Ultimate Guide to Dispersed Camping in Illinois & Best Free Campgrounds

Immerse yourself in the experience of dispersed camping in Illinois, a state teeming with rich, moist, arable land, sprawling forests, and expansive marshlands, where raccoons, striped skunks, and the elusive eastern narrow-mouthed toad make their home. This is the same Illinois that has given the nation McDonalds, the largest cookie factory in the world and produces more nuclear energy than any other state.

The rather curious terrain of flat marshland and the vibrant woodland area of Shawnee National Forest presents a unique camping opportunity.

On the one hand, you have miles upon square miles of tranquil and mysterious flatlands perfect for hunting or a peaceful camping excursion. On the other hand, there are forest road pullouts and riverside campgrounds that you can visit and enrich your stay with some fishing or exploring the local hiking trails that slither between the trees.

In this article, I will list my favorite free dispersed campgrounds in the US state of Illinois.

Map of Dispersed Campgrounds in Illinois

You can easily find the locations of the best dispersed campgrounds in Illinois using this map.

Overview of Free Camping in Illinois

Sandy shoreline in Illinois

If you fancy setting up a campsite in a forest setting that features lakes, streams, rivers, and curious mesas that overlook the treetops, Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest is where you want to be.

The activities you can enjoy in this curious woodland region go way beyond just camping, as fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing, and water-based activities are also a significant part of the tourist appeal of this part of the Prairie State. A fantastic way to make the most out of your stay in this part of the US is to use one of the many campgrounds in Shawnee as a base camp and then embark on a mini expedition and explore local hiking trails and discover the best fishing spots.

Illinois boasts an endless expanse of level wetlands. These flatlands make this place a hunter’s paradise, as the rich vegetation hides wildlife of all shapes and sizes – from deer to small game animals such as foxes and skunks. Also, southern Illinois is famous for its impressive list of waterfowl species you can hunt, including ducks, Canada geese, brants, Wilson’s snipes, and many others (to learn more about hunting in Illinois, visit this page). 

Alternatively, other parts of Illinois also offer lavish camping options, with many cool spots within towns, where well-kempt parking lots provide an exciting opportunity to park up your RV and do some sightseeing or supply stockpiling.

Best Dispersed Campgrounds in Illinois   

Nature in Illinois

As far as dispersed camping is concerned, Illinois features two significant types of camping areas– one made up of camps in the famous Shawnee National Forest and others located throughout other parts of this US state, in semi-urban areas, or as a part of nature reserves.

Shawnee-based campgrounds are typically snugly tucked away in parts of the forest with a bit of clearing, where you can approach the sites with your vehicles and where there’s enough space to pitch a tent. The general rule of thumb is that the campgrounds are free of charge and function on a first-come, first-served basis, with no reservations available in advance.

For the most part, there is no fee involved for dispersed campgrounds.

Dispersed campgrounds also typically sit next to lakes, creeks, and other bodies of water, so fishing and hiking are almost always available as additional activities you can engage in.

On the other hand, if you want to be easily mobile and discover different parts of Illinois while parking in a scenic environment occasionally, using many of this state’s urbane parks as basecamps can be an excellent idea (this is why I included a couple of such parks, even though they aren’t campgrounds per se).

Here’s a list of my favorite dispersed campgrounds that span the entirety of the Land of Lincoln. 

Rochelle Train Park 

Rochelle Train Park
  • Map 
  • Water availability: yes 
  • Toilets: yes 
  • Visitor frequency: high 

Representing a somewhat unlikely but ultimately fantastic camping opportunity, Rochelle Train Park is one of the rarely accessible parking areas where you can camp in northern Illinois.

Rochelle train park represents the first ever park of its kind in the US, as it is entirely dedicated to visitors. The premise of this park is rather curious, and it dates back to the times when rail was a new thing in the US (as well as everywhere else). Visitors would gather around in this park, prepare their cameras or notebooks, and then engage in the age-old art of – trainspotting. Nowadays, the idea might be funny, but trains used to be quite a novelty back in the day.

As far as dispersed camping is concerned, the authorities at Rochelle don’t go out of their way to promote it. That said, pulling up in your RV and parking wherever parking is allowed in this park is entirely free.

