Most visitors to Illinois head to Chicago’s museums and restaurants, or walk in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln in the capital, Springfield. But the state also has fields, forests, and hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife. And with the boom in domestic travel, a new luxury campground invites travelers to become more immersed in the great outdoors.
A 90-minute drive southwest of Chicago, Camp Aramoni was built on the site of a 19th century brickyard and is surrounded by 96 acres of forest along the Vermilion River. Before it opens this spring, owners Jennifer and Tim Bias spent four years transforming the grounds into Illinois’ premiere glamping experience, with 11 safari tents – custom-made in South Africa – featuring hardwood floors, en-suite bathrooms, king-size beds and terraces with river views. (Also provided: a s’mores kit to use in your individual household.)
“It really is a beautiful, comfortable space that makes you feel like you’re in a hotel,” says Jennifer. “But then you have crickets and owls singing to you to sleep at night, and deer dancing in the meadows.”
You can hike, bike, and fish, then end the day with cocktails at Burlington, a bar inside a refurbished 1961 Airstream. The Barn, the campground’s gathering space, includes a general store, space for wine tastings, and gourmet dining (a seasonal breakfast and dinner are included with every reservation) from Chicago chef Cleetus Friedman, who creates meals from on-site produce beds and chicken coops. This summer, Aramoni is teaming up with other Chicago-area chefs, like Paul Virant and Gale Gand, to host cooking demonstrations and collaborate on pop-up menus.
Illinois stretches 390 miles from north to south, giving it a range of geographic experiences, habitats, and nature to explore. Along with Aramoni, the Biases wanted to introduce Chicagoans and non-residents to other outdoor treasures, like nearby Starved Rock State Park, where you can hike along waterfalls and through canyons of sandstone or explore the Illinois River by boat. To the southwest, just outside of Peoria, is Wildlife Prairie Park, which, with its roaming black bears and bison, seems like a world apart. The place is all about the animals: stay in the park’s Legacy cabins, where you can sit at your picnic table and watch the elk roam, or attend one of the many nature walks and talks.
In northwestern Illinois, Mississippi Palisades State Park is rich in history. A millennium ago, the area was home to indigenous peoples who walked the same trails through the palisades – the line of steep limestone cliffs along the river – a fact that earned the park national landmark status in 1973 Eagles feed here in winter, while in spring you can hear the sounds of migrating songbirds. Admire rock formations created by centuries of erosion, hike through forested ravines filled with summer wildflowers, and catch catfish in rolling Mississippi. The best way to experience the array of plant life is on the park’s 15 miles of hiking trails, such as the 3.5-mile High Point Trail or the easy 1.2-mile Sentinel Trail loop, which winds through ‘old train tracks and is particularly beautiful as the leaves change in the fall.
In the southern part of the state, visit the Shawnee National Forest, where you can admire rugged cliffs and streams framed by moss-covered rock walls. Don’t miss the spectacular sandstone formation known as the Garden of the Gods. Highlights include a quarter-mile lookout boardwalk to a scenic lookout point (keep an eye out for bald eagles) and a 4.2-mile trail through the rocks. Spend the night in the Shawnee National Forest Cabins, a collection of cozy treehouses with kitchenettes, fireplaces and hot tubs among the trees.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the heading “Wait, this is Illinois?”