When Cook County announced it would finally be opening some of its forest preserves for camping in 2016, I was thrilled. It seemed so silly that there was all of this great land, but nowhere for sanctioned camping on any of it. After looking over the new sites, I determined that 3 of them should be pretty accessible by bike. Out of Shabonna Woods in South Holland, Camp Reinberg in Palatine, and Camp Bullfrog Lake in Willow Springs, I ultimately decided to start with Camp Bullfrog Lake as the option with the most scenic route of arrival.
Cook County is really ahead of the game in terms of ease and convenience of booking. You set up a user account and book sites online with up to date information about availability. You don’t need to print out or wait for mailed permits; the camp host has a listing of people with reservations and which sites they are on. You can also save your payment information for future bookings. It was definitely a hassle free reservation experience. At $35/night for primitive sites and $50/night for electric site, Camp Bullfrog Lake initially seemed kind of pricey. After trying (and failing) to get a primitive site, I got one of the 6 remaining electric sites and grumbled about the price. Cook County’s person per site policy is definitely more favorable to bike camping than many of the other local offerings. They list no number of tent restrictions, and instead base solely on number of persons. With this in mind, I actually ended up paying about the same to camp at Bullfrog Lake as I would at any similar site.
The campsites are pretty small and close together; I think you’d have a lot of trouble cramming more than three 3-person tents onto the tent pad. In addition to the close quarters, the landscaping still has a ways to go. I was at Bullfrog Lake in July and there were distinct swatches of land where the sod had been washed away. Trees have been planted, but it will be a couple more years before they’re up to providing much shade. My overall impression was that Bullfrog Lake will be a lovely campsite, but it’s probably still got 3-5 years before everything is fully grown in.
Probably the single most objectionable part of Bullfrog Lake is its water situation.The campsite has lovely showers and flush toilets, but the campsite is having some issues with its well. The water is presently questionably potable. This is pretty fine if you’re car camping, but I was definitely not amused when I came off of the also waterless Cal-Sag trail on a 95 degree day. There is a cooler with water inside of the camp store and you can purchase bottles of water inside, but I very much hope that this issue is resolved before spring 2017 rolls in.
Bullfrog Lake provides no shortage of amenities. Located in the Palos Forest Preserve, all of you bike packers might want to think about loading up the mountain bike and hitting the trails. Bullfrog Lake will also rent you canoes and kayaks to take out on pond and you can also enjoy fishing from the shore. As with most other sites, Bullfrog Lake asks that you don’t bring in outside wood and will sell you a bundle for a reasonable price. On the occasion that I visited, they were giving out one free bundle to all campers. Bullfrog Lake additionally has a camp store that is pretty well stocked with snacks and a reasonable quantity of s’mores ingredients; it was probably the only time I didn’t end up hauling extra graham crackers home. I wish the camp store would stock hotdogs; with this addition I’d have no need to go out for groceries at all!
The grocery store is about 5 miles away and on suburban roads that are moderately stressful to ride on. With this in mind, you might want to consider hauling at least some of your food into the site. On my first visit to Bullfrog Lake I ended up ordering delivery (if you ask nicely the camp host will give you good recommendations). I might try heading out to the grocery store on my next visit to camp, but it’ll never be a trip I’ll feel great about making.
There are two main routes you can take out to Bullfrog Lake. Each has its advantages, but neither option is particularly great. My preferred route is to head out to the Major Taylor Trail and link up with the Cal-Sag Trail in Alsip. Transversing the stretch of suburb between the end of the Major Taylor Trail and Alsip is definitely the most stressful part of this trip, and unfortunately this is the last portion of the Cal-Sag that will be completed, sometime in 2018. The rest of the trip is lovely, but this route is unfortunately without water directly on the trail, but there is water about halfway through the route a few blocks off of the main trail. This route totals about 50 miles from Logan Square.
The other route that you can take to get to Bullfrog lake is only about 35 miles from Logan Square. Some of you may know it as the Waterfall Glen group ride. A popular route for team training rides, this route is definitely a more high stress endeavor, utilizing only streets, many of which are without marked bike lanes. The route isn’t too bad to take on weekends, but I’d definitely think twice before taking it on a weekday anywhere near a rush period.It’s not my favorite thing in the world to travel faster moving suburban roads while fully loaded, but it’s do-able. One of the major advantages to this route is that it passes directly by a Culver’s, meeting my mid-point dairy preference. It also passes by a few parks that provide well for a water break.
Camp Bullfrog Lake is a really great site with a lot of good things going for it. Cook County’s gear rental program and resources for folks who are new to camping are really wonderful resources. The unfortunate thing is that the sites are so new and there are still a number of issues to work out. I have full confidence in the Cook County Forest Preserves’ commitment to creating an accessible and enjoyable experience and I’m sure that this site will be better every season, but at this point in time it’s not at the top of my list of camp experiences. I plan on coming back in 2017, and I know that given time, Bullfrog Lake will truly be a gem.
Overall Score: 3.5/5
Ride Quality: 3.5/5
Proximity to grocery: 2/5