Being from the Midwest means living with the cards you’ve been dealt for backpacking. I’m not close enough to the Appalachian Trail to make it an easy weekend jaunt, and the drive to the closest Rocky Mountains area is a good 20 to 24 hours. So while “amazingly incredible dramatic scenery” isn’t exactly going to be easy to find, it doesn’t mean I can’t “make do” with what is close by. While northern IL – especially near Chicago – is rather “scenery-poor” with the exception of a few selected locations here and there, it is possible to find areas to hike that either have car camping or short hike-in camping sites and plenty of trails to hike.
While my wife and I definitely prefer the “flowing water” locations for hiking, we don’t exactly discount lush greenery and a pleasant walk in the woods either. But it takes a bit to find some of them. While I’ve not been to most of these locations, I do plan to try getting to
many some (edit:this list has grown a lot!) of them over the next few years.
And because there’s not really a list of “camping sites with hiking trails (some of which are good for backpacking)” for the Midwest (or state of IL, where I live), I thought I’d compile such a list, starting with Illinois. I’ll add other nearby states as I research each and compile good options. So without further ado, here is the
List of Midwest backpacking / hike-in camping locations
Illinois hike-in camping or backpacking camping spots
- Channahon State Park (55 miles from Chicago, N/E – southwest of Joliet): Walk-in campsites, and though there’s no hiking trails in the park itself, it is adjacent to the I&M Canal path, which stretches for a total of 61 miles across much of the state, and has other hike-in/Class D camping along the way (also see Gebhard Woods, McKinley Woods and the I&M listings below for more info).
- Gebhard Woods State Park (65 miles from Chicago, N/E – near Morris): Campsites are a 1/3 mile walk from the parking lot, but the park is only a footbridge away from the I & M Canal towpath trail, a 61 miles long trail following the old I & M Canal. (See the Channahon SP and I&M listings for more info).
- Hennepin Canal State Trail (N/C to N/W): A 155 miles long trail that follows the old Hennepin Canal, with walk-in camping allowed at designated sites along the way. Stretches from the Illinois River to the Rock River.
- I & M Canal Trail (N/C): This is one of the longer stretches of hiking that exists in Illinois, at least in the northern part of the state. There are several places to camp along it’s length too, and can be done in various ways to make for differing-length trips, either point to point, or out-and-back. Backpackers can utilize Channahon State Park at the eastern end, stop at McKinley Woods about 3 miles in (be sure to reserve a site 48+ hours in advance through the Will County Forest Preserve District), continue to Gebhard Woods near Morris, and continue to one of the Buffalo Rock State Park sites – however, that last leg is some 28 to 30 miles, and will likely require a stop somewhere around Seneca or Marseilles. There are supposedly small campsites along the way, although I don’t know where these are marked on a map. I also have read of people simply asking people whose houses are along the trail if they can camp for the night in their yards – so that’s a possibility. Or, go with one of the shorter options above.
- Lowden State Park (100 miles from Chicago, N/C, between Rockford and Dixon): Park has 8 Class D primitive hike-in only campsites, and about 4 miles of hiking trails
- Middle Fork / Kickapoo State Recreation Areas (115 milies from Chicago, E/C, near Danville): Middle Fork has both Class C & D walk in sites, and Kickapoo has some limited walk-in Class C sites, but Kickapoo has the bulk of hiking trails (9 miles), whereas Middle Fork is largely equestrian and other trail uses.
- Moraine View State Recreation Area (145 miles from Chicago, E/C, just east of Bloomington): Catfish Bay camp area and Tall Timber backpack trail provide 32 primitive class D sites, and there are three trails totaling two miles in the park.
- Mississippi Palisades State Park (150 miles from Chicago, N/W, near Savanna IL, halfway b/w Quad Cities and Dubuque): 3 walk-in primitive sites available with 15 miles of rugged trail system available to hike.
- Forest Glen Preserve (150 miles from Chicago, E/C, south of Danville). 11 miles long backpacking loop, with other trails in the preserve system. 2 sets of campgrounds to choose from; one 3 miles in, the other 8 miles in. Part of the Vermilion County Forest Preserve District. Here’s my sort-of post about that trip (at least there’s photos!).
