The best camping sites for the Grateful Dead's Soldier Field Concerts
Do you remember where you were when you heard that Jerry died? I was a major in the Air Force buying “micro” computers for the Department of Defense. I was stationed in the flower of the Confederacy, Montgomery Alabama. It was early August, and the oppressive heat squeezed the town like a dish rag leaving it damp and lifeless. The Dead had been playing the month before at Soldier Field as part of their usual summer soiree through the Midwest. A bunch of the younger officers were going to head up for the concert but the plan fell apart. Work and heat teamed up to dash the trip on the altar of lethargy. I remember thinking “next year, we’ll catch them next year.” Little did we know that we would never see the band together again.
Well never say never boys and girls; after a 21-year hiatus, the Dead will rise again and be shakin those bones for our Nation’s birthday this year in Soldier Field. As with most lunar holidays the celebration will last three days with concert dates on the 3rd, 4th and 5th of July. As fitting, tickets went on sale for the general public on Valentine day this year and if you’re looking at this, you’ve probably got your grubby little fingers on a pair or more.
But for the Dead Head on a budget (an’ most are) where ya goin stay? Don’t plan to just park and hang out near the venue. At this point in time, the parking lots adjacent to Soldier Field which were open all day during Dead visits in the 80s and 90s have not been cleared by city officials. It was reported by Chicago NBC affiliate that Grateful Dead fans are petitioning the city to camp in the parking lots at the venue over the Fourth of July weekend. Mayor Emmanuel’s office offered the following response: “While we understand the desires of some of the community, this is something that requires a cooperative evaluation from several entities to make a determination,” http://www.nbcchicago.com/entertainment/the-scene/Grateful-Dead-Fans-Hope-to-Camp-at-Soldier-Field-289506091.html#ixzz3S8MBQZBj You can expect a miracle, but at this point there is no reason to believe that you will be able to saddle up next to Soldier Field the day before the concert and stay for three days. Even when parking lots were opened up for extended periods, they were cleared out every night.
So what is plan B? Chicagoland isn’t all concrete and parking lots. There are a number of camping possibilities within a hundred miles of Soldier Field. The following provides a list of state venues with a couple hours of the concert. Prices provided are for the holiday weekend. Some of the parks have two prices based on whether you are a state resident. WARNING: The times provided are ‘normal’ drive times to Soldier Field. Anyone familiar with the Windy City knows that ‘normal’ is never used in conjuncture with ‘traffic’. Besides the normal traffic heading to the concert you will have to deal with an endless array of road projects that making summer driving such a joy in Chicago.
Big Foot Beach State Park; 1452 S. Wells St., Lake Geneva WI 53147
Time to Soldier Field:: 1 hour, 45 minutes (80 miles)
Website: http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/bigfoot/ Price; $17/12 (Wisconsin requires a $10/day vehicle admission sticker in addition to the normal campground price.)
Not named for the mythical figure but actually named after a Potawatomi chief. However there is indeed a beach with a 100-foot swimming area. Big Foot has more than 100 camping sites, most of which are drive-up sites that can be reserved in advance. Maybe some the old timers remember this campsite from when the Dead played Lake Geneva. There’s a nice split between sites with electric hookups and those without. The park also has 36 tent-only sites with no parking immediately nearby. Alcohol is not permitted in the Big Foot Beach State Park campgrounds.
Chain O Lakes State Park; 8916 Wilmot Rd., Spring Grove, IL 60081
Time to Soldier Field: 1 hour, 20 minutes (60 miles)
Website: http://dnr.state.il.us/Lands/landmgt/parks/R2/CHAINO.HTM Price: $30 full service; $18 electric; $8 primitive
A 2,793-acre park in northern Illinois not far from the Wisconsin state line, Chain O Lakes State Park features shower facilities, and many of the 195 sites do have electric hookups. The park is broken down into separate camping areas. The Honeysuckle Hollow and Turner Lake South campgrounds are closest to the 44-acre Turner Lake. A little farther from the lake are the Prairie View, Fox Den, Mud Lake East, and Mud Lake West campgrounds. Turner Lake South, Prairie View and Mud Lake East do not offer electric and therefore are cheaper.
Channahon State Park; 25302 W. Story St., Channahon, IL 60410
Time to Soldier Field: 53 minutes (50 miles)
Website: http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/PARKS/i&m/east/channaho/park.htm Price; $0
The park is located in Channahon along the DuPage, Kankakee and Des Plaines Rivers less than an hour away from Chicago just south of US 80. The I&M Canal Trail runs right through the park. While this is the closest camping spot to the concert, there’s no actual campground at Channahon State Park. It’s primitive camping, which means you must bring in your own gear. There are pit toilets, fire rings, grills, and picnic tables available. The website makes no mention of a fee or cost for camping, though you’ll need to get a permit, which you can pick up from the park’s information center. If you find this part has filled up, there is Gebhard Woods State park less than 15 miles away. A nice added benefit is a bar (Big Basin Saloon) within walking distance to the park.
Gebhard Woods State Park: 401 Ottawa St., Morris IL 60450
Time to Soldier Field: 1 hour, 10 minutes (62 miles)
Website: http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/parks/i&m/east/gebhard/park.htm Price; $6 per tent
Gebhard Woods is a small 30 acre park that can be found in the town of Morris, Illinois, a little more than an hour southwest of Chicago. While spartan, the nightly rate is just $6 per tent, so it’s extremely affordable. It is about a half mile walk from parking to campsites.
