean showers, the grounds are well maintained, and these onsite activities to keep the family occupied:
– There are two piers where you can fish from. The lake is stocked mainly with black crappie, blue gill, and largemouth bass. If you’re new to fishing, those cheap tackle boxes you can get off Amazon have everything you need to get you started. Here’s a quick 1-minute video on how to use a jig head hook for crappie fishing. I basically repeated the script from this video to my son, who now thinks I’m an expert angler.
– You can also rent kayaks from the campground office and paddle around the lake. That will run you about $10/hr for a single kayak and $15/hr for a tandem.
Lastly, from your campsite, a paved sidewalk will lead you to the hiking trail. That’s where we’re going next.
2. Palos Trail System
One of the best things Camp Bullfrog Lake has going for it is that it’s connected to the Palos Trail System. Sitting in our tent, you can see the trailhead at the top of this hill on the other side of the lake.
Unlike most forest preserves near Chicago, which are pretty flat, the Palos Trail system has actual hills and ravines.
If you have older kids and are into mountain biking, pack your bikes too. This is the only trail system within any of the forest preserves that have designated single-track trails. We spotted multiple families tearing up the tracks.
This trailhead will get you started on the 42 miles of trails that are part of the Palos Trail System.
Part of the hike features these long and wide trails that cut deep into the forest. The massive trees on either side make it feel like you’re going through a tunnel. There are 42 miles of this and a lot more that we haven’t covered.
3. Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center
If the kids are up for more excursions, the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center is about a mile from your campsite and connected via trail.
It’s not big, but they pack a lot of exhibits into their small space. You’ll find large predatory birds, educational exhibits, and you might spot a few reptiles in the swamp behind the Nature Center.
There’s an easy 2-mile looping trail behind the Nature Center if more hiking is in the cards. Another interactive way to experience the Nature Center is through some of their guided programming. They’ll host things like night hikes and campfire stories on the weekends.