- Rock Island State Trail (160 miles from Chicago (at Wyoming IL access), W/C – north of Peoria): Normally a 26 miles long multi-use trail, the Rock Island Trail is presently closed in two northern sections, but is open from Wyoming to Alta, about a 20 miles long stretch. There is walk-in Class D campground between Alta and Dunlap in the Kickapoo Creek Recreation Area and accessible only by trail. There are also several places from which a backpacker can start this hike from northern locations to hike into the campground area at the southern end.
- Weldon Springs State Park (175 miles from Chicago, E/C, equidistant from Champaign, Decatur, Bloomington and Lincoln): Areas for tent and backpack camping are available. Primitive backpack campsites are located along Salt Creek; park asks to call ahead for conditions, as these sites could be flooded in spring. There are 10+ miles of trails in the park, and appears to offer a wide diversity of things to do for various levels of interest. The backpacking campsites look to be well out in the forest and away from the other campground areas too. Here’s my post about backpacking/camping there.
- Sand Ridge State Forest (190 miles from Chicago, W/C – just south of Peoria): Interesting topography as sand left from glaciers forms desert-like conditions in this part of the state. With 44 miles of trails and 120 miles of fire lanes (though much of it on sandy soil), there is a lot of hiking to be had here. Forest includes 27 Class C sites in campground and 12 additional backcountry/hike-in-only sites.
- Spring Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area (190 miles from Chicago, W/C, west of Peoria): While a 60 site Class C campground is on site, there is also a Class D walk-in campground. There are 5 trails totalling 5+ miles in length.
- Eagle Creek State Park (200 miles from Chicago, E/C – just west of Mattoon): Has unreservable Class D sites (also 75 Class A sites). Has 3 nature trails and the 12 miles long Chief Illini Trail. Park is on west side of Lake Shelbyville; see Wolf Creek State Park for the state park on east side of lake)
- Big River State Forest (220 miles from Chicago, N/W – southwest of Quad Cities): IDNR site lists Class D, but none shown on campground map or on ReserveAmerica.com. 3 miles of hiking trails and 60 miles of firebreaks that can be hiked.
- Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish & Wildlife Area (225 miles from Chicago, W/C, north of Jacksonville): Has 7 sites abotu 1/4 mile from nearest parking lot, but the park does not have any designated hiking trails. However, it does have 24 miles of mountain biking trails.
- Argyle Lake State Park (250 miles from Chicago, W/C – between Galesburg and Quincy): 31 Class D sites, 5 miles of rugged trails
- Eldon Hazlet State Recreation Area (280 miles from Chicago, S/C – near Carlyle): IDNR webpage says there are “36 Class C campsites for walk-in tent camping” (though main camping page only lists Class D, not C sites) and there are more than 9 miles of trails available at the park.
- Siloam Springs State Park (295 miles from Chicago, W/C, west of Quincy): Four hike-in backpack camp sites (in addition to 182 A and B class sites) which are along 6 miles or so of a backpacking trail (map lists it at 4 miles) that is part of the park’s 12 miles of scenic hiking trails.
- Wayne Fitgerrell State Recreation Area (295 miles from Chicago, S/C, north of Benton): 17 Class D tent sites, and 4 miles of bike/hiking trails that connects to the Rend Lake area.
- Pyramid State Recreation Area (325 miles from Chicago, S/C, near Pickneyville): There are three Class C camping areas, Class D hike-in campsites and 16.5 miles of foot, horse and mountain bike trails.
- Randolph County State Recreation Area (340 miles from Chicago, S/W, near Chester): 95 Class C campsites and four Class D (primitive) campsites are available. Short hiking trails throughout the park; not certain how long they are. Photos on DNR site look like pretty scenery, but may not amount to much actual hiking, as no mileage is provided. Area surrounds Randolph County Lake.
- SHAWNEE NATIONAL FOREST (355 miles from Chicago (to Garden of the Gods campground) S/W & S/E): The Shawnee National Forest not only has campgrounds and hiking trails, but backpackers can do dispersed / backcountry camping just like any other national forest, so long as it follows the rules for that kind of camping.
- Trail of Tears State Forest (355 miles from Chicago, S/W, west of Anna): LOTS of fire trails that are open all year long. Also has designated hiking trails and other multi-use trails. Class C (tent) and Class D (backpacking) sites are available throughout the forest. Some have log shelters with privies.
