Our campsite at Ottowa Lake campground. (This is our Coleman blackout tent, which I have mixed feelings about. I love the blackout feature and it held up well in bad weather, but we kind of hated everything else about it. Zipper got permanently stuck the first time we used it, a learning curve for setup/takedown, and it’s impossible to get back into the too-small bag it comes with. However, the blackout features with a baby/toddler are VERY clutch.)
Today I’m excited to talk about one of my favorite things: camping!
Fun fact: Despite growing up in Oregon, I rejected the outdoors for most of my teen years and twenties. I was too cool I guess–the outdoors weren’t fast-paced enough for me. And I didn’t want to be dirty and bored. I was fond of the phrase, “I’m outdoorsy in that I like to drink rosé on patios.”
That being said, I never, in a million years, thought I’d love camping, but that all changed in 2020 when I discovered a newfound love for it during the pandemic, when, well–there wasn’t really another vacation option! I also think in my thirties I’ve come to value slowing down and being more present and unplugged.
Whether you’re looking to enjoy the outdoors for a quick weekend or a week-long ordeal–a camping trip can be rewarding in ways you never expected! It gives you a chance to really unplug, and allows you to bond with your friends and family in a way no other “trip” does! (Also, worth noting, there are SO ways to “camp” based on your comfort level! If you don’t like the idea of a tent, rent a camper van, an RV, or an adorable camping trailer (Outdoorsy is a great option for this!) Or you can find plenty of campsites with cabins for rent. There are also several great spots to Glamp in the midwest, if that’s more your speed!
I’m far from an expert, but below, I’m sharing some places we’ve loved camping, as well as lots of YOUR awesome recommendations, if you’re looking to enjoy the outdoors near Chicago this summer.
22 Weekend Camping Trips From Chicago
Distance From Chicago: 1 hour 47 minutes
We took June on her first camping trip there last summer and it was wonderful. (A huge bonus: the campground isn’t so remote that you can’t get pizza delivered, which we did on our last night!) This all makes it a great campsite for newbies, too! Knowing you have that civilization safety net can be key–especially if you’re going with little ones!
We stayed at Ottowa Lake campground here and highly recommend it! It’s only a couple hours from Chicago, has plenty of secluded spots (some are more wooded than others, something to keep in mind with bugs), and a very small lake with the most perfect small beach–fun for everyone, but especially great for little kids!
There’s easy access to bathrooms and showers, and it’s not far from town where you can get anything you need, but you feel miles away. There are also several beautiful trails in the area. We really enjoyed the red loop from Scuppernong trailhead, which was moderate and about 2.5 miles, so it was a great distance to do with June. There’s also the beautiful Scuppernong nature trail just across the road from the campsite, which we did our first day there!
Ottowa lake is perfect for little kids!
View from our Ottowa Lake campsite
Scuppernong springs nature trail is just a quick walk from the campground at Ottowa lake
Distance From Chicago: 44 minutes
While I’ve never camped in the Dunes (as Neal’s family has a lake house there) I can attest that it’s a beautiful area and a quick one-hour drive from Chicago! If you don’t have a car, you can even take the South Shore Line train there and get off at the Beverly Shores stop to walk to the Indiana Dunes State Park Dunewood campground. There’s a cute restaurant called the Goblin and Grocer and the Hobgoblin across the street is a great beer and wine store. They have two pizza trucks, a camp store, and a gas station (with soft serve!) so you’ve got all you need within walking distance. No cooking required if you don’t want to!
Also, another little local tip: if you love architecture, don’t miss the World’s Fair homes, which were created for the 1933 World’s Fair and relocated here. They’re situated right on the beach!
Tip: You’ll probably want to bring or rent bikes to get to and from the beach, as it’s a long (hot, unshaded) walk from the campground and parking is hard to come by without a resident’s permit.
Indiana Dunes beaches are so beautiful–just an hour from Chicago by car or train!
Distance From Chicago: 1 hour 34 minutes
I’ve yet to visit Starved Rock, but I know many people who have great things to say. It’s under two hours from the city and they have multiple options for different kinds of campers! It’s most popular for its stunning hiking trails, but you can also go kayaking! Important to note: you cannot swim here, so if swimming is important, there are many other excellent options on this list!