As long as you can tolerate (especially if you like) the sound of incoming and departing trains and a relaxed green environment, Rochelle Train Park can be just the place for you.

In terms of amenities, you can get all your supplies, potable water, and all kinds of train-themed souvenirs from the local gift shop

Bear Creek R. A. 

Bear Creek Recreational Area in Illinois
  • Map 
  • Water availability: yes  
  • Toilets: vault toilets 
  • Visitor frequency: medium 

Situated in the west-central part of the state, Bear Creek Recreational Area is a place in the US that you must see to believe. This campground is close to the village of Ursa, established in 1828, representing one of the westernmost settlements in Illinois. You can visit this place to check out its exciting history and get supplies for your camping expedition.

A part of the Mark Twain Wildlife Refuge, Bear Creek R. A. is a dispersed campground featuring 30 sites open to visitors year-round. As far as the sites here are concerned, they all function based on a first-come, first-served basis, so coming here before everyone else is the only way to secure a spot.

The sites are relatively large and can accommodate tents, cars, RVs, and other car + trailer arrangements. The upper length limit for these vehicles is 35 feet, though. The local authorities allow the visitors to stay up to two weeks consecutively – for no charge.

The Bear Creek Recreational Area is well-known for activities other than camping. If you’re a fishing enthusiast or like hiking and boating, this place can be quite an exciting area to explore. 

Rainey Park

Rainey Park, Illinois
  • Map 
  • Water availability: yes 
  • Toilets: yes 
  • Visitor frequency: high 

Rainey Park can be the perfect spot if you ever find yourself in the middle of Illinois, low on fuel, and looking for a place to park your RV and spend the night. While this rather urbane spot may not be the best option for those looking for a camping trip that will involve setting up a tent on a grassy field or in a nearby forest, Rainey Park can be a convenient parking spot where you can stay for a couple of nights. 

Many visitors use this park to tank up, fetch their supplies, and plan out further exploration of the state of Illinois and its many natural wonders and incredible outback locations. 

Since this public park sits in an otherwise sophisticated setting, tenting, starting fires, and other camping activities you can do in a typical campsite are prohibited. You can check out the town of Carrollton (where this park is, by the way) and perhaps concentrate on purchasing supplies, stocking up on maps and other outdoors-related equipment, or learning more about the local history. 

So, for folks looking for a good outdoors dispersed camping experience, you will be better off checking out another location. However, as a temporary base camp from where you can explore the region, Carrollton and its Rainey Park can be a perfect place to stop by.  

Indian Point 

Shawnee National Forest, Illinois
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: no  
  • Visitor frequency: medium 

In the scenic Shawnee National Forest, Indian Point is a campground with five sites linked to a significant local hiking trail called Indian Point Trail. This hiking trail is a relatively small 2-mile loop, but it represents a fantastic opportunity for taking a slight detour from camping, as you can complete the track within a day. 

Linked with this unique trail is the now famous Garden of Gods Wilderness Quest, a particular wildlife observation quest requiring a map, some water, snacks, and a journal + pen. The perils you might encounter on this short but exciting adventure include errant tree roots, loose rocks, poisonous snakes, poison ivy, and the narrow high-up passages that can get super slippery if it rains.   

If you fancy exploring the Garden of the Gods, a major Illinoian natural attraction, you can use this campground as your base camp. As you advance along the local network of hiking trails, you will find several other campgrounds. 

You can even embark on a mini-exploration expedition and do some campground hopping to enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of this part of Illinois at your own pace. 

There are no amenities at Indian Point, so total self-sufficiency is a must. 

Tower Rock Campground

Tower Rock Campground, Illinois
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: no 
  • Visitor frequency: medium 

Dispersing along the banks of the scenic Ohio River, the campsites belonging to the Tower Rock campground offer fantastic views of the water and the woodland region surrounding it. 

The proximity to the river means you can engage in various awesome activities, including fishing and boating. This area is suitable for tenting, as the relatively flat parts around the river banks offer clearings that are perfect for pitching a tent and collapsing the foldable chairs so that you can fit your beer cooler next to it and enjoy the view of the river. 

When it comes to visiting Tower Rock onboard a four-wheeler, there are better options than larger RVs, as you will need help finding a large enough space to park. On the other hand, family cars and towing trailers will work like a charm when parking up around this part. 

