Your guide to camping in the preserves

One of the best ways to reconnect with nature is to pop a tent right in the middle of it

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


Is there a better way to enjoy the great outdoors than camping? Taking in all the sights and sounds of nature by day and sleeping under the stars by night.

For many people, camping brings back memories of childhood trips to places yonder, but you don’t have to fill up the gas tank and hit the open road to find the perfect place to pitch a tent. You can camp right in your own backyard both literally or figuratively with several campsites within the Will County forest preserves.

Whether you’re camping for the first time and don’t want to venture too far from the comfort of home or are just craving a break from the daily grind for a night or two, the Forest Preserve District’s campsites offer everything you need to get away from it all.

Forest preserve campsites are primitive. Camping requires a permit, and the cost to reserve a campsite is $20 per night for Will County residents and $40 per night for non-residents. Youth group organizations receive a 50 percent discount.

Camping permits, which are available to those age 18 or older, must be acquired at least two business days before your reservation. For weekend camping, permits must be obtained by 4 p.m. Wednesday. Permits can be applied for online or at the following visitor centers:

  • Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon
  • Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville
  • Plum Creek Nature Center in Crete Township
  • Sugar Creek Administration Center in Joliet


If you’ve never camped and would like to try it without the expense of purchasing tents, sleeping bags and other equipment, consider our “No Gear, No Problem” rental program. Two- and four-person equipment rental packages are available, and individual equipment items can be rented as well. Per-night prices are as follows:

  • Four-person package: $40.
  • Two-person package: $25.
  • Four-person tent: $20.
  • Two-person tent: $20.
  • Sleeping bag: $10.
  • Lantern: $5.

Camping gear must be reserved in advance, and it must be rented in conjunction with a Forest Preserve District camping permit. Rentals must be reserved at least 1½ days before your camping reservation, and gear can be picked up at the Sugar Creek Administration Center in Joliet from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays or 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. Equipment can be returned from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays at Sugar Creek.

Where to camp

A campsite at Forked Creek Preserve.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

The Forest Preserve District has campsites at five preserves. All campsites include access to nearby fire pits, accessible latrines and a water fountain or hand pump. Water is not available during winter months.

Here’s a look at the preserves that offer camping, and the amenities and features available at each:

  • Forked Creek Preserve – Ballou Road Access in Wilmington: This campground has two campsites, one of which is ADA accessible. Each site can comfortably accommodate two, four-person tents. Nearby amenities include a dog park, a picnic shelter and 0.67-mile crushed limestone trail as well as access to the Wauponsee Glacial Trail.
  • Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve in Crete Township: The camping area at Goodenow Grove has nine individual sites that also work well for large group camping trips. Each site can accommodate up to six, four-person tents, and two campsites are ADA accessible. Each campsite has a picnic table and a fire ring. Nearby amenities include 2.30 miles of paved and natural surface trails, the 3.17-mile crushed limestone Plum Creek Greenway Trail, and Plum Creek Nature Center. The Goodenow Grove campground also has a camping welcome station with a solar charging station.
  • Hammel Woods – DuPage River Access in Shorewood: This campground has six sites, and each can accommodate two, four-person tents. Hammel Woods does not have ADA accessible sites. Nearby amenities include a dog park, fishing, canoeing and kayaking in and along the DuPage River, and the paved 3.7-mile DuPage River Trail.
  • McKinley Woods – Frederick’s Grove in Channahon: The McKinley Woods camping area has four campsites that can accommodate two, four-person tents. Two of the campsites are ADA accessible. Nearby amenities include fishing, canoeing and kayaking in and along the Des Plaines River, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ 61.5-mile I&M Canal State Trail. Camping at McKinley Woods is only permitted from April 16 to October 31.
  • Messenger Woods Nature Preserve in Homer Glen: The campground at Messenger Woods has four campsites, and each can accommodate two, four-person tents. Two campsites are ADA accessible. Nearby amenities include picnic shelters and 1.98 miles of natural surface trail. Most of Messenger Woods is a state nature preserve, so dogs are not permitted on the trails to protect the habitat.

Be prepared

Two campers sitting near a tent.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

As any good Boy Scout will tell you, be prepared. That’s as good a mantra for camping as it is for Scouting.

One of the most important things to be prepared for while camping is the weather. Keep in mind temperature fluctuations during some seasons, and also be mindful of temperature changes between day and night. Packing lightly isn’t always an option for camping, because you need to be prepared for both cool or even cold nights and warm, possibly hot days. And make sure your sleeping bags are warm enough for the nighttime temperatures when you will be camping.

Other than being prepared for the weather, packing for camping can be as simple or as elaborate as you want it to be. You can pack ready-made foods for easy meals, bring food to cook over a campfire or bring a more elaborate camp kitchen setup with a camp stove, dishes and utensils.

Make sure you bring enough water for your trip, or ensure there is a good water source nearby. It’s also a good idea to bring a first-aid kit, as well as sunscreen and insect repellent, depending on when you will be camping.

How to pass the time while camping can be as simple as relaxing around a campfire or it can include more involved and planned-out activities like hikes and bike rides on area trails. You can also pack some fun diversions like games and other activities. Even a deck of cards or a Frisbee provide plenty of options to entertain yourself at your campsite.


(Lead image via Shutterstock)

Back to Top