Distance From Chicago: 2 hours 58 minutes
Many of you mentioned that you grew up camping at Devil’s Lake and you have so many fond memories there as a kid, and now take YOUR kids! I love this. ♥️ I’ve never been here, but it looks stunning, so definitely adding it to our list!
Distance From Chicago: 5 hours 22 minutes
Many have recommended this and said it’s one of the best-hidden gems near Lake Michigan. (This is saying A LOT because I think the whole state is such a stunningly beautiful, underrated gem!) I also hear you can rock climb here, which makes it a bit unique!
Distance From Chicago: 3 hours
This one is the perfect weekend trip for families! You can tent camp or rent one of these cute tiny houses! Take advantage of the many amenities including restaurants, putt-putt golf, a train, a movie theater, a cornhole arena, playgrounds, and more. Truly a kid’s dream. Of course, they also have traditional camping activities like miles of hiking trails you can walk, run, bike, or even drive golf carts through. Plus, there are plenty of fire rings and picnic tables for good ol’ fashion cookouts.
Distance from Chicago: 2 hours
Speaking of tiny houses for rent, have you heard of Getaway house? They actually have locations all over, but two within a short drive of Chicago! (The other is near Starved Rock!) Perfect for those wanting to experience “camping-light” because these little cabins have ALL the nice amenities and a stunning floor to ceiling window so you can feel like you’re outside (but sleeping in a push, comfy bed.) It’s also just a short 20 minute drive from South Haven, which is one of my favorite little towns in Michigan to explore!
Distance From Chicago: 1 hour 41 minutes
I’ve personally never gone to Lake Wandawega, but it’s always been on my list! Not exactly a campground, but not really a resort. It’s like a summer camp setup, but a trendy one! This is a great option for those who don’t really want to go all-out tent camping and want more amenities but still want to rough it a little. They focus on group bookings (an ideal spot for a group of family or friends) and they have several options of canvas tents, cabins, a bunkhouse, etc you can rent based on everyone’s comfort levels. It’s not cheap, but it looks SO FUN.
Distance From Chicago: 2 hours 55 minutes
Most midwestern kids have memories from “the Dells” growing up! The Wisconsin Dells is “The Waterpark Capital of the World,” but they’ve got some great camping options, too! You can either stay in cottages on the water or they also have camper and tent sites. They allow pets and have internet if that’s important to your trip!
Distance From Chicago: 4 hours 24 minutes
Door County was another popular vacation spot for midwestern readers! There are heavily wooded campsites that are super close to hundreds of miles of shoreline (great beach/swimming/kayaking/paddle boarding options!) thousands of acres of orchards, and even 11 historic lighthouses. There are 5 state parks in the area, so you will be able to find the amenities and sites you’re looking for.
Distance From Chicago: 3 hours
This place looks AMAZING–how have I never heard of it!? Bicycling, boating, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, hiking, hunting, horseback riding, swimming, and picnicking are all available at Governors Dodge State Park’s two campsites. What more could you want?
Distance From Chicago: 2 hours 26 minutes
If a cool, kitschy destination is your main priority, look no further. Of course, I’ve heard of New Glarus from the eponymous brewery that makes Spotted Cow! (The best beer ever, IYKYK. But you can’t get it outside of the state of Wisconsin, so stock up when you’re there!) but what I did NOT know is that it’s also known as “America’s Little Switzerland.” They boast festivals, famous fondue, and an immersive Old World community. There’s a campsite just a 4 minute drive from the brewery, or, as another option, you could explore the town on your way in and keep driving about 20 minutes away to this cool hip camp spot to set up camp for the weekend!
Distance From Chicago: 2 hours 14 minutes
Here’s another pet-friendly, family-friendly campsite on the water. The scenery is absolutely beautiful, and Kohler-Andrae State Park offers activities all year round. If you have kids, stop by their nature center and pickup an activity booklet! The beach, campsites, and more can be accessed via wheelchair.
