Whether we live there or not, we think of Chicago when we think of Illinois: the Loop, the lakefront, the dueling North Side and South Side baseball teams. In our mind’s eye—and to the nearly two-thirds of the state population in Chicagoland—it’s an urban state, not a rural one.
Then again, there is downstate Illinois to consider. “Downstate Illinois” is a tricky designation, of course. To the average Chicagoland visitor, downstate begins where the outbound commuter railroads end, leading to far northern Rockford. Downstate Illinois begins one step south of wherever you’re standing.
However, any way you divide the state, southern Illinois—more in the orbit of St. Louis and Evansville than the Windy City—is full of great opportunities for outdoor activities. Let’s take a whirlwind tour of some of the best camping spots in southern Illinois, miles away in distance and spirit from Sweet Home Chicago.
Trail of Tears State Forest
Lying between Carbondale and Cape Girardeau is the Trail of Tears State Forest, a swath of land along the Mississippi River. True to its name, this land was part of the long journey that Native American tribes of the Southeastern United States endured on their way to resettlement in and around Oklahoma. Today, anyone can enjoy the natural beauty of this forest, with this camping spot being a popular destination for St. Louisans and Chicagoans alike—one of the few things on which they can agree.
Shawnee National Forest
A far cry indeed from the bustle of Chicago, the sprawl of its suburbs, and the flat fields of rural Illinois, Shawnee National Forest features an area with the appropriate moniker of “Garden of the Gods.” Here, you’ll find breathtaking bluffs, cliffs, and outcroppings in this celebration of nature. Interestingly, this forest is not a timeless preserve—rather, an extensive New Deal project transformed spent farmland into the majestic forest we enjoy today. With over 250,000 acres, it’s a great place to camp—perhaps even setting up shop in a camping-customized Jeep instead of an RV.
Cave-in-Rock State Park
When we talk about the best camping spots in southern Illinois, we can’t get any more southern than this. Nestled along the banks of the Ohio River, just over the border from Kentucky, this park’s namesake limestone cave is a fascinating attraction for any camping trip. Most infamous for years of hosting fan conventions for the Insane Clown Posse, you’ll be relieved to know that your visit to Cave-in-Rock will not require face paint.
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