- Dixon Springs State Park (355 miles from Chicago, S/E – between Harrisburg and Metropolis): 10 Class D primitive sites and several hiking trails. Hard to tell how long they are from the site map, but the 801 acre Pope County park is about 10 miles west of Golconda on IL Rt. 146 near its junction with IL Rt. 45
- Fern Clyffe State Park (335 miles from Chicago, S/C – just south of I-57 / I-24 interchange): There are several campgrounds at Fern Clyffe, but there are two good options; one is the Turkey Ridge campgrounds with actual campsites/pads, and the other is a backpacking campground with sites that require a hike to get to, and are individual sites. For hiking, there are LOTS of trails! All told there are approximately 35 miles of trails that wind in and through this park.
Indiana hike-in camping or backpacking camping spots
Indiana has a pretty good Department of Natural Resources and quite a few good state parks and other areas with adequate hiking and camping opportunities. The backpacking/hiking is a bit more limited in the total number of trails that I can find, but in terms of quality, they are often superior to the quantity of “walk in camping/hiking” in Illinois. Here’s some of the ones I’ve found so far and their relative distance from where I live and Chicago.
- Shades State Park – has a 2.5 miles long backpacking trail to a backpacking-only campground, which is in addition to the main car-camping campground. Has ~8 miles of trails besides the backpacking trail. On top of that, the Pine Hills Nature Preserve immediately adjacent to the park to the east has more trails, and is one of the most scenic places in the park. About 2.5 hours away for me, 3.5 hours away from Chicago. Nearby Turkey Run has good hiking trails, but is more trafficked, and is better hiked during the week (though no backpacking there).
- Salamonie Bloodroot Trail – 13 miles, near Andrews IN. Is a loop trail, but a narrow one that hugs the lake, so water likely plentiful. Camping at two sites for $10 or so. 3 hrs for me, just over 3 hours from Chicago. NOTE: Multi-use trail that is also open to biking.
- Low Gap Trail – Morgan-Monroe State Forest – 10 miles, near Martinsville IN. A loop trail. Only has backcountry camping along the eastern portion, but supposedly a pretty rugged and pretty trail despite having about a mile of trail that uses fire roads. Here’s a map for it. Water said to be plentiful according to this review, though given the length, it isn’t a dire water situation anyway. Just over 3 hours for me; just over 3.5 hours from Chicago.
- Pate Hollow Trail – 7.7 miles long trail in the Hoosier National Forest – BUT – there is an IDNR trail system that adjoins the trailhead that can make for a longer hike by at least 3 miles if desired. IDNR rules are different though, so camping would only be permitted on the National Forest part of the trail (Pate Hollow). Topography looks rugged in spots, and should be nice to visit. Plus it isn’t far! Just over 3.5 hours for me, and only 4 hours from Chicago.\
- Adena Trace Loop 25.0 miles. Loop trail near Brookville IN. – supposedly no camping along the trail, but experienced hikers could hike one part, camp in the campground, then finish the rest the next day. Plenty of water from lake. Wolf Creek Trail section crosses no roads and is very remote. 4 hours for me, 4.5 hours from Chicago.
- Hickory Ridge Trail – Hoosier National Forest. 48.7 miles of multi-use trails that have endless loop and distance options. Likely a very good “true backcountry” experience, assuming little equestrian/biking use is encountered, though trail use is listed as “light.” Only 4 hours from me, about 4.5 hours from Chicago.
- Tecumseh Trail 38.2 miles long point-to-point trail, near Nashville, IN. Water could be challenging, both from too little and too much (flooding in wet conditions). Camping only allowed in designated locations. Other shorter trails nearby this one though. About 4 hours for me to reach, 4.5 hours from Chicago.
- Shirley Creek Trail – Hoosier National Forest. 19.4 miles of looping/intersecting trails. Multi-use trails. Likely a good “true backcountry” experience. Just over 4 hours for me to reach it; close to 5 hours for those from Chicago.
- Birdseye Trail – Hoosier National Forest. 11.8 miles long multi-use trail, but Forest Service site says it sees light usage. Largely uses fire roads, but could make for a short-ish backpacking trip too. Just under 5 hours from me, a little over 5 hours from Chicago.