Distance From Chicago: 1 hour 37 minutes
Woodlands, prairies, and wetlands are all abundant in Potato Creek State Park, which means there is so much wildlife to observe. You can see these while hiking one of the four on-site trails. Two are simple walking trails around the lake or wetlands. The others are longer biking trails on paved roads or mountain terrain. If hiking and biking trails aren’t your thing, Potato Creek State Park has so much more from tubing to picnicking! They also have lots of family friendly activities from themed nature hikes to crafts!
Distance From Chicago: 3 hours 44 minutes
I used to drive through Brown County all the time during college. (I went to nearby IU Bloomington!) It’s located in Nashville, IN which is nicknamed “Little Smokies” because of its resemblance to the Smoky Mountains! Melted glaciers from the last ice age created gorgeous landscapes at this site! Think beautiful hills, ridges, and foggy ravines. (So dreamy!) There are ten trails here, so you can see as much of this breathtaking scenery as possible before you go. You can also swim by the pool, play tennis, fish, or let your kiddos play on the playground.
Distance From Chicago: 2 hours 31 minutes
River tubing should be on everyone’s summer bucket-list. It’s fun no matter how old you are and getting in the water with beautiful beaches and cliffs on either side of you is just an experience like no other! Turkey Run State Park is known for the great tubing, but there’s kayaking, fishing, swimming, and even old historic buildings to enjoy and explore too. You can choose from tent camping in the campgrounds, or rent a cabin, or stay at their inn! You can rent tubes and kayaks here, which come with a pickup service to bring you back to your car, too!
Distance From Chicago: 2 hours 49 minutes
This spot is a popular spot for hikers and canoeists because of the sandstone cliffs, but people also love how dark it gets. (Light pollution from Chicago and surrounding areas is real.) When you get far enough away and into one of the parks, you can see thousands of stars in the night sky!
Distance From Chicago: 1 hour
Illinois Beach State Park is another great option for a quick getaway outside the city. Just below the Wisconsin border, it’s really pretty–has woods and beach, with electricity hook-ups and bathroom accommodations. You can swim, cycle, hike, or have a picnic—you know, normal camping stuff!
Distance From Chicago: 28 minutes
Here’s another quick drive from the city! Camp Bullfrog Lake is a newer facility with access to the awesome Palos trail system! (Great for hikers!) The campsite itself looks like more of a big park on a cute little lake, but you can jump on any of the trails and get into the woods! You can camp here year-round and they offer lots of camping options, including tent, RV, and cabin sites.
Distance From Chicago: 4 hours 12 minutes
Michigan has so many great places to camp. Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area is a beautiful spot for primitive and dispersed camping, if that’s your thing!
Distance From Chicago: 1 hour 23 minutes
A quick drive from Chicago in the town of Sawyer, Michigan, (don’t miss a stop at Greenbush brewery!) You’ll also drive by New Buffalo on the way, which is a really fun destination in the summer. (Stop at Redemak’s for a burger!) The location is great, because in the event of bad weather–you won’t be stuck hiding in your tent and there will be lots to explore just a few minutes from your campground! In the summer, you can sled down the dunes, visit the dog beach, hike, hang glide, or swim. The wooded campsites are super close to the beach, so you get the best of both.
Distance From Chicago: 13 hours 50 minutes (2-hour flight)
Alright, one more to add–not exactly a quick drive from Chicago, but if you’re looking for a road trip (here are my road trip tips, by the way!) or a quick flight and something a lot more out of the box–we LOVED our road trip to South Dakota. It was one of my favorite trips we’ve ever taken. Speaking of hidden gems, wow, I had no idea how gorgeous the state was. The Badlands are so cool–you feel like you’re hiking on the moon–and nearby Custer State Park is SO stunning in a different way–I had no idea the midwest could look like this! (It looks more like Colorado than anything!) If a round trip road trip sounds too daunting, you could always rent a car and drive one way, and fly home!
We tent camped in the Badlands (which was a very fun adventure but probably not for everyone–don’t worry, there are other lodging options 😂) and we stayed in a glamping resort in Custer. You can read my full guides to the Badlands and Custer State park. Seriously, I can’t recommend this trip enough.
I hope this helps you find your next camping destination (and that I’ve convinced you that you don’t need to venture far from Chicago to have an excellent outdoor adventure!) Also, don’t forget to check out the travel section of my blog for more camping tips, tricks, and spots to make these warm months super memorable! Have fun!