Tower Rock is open seasonally, from May 1st to December 15th. Amenities-wise, here you will find toilets and trash containers. 

An important notice: Tower Rock Campground is prone to flooding due to its location near the water. Before heading to this campground, visit its official USFS page and check for any alerts.

Lake of Egypt

Map of Lake of Egypt in Illinois
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no (you can filter some from the lake, though
  • Toilets: no 
  • Visitor frequency: medium 

Lake of Egypt is privately owned, but parts are adjacent to the Shawnee National Forest. The woodland clearings close to the lake are open to dispersed camping, so if you’d like to enjoy the beauty of this reservoir from a charming patch of the scenic Shawnee forest, setting up camp around these parts can be a fantastic way to discover the south of the Prairie State. 

Since this is a woodland area close to privately-owned property, the camping rules are rather specific. You can camp within a quarter of a mile from developed campgrounds in Shawnee National Forest. There are no fees, and you can camp here all year round whenever you want. 

As far as campfires are concerned, they are allowed, but if you want to source the firewood locally, it is essential to only pick up dead branches from off the ground. Cutting down live trees is prohibited. Before you leave, ensuring that the campfire is entirely out is a must. Also, you must camp at least 150 feet from any water source. 

Additional activities you can engage in at this campground include mushroom hunting, fishing, both big and small game hunting, as well as a range of exciting water-based activities, including motorized and non-motorized boating, tubing, and waterskiing. 

Pennant Bar Openlands Ranch 

Pennant Bar Openlands Ranch campground in Illinois
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no (you can filter some from the nearby ponds, however
  • Toilets: no 
  • Visitor frequency: medium 

If you fancy laying low, setting some traps, and cracking open a cold beer while slouched in your foldable camping chair in the middle of rural Illinois prairie, Pennant Bar Openlands Ranch is a place you want to visit. 

The first thing you notice about Pennant Bar is its immense size. Spanning several hundred acres of nothing but shrubbery, low-lying grass, and great little fishing ponds, Pennant Bar provides an excellent dispersed camping opportunity you want to take advantage of. 

Setting up a tent in one of the small clearings is a piece of cake, given the flat terrain and rather pleasant weather during the spring and summer. Once you’re all set, you can observe the surrounding prairie, unpack your fishing tackle, and perch on the shore of one of the small lakes, or even engage in some hunting.

Pennant Bar Openlands is a significant hunting destination. You can go for the big game, small game, waterfowl, and other game birds, as well as try your hand at setting some traps and catching some of the unsuspecting local critters, including foxes, raccoons, and last but not least – striped skunks.

Fay Pickering Mountain Bike Trailhead 

  • Map 
  • Water availability: yes 
  • Toilets: yes 
  • Visitor frequency: high 

Representing a major scenic trail near Marshall, Illinois, Fay Pickering is a favorite among mountain biking enthusiasts. The 10-mile loop of challenging, punchy climbs and sections with flowy, fast-paced curving bends goes past gorgeous bodies of water, charming woodland paths that wind between the trees, and large clearings with nothing but grass below and blue skies above. 

You can park your RV and stay a few nights at the trailhead. Since this area is not particularly suitable for dispersed camping, there are better options than staying for prolonged periods. That said, if you’d like to try and tackle the famous Fay Pickering Memorial Trails, this trailhead is the perfect base camp from where you can start your expedition. 

No amenities are available at this trailhead, so total self-sufficiency is necessary. 

Generally speaking, this scenic part of Illinois is close to Marshall and the famous trailhead, so it can be a perfect destination to stop by, get your supplies, gather your thoughts, study your maps, and prepare for further exploration of this beautiful US state.

Has Illinois’ charm whetted your appetite for adventure? Why not extend your exploration and venture farther? Take a leap with us and dive into the rugged beauty of Wyoming, a wilderness lover’s paradise.

Our comprehensive guide to dispersed camping in Wyoming awaits your perusal. Alternatively, if you’re yearning for a blend of serene forests and tranquil lakes, Ohio beckons. Explore our guide to dispersed camping in Ohio, and embark on your next adventure. On the other hand, if unprecedented biodiversity is something you would find interesting, see our guide to primitive camping in Florida.

