A New Glamping Experience Showcases the Wilder Side of Illinois

Your guide to nature travel in the Prairie State.

Hikers at Garden of the Gods rock formations in Illinois
Hiking at the Garden of the Gods, sandstone formations within Shawnee National Forest, in southern Illinois. Photo: Todd Bannor/Alamy

Most visitors to Illinois make a beeline for museums and dining in Chicago, or walk in Abraham Lincoln's footsteps in the capital, Springfield. But the state also has fields, forests, and hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife. And with domestic travel continuing to boom, a new luxury campground is beckoning travelers deeper into 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 opened this spring, owners Jennifer and Tim Bias spent four years turning the land into the first glamping experience in Illinois, complete with 11 safari tents — custom-made in South Africa — that feature hardwood floors, en suite baths, king-size beds, and decks with views of the river. (Also provided: a s'mores kit to use in your individual fire pit.)

"It's very much a beautiful, comfortable space that allows you to feel like you're in a hotel," Jennifer says. "But then you have crickets and owls singing you to sleep at night, and deer dancing in the meadows."

You can hike, bike, and fish, then end the day with cocktails at the Burlington, a bar inside a revamped 1961 Airstream. The Barn, the campground's gathering space, includes a general store, an area for wine tastings, and gourmet dining (a seasonal breakfast and dinner are included in each reservation) from Chicago chef Cleetus Friedman, who creates meals from the on-site produce beds and chicken coops. This summer, Aramoni is partnering with other Chicago-area chefs, like Paul Virant and Gale Gand, to host cooking demonstrations and collaborate on pop-up menus.

Safari style tents at Camp Aramoni, in Illinois
Safari-style tents at Camp Aramoni, 100 miles outside Chicago. Matt Hass/Courtesy of Camp Aramoni

Illinois is 390 miles from north to south, giving it a range of geography, habitats, and nature experiences to explore. With Aramoni, the Biases wanted to introduce Chicagoans and out-of-staters to more of its outdoor treasures — such as nearby Starved Rock State Park, where you can hike past waterfalls and through sandstone canyons or explore the Illinois River by boat. To the southwest, right outside Peoria, is Wildlife Prairie Park, which, with its black bears and roaming bison, feels worlds away. The place is all about the animals: stay at the park's Legacy Cabins, where you can sit at your picnic table and watch 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 Native peoples who walked the same paths through the Palisades — the line of steep limestone bluffs along the river — a fact that earned the park national landmark status in 1973. Eagles feed there in winter, while in spring you can hear the sounds of migrating songbirds. See rock formations created through centuries of erosion, hike wooded ravines filled with summer wildflowers, and catch catfish in the rolling Mississippi. The best way to discover 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 crosses old train tracks and is especially beautiful as the leaves change in the fall.

In the southern part of the state, visit Shawnee National Forest, where you can take in rugged bluffs and creeks framed by walls of moss-covered rock. Don't miss the spectacular formation of sandstone known as the Garden of the Gods. Highlights include a quarter-mile observation walk to a panoramic viewpoint (keep an eye out for bald eagles) and a 4.2-mile trail through the rocks. Stay the night in the Shawnee National Forest Cabins, a collection of cozy tree houses 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 headline "Wait, This Is Illinois?"

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles