When I heard the Forest Preserve District of Cook County was opening some preserves to public camping for the first time in decades, I was intrigued.
The notion of getting away for a day and night to camp, hike, bike and fish close to home sounded appealing. The ability to escape the urban hustle and bustle to enjoy a peaceful, natural setting without the hassle of a long drive seemed like an experience worth trying.
Like a food critic evaluating the dining experience at a new restaurant, I found myself spending Friday night of Memorial Day weekend at Camp Bullfrog Lake in Willow Springs, the newest of the district's five public campgrounds.
I'm a bit of a camping connoisseur and I wanted to give south suburban residents a sense of what to expect if they're considering an overnight stay in a local forest preserve as a recreational option. Would it be clean, safe and family-friendly? Plus, I was looking for an excuse to get out of the office early on a Friday before a long holiday weekend.
Last year, the district opened five preserves to camping, including three in the south suburbs. In addition to Bullfrog Lake, located west of Wolf Road and south of 95th Street, visitors can stay overnight at Camp Sullivan at 147th Street and Oak Park Avenue in Oak Forest and at Shabbona Woods at 159th Street and Torrence Avenue in South Holland. Other camps are in Northbrook and Palatine.
Bullfrog Lake is the only one of the five camps that was built from scratch. The others had existing buildings and were previously open to scouts and other groups but had fallen into disrepair. The district said it would spend $22 million renovating and building new campground facilities, and last year was the first season at the five sites.
Camp Bullfrog Lake, which opened in late summer 2015, feels like a state park campground. New buildings house flush toilets and hot showers. Individual tent campers like myself were few, but several families with RVs rolled up to pads with electricity and water. Kids tossed a football and played Frisbee, navigating some muddy spots. Youth groups and adult chaperones occupied several cabins, and a number of scouts staked tents in an area reserved for group camping.
The weather was dicey Friday, with storms in the area. I arrived around 4 p.m., an hour after check-in, and checked the skies and radar. I decided to go for a hike before setting up camp. The weather was overcast but dry at the time, and I figured if the weather turned bad I could always bail and go home.
Bullfrog Lake is a pristine setting with large hilly meadows, thick woods and scenic views. Daytime visitors can enjoy these relaxing scenes without camping; another entrance off Wolf Road leads to a parking lot with a pavilion and picnic tables above the southeast bank of the lake. The campground is on the west side of the lake.
Years ago, I used to visit this pavilion with my brothers and sisters. Our dad would take us sledding and tobogganing at Bullfrog Lake, back when that activity was permitted. Family lore includes tales of temperatures so cold, hot chocolate would freeze in cups soon after it was poured from a Thermos.
I hiked from the campground, around the lake and up the hill to the pavilion. I sat on a picnic table and enjoyed the vista. I imagined this was pretty much the same view enjoyed by Native Americans, European fur traders and 17th century French explorers who mapped the region.
This, I thought, was the rejuvenating value of nature. Stress melted away. No buildings, power lines or cell phone towers could be seen. The natural stillness was broken only by the sounds of an occasional jet descending to land at Chicago Midway International Airport.
Darker clouds appeared on the horizon, so I hiked back to the campsite. I decided to cook dinner and fired up a small charcoal grill that I placed inside the site's large fire pit. Rhonda, a friendly staff worker, rolled up in a golf cart and I paid $5 for an extra bundle of firewood. One bundle comes with each campsite; outside firewood is prohibited due to invasive species like the emerald ash borer.
As a nonresident, I paid $60 to camp one night at a tent site with electricity. Fees start at $20 a night for Cook County residents for tent sites without electricity between November and March. Camping is available year-round, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
The fees seem steep, but I suppose the costs could be shared by others in a group. Resident fees for cabins that sleep eight to 10 people are $80 to $100 a night for Thursdays through Saturdays from April to October. Bunkhouses that can accommodate 30 or more people go for $200 a night.
The skies and the radar still showed the likelihood of rain but after dinner of steak and potatoes I went ahead and pitched the tent. I encountered an impenetrable substrata like concrete that bent the metal stakes a few inches in the ground. A neighboring tent camper wandered by and said he had the same problem and hoped his tent didn't blow away.
I played guitar for a bit but had to quickly pack it away during some intermittent showers. I kept an eye on the radar and when the heavy stuff hit at 8 p.m. I had everything packed away. I took shelter in the tent for an hour while rain poured and wind howled. When it stopped after 9 p.m., I emerged to find the campfire still burning.
A staff person led a night walk of campers wearing ponchos and carrying flashlights. A group of about six boys stopped by the fire, and I learned this was their first time camping. They told me where they went to school, but I didn't write it down. After they walked away I forgot the name of their school, but I saw them by the cabins and walked over to ask them.
I found them eating McDonald's at a picnic table under a pavilion. Three adult chaperones accompanied the group of seventh graders from Horizon Science Academy McKinley Park Charter School, a private academy run by Concept Schools at Western Avenue and Pershing Road not far from U.S. Cellular Field. The kids seemed to be enjoying their first camping experience, despite the weather.
"We thought it would be good to expose them to something different, get them away from the violence," one of the chaperones told me.
These kids, I thought, were likely the biggest beneficiaries of the opportunity to camp in a Cook County forest preserve. Here they were, a short drive from their homes on Chicago's South Side, immersed in nature. They must have felt a million miles removed from their urban surroundings.
Camp Bullfrog Lake offers canoe rentals, but swimming is prohibited at campgrounds and at all forest preserves. The Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center is nearby, and there are ample activities for families to fill a weekend.