Dutchman Lake 

Dutchman Lake camping in Illinois
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no (but you can filter some from the lake
  • Toilets: no  
  • Visitor frequency: medium 

For those interested in combining some high-quality lake fishing with their dispersed camping expedition, Dutchman Lake gives you an opportunity like no other in the region. You will encounter some 118 acres of clear lake water when you get to this area. Combined with the charming forest surrounding it, you get a relatively tranquil camping (and potentially fishing) experience after a scenic body of water. 

There are no campsites per se, but the road to the lake is paved and easily accessible, with ‘campable-onable’ land everywhere around you. In terms of amenities, you will only find a boat ramp and plenty of parking space. That said, there are no toilets or a reliable source of potable water, so total self-sufficiency is a must. 

Regarding fishing, some species you can catch at Dutchman Lake include largemouth bass, channel catfish, panfish, and warmouth. 

Two types of boating are acceptable at Dutchman Lake – motorized and non-motorized (for fishing, the local authorities advise using small, electric or gas-powered boats). In addition to the paved road at Dutchman Lake, there is also a boat ramp made out of gravel. 

Turkey Bayou Campground 

Turkey Bayou Campground in Illinois
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: no 
  • Visitor frequency: low 

Located next to a 20-acre lake close to the Big Muddy River, Turkey Bayou campground is part of a broader waterfowl hunting region called Oakwood Bottoms. Open year-round (except for the periods during the waterfowl hunting season), Turkey Bayou campground is free of charge and functions on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Representing a rather curious part of the Shawnee National Forest, this region features a forested part with fewer trees, more shrubbery, marshland, riverside, and lakeside soil perfect for small fowl to hide and hatch their eggs.

Some amenities at Turkey Bayou include boat ramps and picnic tables. The area is rather well-kempt, features concrete roads, and plenty of parking space, so arriving with a vehicle or even an RV, can be a great way to stop by for a picnic with your friends and family. Whether tenting or boondocking, Turkey Bayou will give you ample room to enjoy its unique appearance and observe its rich ecosystem. 

Some of the many additional activities you can enjoy if you decide to camp here include lake, pond, or river fishing, hiking, nature viewing, hunting, and water activities such as non-motorized boating. 

An important notice: A part of Oakwood Bottoms known as the ‘Designated Waterfowl Refuge Area’ is closed for up to two weeks before the start of the hunting season. It remains closed to camping throughout the hunting season, too.

Jackson Falls 

Jackson Falls in Illinois
  • Map 
  • Water availability: no 
  • Toilets: vault toilets 
  • Visitor frequency: medium 

Last but certainly not least, Jackson Falls represents a significant hiking and camping destination within the Shawnee National Forest. The immense natural beauty and curious hilly terrain, atypical for a forest, have attracted hikers to this patch of Shawnee for many years. 

Tackling the trails here is a challenge you want to take advantage of if you want to learn more about rural Illinois. Setting up a tent at Jackson Falls and then using it as a base camp from where you can explore the surrounding trails can be an excellent way to enjoy the woodland charms of this unique region. 

This campground is open year-round, and it features vault toilets and impromptu parking spaces that stretch along the main dirt road that eventually dead-ends. The road is relatively narrow, so only smaller, preferably high-clearance 4×4 vehicles will quickly tackle the road to the trailhead. For this reason, there may be better ideas than arriving here onboard an RV. 

A word of notice: This region is known for rather steep cliffs and, at times, low-visibility forest terrain, so caution is necessary when hiking, climbing, or exploring this area.  

Where to Next?

From scenic forest trailheads and creek-side sites to flatland clearings and urbane parking spots, Illinois camping represents a unique mixture of woodland charm, urbane parks with a story to tell, and endless wetlands with innumerable hunting and fishing opportunities—an absolute must-visit – whether you’re an RV camper or a tenting enthusiast.

But the journey doesn’t end at Illinois. When you’re ready to exchange the Midwest’s charm for mountainous grandeur, or if you’re just seeking a new wilderness to conquer, we have just the ticket. Our comprehensive guide to dispersed camping near Glacier National Park offers you another compelling adventure, a chance to immerse yourself in one of America’s most awe-inspiring landscapes.

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