- Two Lakes Trail in Hoosier National Forest. A 15.7 miles long double-loop that, according to the Forest Service website, is “…on steep slopes and could take 4-5 hours to hike half the distance.” So it’s a challenge? Challenge accepted! The PDF flier for the backpacking trail is here; to find the location look for the Indian and Celina Lake Recreation Area. 5 hours from me, only slightly longer from Chicago.
- Knobstone Trail 61.0 miles in length and a loop; is a point-to-point trail (a couple willing drivers to shuttle hikers from one end to the other though). Need to cache water, as it apparently can be sparse along the trail. Said to be “The Appalachian of the Midwest.” 4 hours for me, <5 hrs from Chicago.
- Spring Valley Trail – Hoosier National Forest. 12.7 miles in length, which includes an 8.4 miles long loop, and a 4.3 miles long spur to one of the trailheads. According to Forest Service site, has nice views of the like and nice scenery. Is 4.5 hours from me, and about 5 hours from Chicago.
- Youngs Creek Trail – Hoosier National Forest. Not far from the Spring Valley Trail, but probably not close enough to hike the two together. Also 12.7 miles, utilizing a couple of spurs and two loops. Looks to be fairly rugged in spots, but water appears sparse, so it would likely be good for just a one-night type of trip and carry in all water necessary. Same distance as Spring Valley Trail from me or Chicago.
- Adventure Hiking Trail 25.0 miles near Corydon IN. Is a loop trail. Water harder to come by, but plenty of roads to cache water. 5 hours for me to get there; 5.5 hours from Chicago.
- Mogan Ridge East and West Trails – Hoosier National Forest. The East trail is hiking only; West is multi-use equestrian and biking. Lots of loop options. Another likely “true backcountry” experience type of hike. Just over 5 hours from me, 5.5 hours from Chicago.
- German Ridge Trail – Hoosier National Forest. Has 24 miles of looping multi-use trails (equestrian and biking), but also a short loop with a camping area that is hiking only. 5.5 hours away from me, close to 6 hours from Chicago.
Ohio hike-in camping or backpacking camping spots
These are mostly backpacking loop trails I have found in Ohio. Distance provided are the ones I estimated from my location, about 40 miles south of Chicago.
- Five Rivers Metroparks – Twin Valley Backpack Trail 22 miles long trail. 3 camping pod locations. Just over 4 hours away. Not sure about scenery, but sounds like it could be nice.
- East Fork State Park – Steven Newman Worldwalker Perimeter Trail, a 32 miles long backpacking and multi-use trail with 4 backcountry campsites scattered along the trail. Hike circles the entirety of East Fork Lake. Just under 5 hours away from me, just over 5 hours for Chicagoans. Permits required and available at park office. There is also a 14 miles long backpack-only hiking trail.
- Caesar Creek State Park Perimeter Loop Trail Travels around a lake, has some “on road” hikes, and isn’t necessarily quiet, but looks to be a fairly scenic hike and wouldn’t be terribly strenuous. Also is only about 5 hours away. Backpacking and camping permits required.
- Shawnee State Forest backpack trail. 36.4-mile main trail; 19.6-mile north loop using cutoff side trail, 26.0-mile south loop using cutoff side trail; 9.5-mile wilderness side trail. Nice scenery, probably LOVELY in autumn. Can take up to 5 days to hike the whole thing. 6 hours away.
- Tar Hollow State Forest Logan Trail. “Hike the trail during the week in the off-season and you will find out what it feels like to have 16,000 acres all to yourself.” About 9 miles long. 6 hours away. Very forested; probably gorgeous in autumn. Not sure about other scenery.
- Mohican Memorial State Forest. LOVELY scenery from the photos. Only 6 hours away. Trail distance varies with routes taken and sites, which mostly look pretty nice.
- Zaleski State Forest Backpack Trail – 25 miles. 6 hours away. LOTS of interesting scenic and other things to see along the trail.
- Wayne National Forest – Vesuvius Backpack Trail 16 miles or so. 6.5 hours away.
- Burr Oak State Park Backpack Trail, about 22 miles total loop. Nice looking scenery in the photos. 6.5 hours away.
