I started out as a young man tent camping with my dad. He’d pack us in the truck and hit the local parks in Illinois and Missouri, perhaps with a canoe trip in mind or perhaps just hanging out in nature as the overall goal. Since then I’ve backpacked in many miles with everything on my back and done the primitive camping thing, I’ve camped right out of the back of the truck (glamping I believe they now call it), I’ve stayed in nice resorts, cabins, lodges, and I’ve stayed in small and large campers and RV’s. They all have their place in my opinion and all are worth experiencing.
I’ve been re-energized about camping since the little man was born. At the age of 1 ½ I put him in a tent out back on our 5 acres of wooded bluff land along Farm Creek in his pack and play. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he woke up in our open top tent and realized he was outdoors—that smile is why we become parents and show our little ones what enjoying the outdoors is all about.
Since then we’ve done a couple trips—once to the incredible family campground at Evergreen Lake where we stayed at a tent campsite out on a lake peninsula, twice again on our back yard 5 acres, once at Giant Goose Ranch in their tipi village, once at Lick Creek Game Preserve, and most recently in dad’s camper at Kickapoo State Park. All of these adventures I’ll forever remember as introductions to my boy’s first outdoors experiences.
Evergreen lake’s campsite is really well maintained, has tons to do for the little ones (hiking, swimming beach, boating, playgrounds, mountain biking to name some), and has some really neat primitive and more well-maintained campsites on and near the lake.
Giant Goose Ranch’s tipi village was really cool although it didn’t quite match the online photo (of course they never do at any resort or campground and that was expected). We got a big discount because one of the three tipis had been knocked down during a wind storm over winter. The campsite is set up on an overlook to one of their many strip mine lakes. The view is incredible. The tipis include queen beds, some cooking utensils, fire rings, and access to the lake and it’s all very private. There is more than enough room for another blow up bed inside each of the tipis as well and room for additional tents on the site. The mosquitos were a bit horrendous in June because of all the water there at Goose Ranch but we should have come better prepared for that, especially knowing that we would essentially be in an open air tipi. We swam, fished, and hung out on the lake all day and then the boys cruised in their electric wheelers and we cooked in the afternoon. We caught bluegill and even some smaller jumbo perch (which I hadn’t done for years). They also provided free use of a nice little 2 person NuCanoe. Shower facilities are onsite. 3 dads and 5 boys under age 6 and everyone made it home safe the next day! If you enjoy your privacy then this is the site for you—just remember some bug spray and citronella lamps for inside the tipis in the summer.
Kickapoo State Park is honestly one of the nicest all around State campgrounds I’ve been to with something for people of all ages. There are true backpack-in primitive sites, tent sites, and electric RV/camper sites. All of the sites are nestled nicely into mature trees and some of the sites overlook lakes and ponds. The deer here are tame and can be seen in broad daylight in the campgrounds! There are legitimate mountain biking trails, hiking trails, tons of various fishing opportunities on lakes, ponds, and rivers, and even canoe and kayak rentals for float trips on the Middle Fork of the Vermillion and Salt Creek (although I’m told that may soon stop given our State budget situation). Dad, my boy, and I floated the Middle Fork as I’d done numerous times in the past. We completed the 8 mile trip in a little over 4 hours with several stops to eat, swim, and check out the baby eagles in a nest high in a Cottonwood tree. We even got to see mom drop by for a feeding. This is Illinois’ only National Wild and Scenic River because of its untouched nature. You would think you were in the Ozarks of Missouri given its rock bottom, crystal clear water, lush vegetation, lack of manmade structures, riffle and pools, and numerous meanders. This river is also an incredible smallmouth fishery with friends and I pulling 40 fish days in our youth. The little dude was a bit shaky on the riffles as we did some dragging and then a near tip because the water level was a bit low for what I would consider ideal.
Overall, he said the trip was cool and that he was a tough guy and not afraid. What amazes me is that this is his second trip down a river on a canoe and both times he and other young kids always enjoy it and don’t get bored. Most parents I would guess might not want to chance a trip down a river but I’m telling you it works. I think the constantly changing scenery, tons of cool things to do like watching for wildlife, throwing rocks, and swimming, makes it stimulating enough that they don’t get bored. This won’t be our last trip down a river in the near future for sure. Dad’s camper made for a very easy and comfortable trip with a 3 year old also. . .
If you’re unsure about taking your young one camping then by all means try out the backyard first, but let me attest to the fact that it can be done and done with not only you but also your children having a blast.