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Palos preserves among several where camping will be allowed

Camp Kiwanis to have sites for horse-riders

By Laura Bollin

Camping in the Cook County forest preserves has in recent years been offered only to groups of scouts and students, but the county plans to open camping in some preserves to the general public beginning next year.

The Forest Preserve District of Cook County has begun a $22 million project to create and renovate camp grounds in Tinley Park and Willow Springs as well as Northbrook, Palatine, South Holland, River Forest, Glencoe and Winnetka. Two existing campgrounds will be renovated and seven will be developed, said Forest Preserve District director of planning and development Chris Slattery.

"We want to bring families in," Slattery said. "Since the 1920s, in the early days of the forest preserves, there was a big legacy of people camping in the preserves."

The district will fund the project with a portion of $110 million in general obligation bonds issued last year. The renovation project is the second-biggest capital improvement project after land acquisition, which will cost $25 million, Slattery said.

Forest preserve campgrounds have fallen into disrepair in the past 90 years, Slattery said. Only one camp - Camp Sullivan at 147th Street and Oak Park Avenue in Tinley Park - features buildings that are open.

Camp Sullivan is one of two existing campgrounds to be renovated. The 80-acre site features a barn at least 80 years old that will be repaired, and a new entrance will be built off Oak Park Avenue to help Camp Sullivan feel more isolated, Slattery said. Three bunkhouses constructed in 1975 will be renovated and 12 canvas cabins will be erected. The non-permanent cabins with cement floors will feature cots. The district will allow campers to bring their own tents.

"The bunkhouses currently have bunk beds that sleep 40 people, and only one bathroom," Slattery said. "We're going to build a modern toilet and shower building, like you'd find at a state park, with several bathroom stalls and showers."

Three new campgrounds will also be created, including a primitive one at Camp Bullfrog Lake at the Pulaski Woods in Willow Springs. The Bullfrog Lake site, west of Wolf Road and south of 95th Street near both Maple Lake and Red Gate Woods, was chosen because it is the center of the district, according to Slattery. Camp Bullfrog Lake will not have electricity or water.

"That's the heart of Palos Preserve, our flagship preserve," he said. "We wanted to take advantage of the natural topography and beauty: the rolling hills, and water, the proximity to the [Little Red Schoolhouse] Nature Center and the trails. The Palos Preserve is our largest single preserve. People can drive a half hour from downtown, and still be able to have a full, natural, outdoor experience."

The Palos Preserve features 50 miles of trails, 14 of which are paved and 36 of which are multi-use, Slattery said.

A second existing campground, Camp Reinberg in the Deer Grove Forest Preserve in Palatine, will feature eight tent cabins, 20 tent sites and a restroom with showers. The camp is currently closed because structures on the site violate building codes.

Two other campgrounds will be developed. Camp Pine Woods in Northbrook will provide an alternative to Camp Dan Beard, which will be closed. A bunkhouse, eight tent cabins, 20 tent sites, and toilet and shower facilities will be built. A canoe launch site and activities such as rope courses may be built in the future.

Shabbona Woods in South Holland will have eight tent cabins, 12 tent sites and a toilet building. Shabbona Woods, a former picnic grove, is close to the Sand Ridge Nature Center, 15890 S. Paxton Ave. in South Holland.

The district hopes to in the future add family cabins and additional dining and recreation opportunities at the five "top tier" campsites, but whether that can be accomplished depends on funding being available.

The district also plans to developing four primitive "second-tier" campgrounds including Camp Kiwanis, across the street from the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, 9800 Willow Springs Road in Willow Springs. Camp Kiwanis will feature campsites for trailers and horses, Slattery said.

"We won't have tents for horses, but we will have more hitching posts," Slattery said. "The site currently connects to the equestrian trail system, and we haven't allowed people to camp there. It was brought up in focus groups that equestrians would really like that opportunity."

Other second-tier sites include possible camp locations at Skokie Lagoons, along the North Branch of the Chicago River and the Des Plaines River; and at Columbia Woods in Willow Springs or Thatcher Woods in River Forest.

"There will just be some limestone slabs for people to set up tents," Slattery said. "Right now, we are allowing people to camp at Columbia Woods, but it isn't obvious so we want to make it more clear to people where the campsites are. The idea is to create a few opportunities along the river. That way, paddlers and hikers can do a weekend, stay a couple of nights and stop at a few different points."

Columbia Woods would feature a small cluster of tent sites along the river. The islands at the Skokie Lagoons would allow space for one to three tents.

The district plans to allow campers to register for sites on its website and pay via credit or debit card. Rates will vary, but the cost is $25 per night for half of a large cabin at Camp Sullivan, Slattery said. Campers who do not want to use the online system can reserve sites at the district's office in River Forest. The district has a pool of funds available to groups that need subsidies, Slattery said.

The next step is more detailed architectural and engineering plans for the top-tier sites, which should be completed by the end of the year, Slattery said. Camp Sullivan and Camp Reinberg are expected to be open by spring 2014. The sites at Camp Bullfrog Lake and Camp Pine Woods are expected to be completed by mid-2015.