- Archer’s Fork, about a 10 miles long loop. Okay scenery from the photos in the link. 7 hours away.
- Wayne Nat’l Forest – Scenic River / Greenwood Trails. Distance varies, but about 10 miles or so for the loops. Scenery looks okay; appears to have some cliffs and a lake. 7 hours away.
Michigan hike-in camping or backpacking camping spots
Birch Grove Trail/NCT Loop – Manistee National Forest – 9.8 mile loop trail that’s only recently been completed (2007). Part of it is for hiking only, and there is a campground at Newaygo County Park, but backpackers can camp along the North Country Trail. <4 hours for me; <4.5 for Chicago.
- Manistee River Trail – located in the Manistee National Forest (though on the northern edge), this is an 11 mile long trail along the east side of the Manistee River. With a 245-foot long suspension bridge at the end, it can be combined with a portion of the North Country Trail along the western side of the river (though with less water access, apparently) and made into a 23-mile long loop trail, good for 2-3 days backpacking trips. 4 hours for me, 4.5 hours for Chicago.
- Pine Valleys Pathway – A system of several interconnected loops that are multi-use trails, the 4, 5 and 6 mile options are nevertheless a spot for shorter, easier hikes in what looks to be a lovely area. The middle loop is the recommended one for hikers, and it is likely to have the least mountain biking traffic. Just over 4 hours for me, just over 4.5 for Chicago.
- Silver Creek Pathway – a rather short hike for backpackers, but what sounds to be an ideal “starter” loop trail of just 4 miles with plenty of scenery, water, bridges and camping options. There are campgrounds at the north and south ends of the loop, along with a bridge at each. Plus, there are backcountry options as well. It is a multi-use trail that may have mountain bikers. Just under 4.5 hours for me or those from Chicago.
- Fife Lake Loop Trail – a bit further north than the Manistee River Trail by about half an hour, this loop takes a similar idea from that one by combining a previously point-to-point trail with a new one across the river to create a 21 mile long loop. 4.5 hours for me, 5 hours for Chicago.
- Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness – In the Manistee National Forest as well as skirting the shoreline of Lake Michigan, this trail is listed as “challenging” I’m guessing due to the sand. It’s only 6.5 miles long, and there’s a campground halfway through, so it’s not a true backcountry experience. But it looks to have a pristine wilderness feel, and likely some lovely scenic areas along the short. 4.5 hours for me; 5 for Chicago
- Sand Lakes Quiet Area: Summer Trails – this is a multi-use, looping trail, but likely not nearly as busy with mountain bikers as another more challenging trail is nearby. Has quite a few lakes on site, and is about 6 miles long. This would make for a nice, leisurely walk in, camp, and walk out while being nearby to Traverse City and other local scenic areas. Just under 5 hours for me; just under 5.5 from Chicago.
- Jordan River Pathway – not a true backcountry experience as camping along the trail is not allowed, but there is a campground at about the halfway point of this 18 mile long loop trail. Given the wet conditions of the area, autumn is probably a better time to try this to avoid the insects. Just over 5 hours away from me; close to 5.5 for Chicago.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes: North Manitou Island
- Sleeping Bear Dunes: Otter Creek Loop
- Sleeping Bear Dunes: Platte Plains Trail
- Sleeping Bear Dunes: South Manitou Island
- Sleeping Bear Dunes: Valley View Trail
- Manistee / Huron National Forests list of backpacking / backcountry areas/trails
Wisconsin hike-in camping or backpacking camping spots
The Wisconsin DNR was kind enough to do a lot of the hard work for me by listing all of their backpacking areas, length of trails, and number of sites available. All I had to do was figure out how far each is from me and Chicago (I did leave some off the list as 9+ hours isn’t going to be high on my list anytime soon).
- Kettle Moraine State Forest – Has both a southern and northern unit, with just a handful of backpacking sites (though there are 5 along the Ice Age Trail in the northern unit), however, there are over 200 miles of backpacking trails AND it is only 3 hours away for me, and just 2.5 hours from Chicago. There is also the Lapham Peak unit, more to the west of Milwaukee that is just a bit farther total drive, and has some Ice Age Trail mileage in the park and a backpacking site there too.