Illinois Beach State Park; 1 Lakefront Dr., Zion, IL 60099 Phone (847) 662-6433 Website: dnr.state.il.us/ Time to Soldier Field: 80 minutes (50 miles) Price: $35 per site
The park lies on Lake Michigan just north of Waukegan. While the campground at Illinois Beach State Park is available on a first-come, first-served basis, you can make a reservation for summer weekends. You can camp at more than 240 sites with showers, firewood and electricity. You must obtain a permit to camp at Illinois Beach State Park. I would also be amiss if I didn’t mention the existence of the Dead River, a stream blocked by sandbars much of the year, forming an elongated pond. When the water finally rises high enough, it breaks through the sandbar and drains the surrounding marshes. Alcohol is not permitted on sites 100-123, 200-215, 290-296, 300H & 301, 392H & 391 within the camp grounds or the beaches and shelters. Alcohol is available at the beach resort..
Indiana Dunes State Park; 1600 North 25 E., Chesterton, IN 46304 Phone: 219-926-1952 Time to Soldier Field: 1 hour, 15 minutes (50 miles) Website: http://www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/2980.htm Price:$5/7 entrance fee; 40 full service 29 electric 18 non-electric 10 primitive
Not to be confused with Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which is located right next door, Indiana Dunes State Park is home to more than 2,000 acres of beach, forest and campground. You’ll have to walk down the road (or through the forest) to get from the campground to the beach. Reservations are required during the summer, when camping spots fill up fast. You can make online reservations up until noon on the day of your arrival. The 140 camping sites all have 50 amp outlets, and the campground has two modern shower and restroom facilities. Purchase wood and other basic food and camping essentials at the camp store. There is also a dump station available.
Kankakee River State Park; 5314 West Rt. 102, Bourbonnais, IL
Time to Soldier Field: 1 hour, 15 minutes (59 miles)
Website: http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/PARKS/R2/kankakee.htm Price: $30 full service; $18 electric; $8 primitive
The Potawatomi Campground provides 110 Class A sites (with showers and electricity), and two cabins ($5) open during normal camping season. The Chippewa Campground has more than 150 more rustic sites of Class B and C. These sites have no showers, and while some have electricity, others do not. No firewood can be brought into or taken out of the park. You may make reservations ($5) in advance at their website for A, BE and C campsites.
Moraine View State Recreation Area; 27374 Moraine View Park Rd, LeRoy IL 61752
Time to Soldier Field: 2 hours, 30 minutes (138 miles)
Website: http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/PARKS/R3/Moraine.htm Price; $30 electric hookup; $6 primitive
While a bit more of a hike to eastern central Illinois, one of your best options is Moraine View State Recreation Area, located just east of Bloomington. The 137 Class A trailer campsites are close to Dawson Lake, a 158-acre man-made lake. There are another 32 primitive class D sites on the Tall Timber backpack trail. Reservations are accepted through www.reserveamerica .
Potato Creek State Park;: 25601 State Road 4, North Liberty IN 46554
Time to Soldier Field: 2 hours, 15 minutes (95 miles)
Website: www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/2972.htm Price; $5/7 entrance fee; 40 full service 29 electric 18 non-electric 10 primitive
Potato Creek State Park is just south of South Bend, Indiana. It’s about a two-hour drive, which makes it a good choice for people coming from the east. The park features 287 electric sites bunched together in five areas; check Indiana’s online reservation site for more specific details on pricing. More than 25 of the camp sites are wheelchair accessible. Potato Creek also has 17 cabins renting at $80 per night during the week and $90 from Thursday through Saturday nights. There may be a minimum stay of one week required to rent a cabin (though this could be reduced to as little as two days, depending on demand.
Starved Rock State Park; Routes 178 and 71, Utica, IL 61373
www.starvedrockstatepark.org Distance to Soldier Field; 1 hour 40 minutes (88 miles), Price: $35 per campsite
This is a wonderful park that lies southwest of Joliet and offers more than 125 campsites equipped with electricity, shower facilities, and flush toilets. Pets are allowed on a leash. Alcoholis prohibited.
Van Buren State Park; 23960 Ruggles Road, South Haven MI 49090 Phone: 269-637-2788 Time to Soldier Field: 2 hours, 10 minutes (119 miles) Website: http://www.michigandnr.com/parksandtrails/Details.aspx?id=227 Price; $21-23 per site
400-acre Van Buren State Park is in South Haven, Michigan and features a mile of sandy beaches and dunes in addition to 220 camping sites. Sites have electrical hookups, and there are two modern restroom buildings and shower buildings you can secure a place now as the park makes reservations up to six months in advance. Pets are permitted
White Pines Forest State Park; 6712 West Pines Rd., Mt. Morris IL 61054
Time to Soldier Field: 2 hours (108 miles)
Website: http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/parks/r1/whitepns.htm Price; $10 per campsites
White Pines Forest State Park offers basic car camping in Ogle County south of Rockford, not far off of US 80. The park sits houses 103 campsites, with three electric hookup sites on a first come, first served basis, but most other sites can be reserved in advance. The campground has a shower building with flush toilets. Don’t expect to show on the 3rd and find a spot.
See there you have it. There are other parks further away or commercial sites closer that may be better suited for you. While not showing all the options, the fine City of Chicago provides a great interactive map showing state parks location in relation to Chicago. http://chicagocamping.org/campgrounds-near-chicago-map/
Special thanks to Gerald Murphey for the art work and to my associate and counselor at law; Charles Siegel for filling in some of the location detail. If you run into legal problems while on tour, who ya gonna call? Well Charlie has been in practice for over 30 years in Chicago and can help you with all your legal problems from criminal to divorce. So whether you get busted by the police or your spouse, don’t call Saul, call Charlie at 708-602-1672