In partnership with KOA

Finding plenty of natural beauty right in Chicago’s backyard

A city girl’s first visit to a nearby KOA campground provides solace and an easy weekend getaway

All photos by Chanel Tate

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.

Small wooden cabin on grass surrounded by bushes and trees with porch and swing
One of the adorable Camping Cabins at the Chicago Northwest KOA Holiday.

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.  

Wooden swing in front of a stone fire pit surrounded by green trees and blue skies
The grounds are beautiful—full of fresh flowers and greenery.
Large, brown barn-like structure with KOA Theatre sign on the side and picnic tables around it
The Chicago Northwest KOA Holiday even has its own theater!

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.

View from a covered porch looking out the balcony with a gas grill on the porch
My Deluxe Cabin has its own personal porch and grill.
Interior view of inside the cabin with wooden floors and wood paneling on the inside, small kitchenette, table and chairs, and bed with a white sheet
The wood interior makes you feel like you’re in a true, rustic cabin.

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.

View of a clear blue swimming pool through a chain link fence with yellow swimming googles hanging from the fence
The perfect place to kick back, relax, and read a good book.

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.

Woman in jeans walks in front of a stationary train on the tracks
Your admission ticket lets you ride many of the trains.
Woman in jeans poses in front of stationary train on the tracks with a slight smile
The Illinois Railway Museum is almost entirely outdoors.

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.

Brown, A-frame building with empty bike rack and firewood for sale out front on a grassy lawn
With its iconic A-frame roof, the Chicago Northwest KOA Holiday is one of the oldest in the country.

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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