- Blue Mound State Park – 12 backpacking sites, 24 miles of trails on the property. Despite being located in southwestern Wisconsin, this park is just 3.5 hours from me and just 3 hours from Chicago.
- Governor Dodge State Park – 6 backpacking sites, with 28 miles of hiking available. Features sandstone bluffs, 2 swimming lakes, hiking, off-road biking trails. Just 3.5 hours from Chicago, about 4 hours for me.
- Buckhorn State Park – 46 backpacking sites, though only 6 miles of trails. However, it is just over 4 hours for me, and just under 4 hours from Chicago.
- Black River State Forest – Off-site camping by permit only, with 33 miles of trails to hike. Only 5 hours from me, and just 4.5 hours from Chicago. The quick look at Google Images I saw from this location look to be quite pretty, so this should be a lovely scenic location.
- Newport State Park – in Door County, and is a park right along the edge of Lake Michigan. Has 30 miles of trails and 17 backcountry, hike-in sites, many of which look to be right along the lake itself. 5.5 hours for me, 5 hours from Chicago.
- Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest Enormous state forest in the northern region of Wisconsin, but ideally located so that it is only about a 6 hours drive away. Has 17 remote, reservable (yay!) backcountry campsites, and 39 miles of trails to explore. 6 hours from Chicago area.
- Copper Falls State Park – I realize this one is a bit far, but apparently the scenery is fantastic. And with a name like “Copper Falls” there’s got to be a waterfall there, right? Of course – more than one, actually. However, just one backpacking site, and 7 miles of trails. But the scenery should make it worth the 7 hours drive to get there.
- Rock Island State Park Although this is only a 5.5 hour drive, it also requires TWO ferry rides to reach the park, so I’m lising this last. However, for a true “get away from it ALL” trip, this one pretty well fits the bill. Park has 40 hike-in backpack sites, and 10 miles worth of trail.
Iowa hike-in camping or backpacking camping spots
The Iowa DNR does their maps and trail mileage information a bit differently, so it’s harder to give good estimates of what a given area has without looking at eac individual map (and sometimes guess at the miles from the legend). I also tried doing some of my regular Google searches for backpacking trails for Iowa, and there’s not a lot I found so far. But these are a couple of decent spots to consider at least:
- Stephens State Forest – Has a total of 68 miles of hiking and multi use trails. The Woodburn unit appears to be hiking only, and has 6+ miles of hiking trails with 4 backcountry campsites. The Lucas Unit is a multi-use trail, and has a few miles of trails in the forest that also intersects with and uses roads for parts of the trail mileage. There are a few campsites scattered about the area. The Whitebreast Unit is multi-use, and appears to have the longest mileage of the three, with the largest number of campsites throughout the trails as well. Unfortunately there is no information about available water sources. Distance from both me and Chicago is about 5.5 hours or so, located in south-central Iowa.
- Yellow River State Forest – has 30 miles of backpacking trails in the Paint Creek Unit, some of which are on equestrian trails, some of which are backpack-only. Several sites throughout the forest, and water doesn’t appear to be an issue with good planning. Probably has some very scenic areas based on the topography and me knowing a little about that area. Also about 5.5 hours away from me and Chicago.
Missouri hike-in camping or backpacking camping spots
I’m only really including some areas that are 1) easy to access from the general Chicago area and 2) that I know are beautiful because I’ve been there (or in the general region before). Having camped / canoed on the Current River in southern Missouri in college, I know that area is gorgeous – and much of it can feel very remote too. Here’s a few spots to consider:
- Mark Twain National Forest – Many, many dispersed camping options here (see link). I won’t link to all of them individually as this is quite far for me, and I’ll individuals choose what may be best for them. But I know this is a beautiful area of the country, so it’s worth a look, for sure. About 6.5 hours for me (on average); 7 hours distant for Chicagoans, though some areas are closer, and some quite a bit farther.
- Sunklands Conservation Area: I’m not sure if this is part of the MTNF (above) or not, but it doesn’t seem to be. Allows backcountry camping. No amenities. Seasonal closures may apply, and this area also offers lots of hunting, so blaze orange may be a good idea if you go there. Just under 7 hours for me; just over 7 for Chicagoans.
Minnesota hike-in camping or backpacking camping spots
Coming at some point – MN is pretty far for me, so it’s last on my list.