When we think of traveling, we often overlook the beauty in our own backyards. After months of isolation, people are extra eager to get outside and create new summertime memories. And as things begin to open and schedules begin to fill, I am reminded of how hectic my surroundings can get. So, after a busy week in the city, I decide that I need a getaway. And for me, the Chicago Northwest KOA Holiday is the perfect place to do exactly that.
Guests are a priority
Driving just 60 miles northwest of the Chicago Loop, I make my way through bottleneck traffic and onto a narrow two-lane road and into the countryside of Union, Illinois. The peaceful greenery and rolling farmland make for a relaxing journey. Before I arrive, I receive a warm welcome text from the KOA staff with detailed driving directions, sanitation procedures, and check-in details. When I reach the campground, I am promptly greeted at the gate by a staff member, who hands me an envelope with my gate key, a campground map, and some notes about the camp store. I can’t help but think that the guests are clearly a top priority.
As I am escorted through the grounds and to my cabin, I see very few other people, but I do notice some travelers setting up their campsites and firing up their grills. Those who did not come in an RV (like me) have the option to rent the Glamping Pioneer Tent, a fully-equipped stationary RV, a Deluxe Cabin with a bathroom, or a more rustic Camping Cabin. As someone who loves to camp but has never stayed at a KOA before, I opt for the Deluxe Cabin—the ideal blend of natural and luxury.
A proper summer getaway
The cabin is quaint and cute with a brick patio, fire pit, gas grill, picnic table, porch swing set, and sprawling views of the countryside. Inside, the beautiful nature-toned interior hints at the outdoors, with natural wood and hues of rustic reds. The unit is air-conditioned and could comfortably sleep six people, so I have plenty of room to myself. I begin to unpack my things and get settled.
Less than an hour goes by, and when I poke my head out the front door, I notice that the campground is packed. All of the pull-thru sites behind my cabin are full of people rolling in to get settled for the night. And while some KOA events are still on hold due to pandemic restrictions, many families take advantage of the recreational activities that are available: tours of the Gem Mines, Banana Bike rentals, mini golf, Gaga Ball, Poly Pong, and horseshoe courts. The smell of charcoal and the sound of laughter make it feel like a proper summer getaway.
Inspired by the energy, I make my way to the pool to relax and read. I meet a retired couple from Texas doing the same, and we talk about the joy they’ve felt since retiring, their adventures on the road, and how they arrived at the Chicago Northwest KOA Holiday for one particular reason: the country’s largest railroad museum. I’m intrigued and decide to add it to the next day’s itinerary.
A railway time capsule
My first night in the cabin is peaceful and the morning is warm and refreshing. The weather is perfect, so I opt to have breakfast on the patio and plan my day. As I step outside, I notice my new friends from Texas; they stop and give me some tips for visiting the Illinois Railway Museum.
The drive from the KOA to the railway museum is less than 10 minutes. I purchase my ticket ahead of time and make my way to the entrance. One of the first things I notice is that the museum is almost entirely outdoors. In fact, the museum is actually the largest collection of historic railway equipment in America, and visitors are allowed to ride nearly all of the trains. In addition to the trains themselves, there are numerous displays that highlight how trains operate, rail history, and what you might have found on a train centuries ago (think railroad china and railroad police uniforms). With more than 100 acres to explore—including dozens of trains that vary from steam locomotives to electric cars—the museum is both an educational and entertaining journey back through time.
The warmest host
The second night at the campground is as good as, if not better, than my first—so much so that I don’t want to leave. As I make my way down to the office to check out, a staff member on a golf cart offers to take my key.
When she asks, “How was your stay?” I rave about how peaceful it was and how I intend to come back when I want to escape the busy streets and towering Chicago buildings. We introduce ourselves, and I learn that she’s not just a guest—she’s the owner, Sylvia Weber.
Hospitable and soft-spoken, Weber gleams with pride about her campground. “You know, we are one of the first and oldest KOA locations in the country,” she says.
I am touched by how proud she is and reminded yet again of how much the guests feel like a priority here. Everything from the thoughtful text messages, to the curbside check in, to the other friendly guests who told me about an incredible local attraction, it feels really good to be out in the world again. And best of all? This natural oasis is right in Chicago’s backyard.
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