Cook County has an extensive forest preserve system that has served as an example of habitat preservation, public involvement in stewardship, and species conservation throughout the world. This land also provides a variety of ecosystem services, such as flood control that, along with the sheer beauty of the space, increases the value of our neighborhoods. And, of course, the forest preserves provide space for a wide range of recreational opportunities. Whether you simply want a peaceful place to walk or a shelter to host a family reunion; if you need a path to bike, skate, or run on, or a river to paddle in; if you like to bird watch or fish, the forest preserves are there for you. You can even do things like golf, fly model airplanes, ride horses, snowmobile, ski, and more. To me, it has long seemed the only thing missing in our forest preserves was camping. Well, that lack is no more. This summer, under the leadership of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the forest preserves are now home to five campgrounds, too.
These campsites are set up for people of all camping preferences with places for tents, groups, RVs, and even cabins.
I am admittedly a campground snob. I grew up backpacking so if I’m going to spend time in a developed campground, it has to be a good one. Even for an overnighter, I usually drive an hour or two from home. However, after my experience at Bullfrog Lake last weekend, I discovered that nice campsites are within walking distance.
Visitors who have to drive from home will usually miss such sublime scenes as watching steam rise from the pond and listening to ice tinkle as it melts in the first rays of sun…or frost-kissed leaves.
First of all, booking was easy (much better than the online booking for most state parks) and a staffer called me a few days before I was scheduled to show up to check in and see how many parking passes I would need. Our group arrived well after dark and I was a little worried that I would have to deal with a gate, a trick padlock, or some obstacle. Nope. The path was clear, the signs direct, and the campsite easy to find.
The office is always open, stocked, and staffed by exceptionally friendly folks.
I set the kids to pitching the tent while I wandered over to the headquarters to see how check-in would work. I expected a dark hut, lit with a single mercury vapor bulb next to a cobweb filled pipe where I was supposed to cram some damp paper work. Again I was wrong. It turns out the forest preserve campgrounds are staffed 24 hours a day. I stepped into a well-lit, well-stocked, heated reception cabin and was welcomed by a staff member so enthusiastic that she would make Smokey the Bear seem grumpy. Check-in took a few seconds, plus time to spin a prize wheel (I won a free high five but the guy after me won a boat rental). Moments later, I was heading back to my camp site with a few pieces of well-seasoned ash wood.
The physical construction of our site was excellent and well prepared for heavy use. Where the average campground would use a few treated 4x4 posts to display site numbers, hold lanterns, and mark boundaries, this campground used 8X8s, heavy steel posts, and wide concrete. Paths around the site are wide, firmly packed limestone. Roads are wide enough to for two way car traffic without being so wide they feel like a barrier. The bathrooms are constructed on slabs with meter-high concrete wall foundations, finished with hardboard siding.
These features may seem inconsequential but such details are the difference between a durable campground that feels comfortable for years to come and a place that will soon feel more like Lower Wacker. For example, in addition to looking good, the high foundations on the bathroom ensure durability and ease of cleaning. They also keep out the bugs. Well packed trails ensure that trails drain and remain functional year round.
Year round functionality is important because these campgrounds are open 362 days a year. We were there on a cold night, the sort that makes one dread visiting the loo. As it turns out, the bathrooms are heated. They also have hot water, a shower, and automatic lights. Such details make camping very comfortable. In fact, I initially felt like heat and comfort was a bit excessive but then I met my camping neighbors.
These campgrounds are in the midst of one of the largest urban areas in the country. As might be expected then, many of the campers have never camped before. Frankly, for a first timer, especially if you don’t have an experienced buddy, camping can be daunting. Clean, spacious, heated bathrooms go a long way to making a pleasant experience for a neophyte. And the attention to detail doesn’t stop there. If you don’t have camping gear, the office has a variety of things for sale, including sleeping bags. They also have things like naturalist backpacks with binoculars and field guides available for check out. Apparently there are also staff-led nature hikes, archery, and other programs at times, too.
The landscaping uses a wide variety of native plants and, as it matures, will make the sites even better. This Echinacea was just outside my tent door.
I think such amenities are really important because camping can be a powerful way to learn about and appreciate nature. When you are camping, you are more likely to be at the right place and time to see amazing animals, plants, and natural phenomena than if you have to drive there from home. We saw tons of birds as they began their day--flickers, a downy woodpecker, a flock of geese flying into the mist on Bullfrog Lake-- and a wide range of frost-spangled plants. But the great thing is, you don’t even have to sleep in a tent to have these experiences, either. Across the path from the tent sites are camper sites with electric hook ups (and access to a dump station) and up the slight hill from there are some small cabins. Nearby, with a nice lake view, are some larger cabins, too. Clearly, the needs of people from all experience levels and abilities have been considered in the planning and construction of these camps.
Can you spot the foraging downy woodpecker? We watched him for 15 minutes.
After a nice hike in the frost- flaked air, I stopped by the office again. The staff person was new but the cheerfulness and devotion to the campers was the same. In the end, I’d say this is the best run, best built, and cleanest developed camp site I have ever been to. The only thing that might be missing are a few logs to sit on around the fire and use as chopping blocks for fire wood but, then again, the place is pretty new. The native grasses, flowers, and trees are still establishing and they are obviously paying close attention to how people use the space. I wouldn’t be surprised to see logs the next time I go camping in the forest preserve. It’s not easy to have camping in an urban area and this is a first rate opportunity. I hope everybody in the county will take advantage of these places; maybe I’ll see you there. Anybody up for snow caving in February?