Car-Camping at Loud Thunder Forest Preserve

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Life has been pretty stressful over the last few months for Clarissa and I. We’ve had a lot going on, and as the wedding approaches, she’s been getting a little stressed about elements of that. This has meant that I’ve been getting stressed out over them. We decided to take last weekend off from responsibilities and do a weekend of easy car-camping at Loud Thunder Forest Preserve. The preserve is less than a half hour from where we live, so it seemed like an easy enough prospect, and though things didn’t necessarily go 100% according to plan (they seldom do) we enjoyed our time away from responsibility.

Since Loud Thunder is so near to us, it didn’t mean much travel time on Friday, so after work on Friday we hit the road. We had all but reached the park when we realized that we hadn’t packed a spatula or maple syrup; not survival essentials, but we definitely wanted Jingle Java Pancakes on Saturday morning. I wasn’t excited about the prospect of driving all the way home, so a quick stop at the aptly named “Little Store” in Andalusia, IL saved the day. The store provided a new spatula and the much desired syrup, while the storeowner provided much appreciated humor and personality. Honestly, that brief stop made me a little glad that we forgot those things; meeting interesting people along the way is part of the fun.

Once we got back on track we got our site registration and went to set up. One of the things that we liked about Loud Thunder was that they have several different campsites for different purposes. The “primitive” camping area is completely separate from RV areas, so any neighbors you have will be in tents as well. And we did have some neighbors. Four men camping next to us had come to the park to fish and drink. Nothing wrong with that, but they listened to loud mariachi music the majority of the evening, spoke and laughed loudly, repeatedly locked their car (with a loud honk and flashing lights each time), had lights that were way too bright, and had a fire much too large for the site. They could have used a quick read of Camp Etiquette 101. Don’t get the wrong idea, they weren’t bad people; they seemed legitimately friendly, and when it got late and I asked them to turn down their music for the night, they gladly complied. When you camp at public campgrounds, there is always a trade off for the conveniences, and I’m well aware of that. I’d prefer to do a little more dispersed camping (camping in the wild, as opposed to rental sites) in the future. That would offer more quiet and solitude, but we’re easing Clarissa into camping instead of tossing her in head first.

The specific site we had reserved was pretty nice; we had picked the spot next to the woods so that we could only have neighbors to one side. We could see the Mississippi River through an opening in the foliage, and could reach the riverfront by walking/climbing down a short but steep embankment.

The mighty Mississippi.
The mighty Mississippi.

We positioned my car so as not to be blinded by the headlights should any cars pull in, and set up the tent so that the river would be the first thing we saw when we set up in the morning. We did discover that our spot was also welcoming to neighborhood mosquitoes. We sprayed on bug spray and fired up our Thermacell Mosquito Repellent Device. I managed to get through the weekend with just a few bites, but Clarissa got eaten on pretty badly. She always suffers from the blood-suckers more than I do, and I had hoped the Thermacell would help keep them at bay. I think it helps, but it certainly isn’t a complete solution. I’ll give details, experiences, and my opinions on the unit in an upcoming review.

There’s nothing like a hot dog roasted over a fire. But first you’ve got to get the fire going. Since Clarissa was starving by the time we had gotten camp set up, I made a really big mistake- I tried to shortcut my fire-building. Let me give you a bit of advice; unless you’re an excellent firecrafter, using a shortcut to start a sustainable fire will take longer than properly gathering adequate tinder and kindling, making a proper structure, and nurturing the flame when it is small. I won’t make that mistake again, and I hope that my readers won’t either! Once we had the fire going, however, things started going much more smoothly.

There is no better way to prepare a hot dog than over a fire.

Hot dogs were roasted, s’mores were had, the evening was nice and cool, the fire burned down, and the sky was clear. When we finally called it a night, we laid down and looked up into a starry sky as we drifted off to sleep. It was a great night’s sleep. Then the dew came.

By morning, everything was soaked in dew, including our firewood and most of our kindling. I had dried a lot of driftwood out by Friday night’s fire, but it was all for naught. Still, I had some time to work on the fire; at home Clarissa beats me out of bed 99 times out of 100, but when camping, I’m almost always up first. This time I didn’t take any shortcuts, and had a little fire burning in less than ten minutes, despite the soaked conditions. Getting enough coals to make pancakes and coffee was another matter though. My continual stoking eventually woke Clarissa, but we had to kill some time until we could actually get breakfast made. So we ended up with a brunch instead of a breakfast; that’s not a big deal on a relaxing weekend because there really isn’t a schedule to keep.

These pancakes were delicious!
These pancakes were delicious!

Post brunch cleanup, it was time for a little hiking. We strapped on our new Cotopaxi Luzon 18L daypacks (expect a review very soon), and hit the trailhead less than 100 meters from our camp. The first quarter to half mile looked beautiful, but I quickly became disheartened. The mosquitoes were brutal, and despite clearing my way with a stick I walked into a spiderweb about every 15 feet.

Beautiful, but chock full of mosquitoes and spiderwebs!
Beautiful, but chock full of mosquitoes and spiderwebs!

Here’s a secret some of you might not know; no matter how much you love the outdoors, no matter how experienced you might be, and no matter how many adventures you’ve got under your belt, a humid trail where you’re getting covered in spiderwebs and eaten by bugs can wear on your adventurous spirit. The important thing to remember is to keep going, because you never know what will pop up around the next corner. In our case it was a rocky stream leading from high ground down to the Mississippi River. The sun shone down between the trees, a breeze pushed all the mosquitoes away from us, and the opportunity to explore off trail for a bit refreshed our spirit. After coming to that stream, we were both ready to keep hiking and see what else we might encounter.

Feeling refreshed!
Feeling refreshed!

There were a lot of new amenities at Loud Thunder, but trail maintenance seems to be a low priority at the moment, at least on the Hauberg trail. I usually don’t mind high grasses and the like, but the trail was so overgrown in some spots that we had to part the fauna to get through. On at least three separate occasions we went over (or under) trees that had fallen across the trail; one of which had fallen onto a bridge.


It seemed structurally safe and we crossed without any issue, but it could turn problematic if there are heavy rains anytime soon. I’ve called to inform them of the downed trees, so hopefully they won’t be across the trail for long. The condition of the trail wasn’t too much of an obstacle for us, but for people less comfortable with the outdoors, or with no experience bushwhacking, it might have proved a bit intimidating.

The trail turned parallel to the Mississippi River, and skirted so close at one point that we could follow a game trail right up to the sandy riverbank. Unfortunately, we found that previous visitors had not been kind to the spot.

This is not how any spot should look when you leave!
This is not how any spot should look when you leave!

Seeing such beautiful spots treated this way always breaks my heart a little bit. Honestly, if you can hike or boat full beers to a spot, you can haul your empty cans away. When you encounter someone else’s apathy, I urge you not to simply walk away. Do whatever you can to tidy it up. If we all just walk away, the spot never gets clean. If we all do a little bit to improve the situation (and pressure jerks to stop leaving their refuse behind in the first place) slowly but surely we’ll leave the land in better condition than we found it. Luckily I had brought a plastic bag with the intention of gathering tinder and kindling for the evening’s fire, but we decided that using it to gather up the beer cans and styrofoam bait containers was more worthwhile.

Not perfect, but better.
Not perfect, but better.

After cleaning and exploring the riverbanks, we returned to the trail and kept on walking. Unfortunately, we discovered that the trail doesn’t circle back quite the way the map indicated it would. Instead, it pops out to the highway, leaving us a little confused as to where we were. You wouldn’t think this would be the case, but I’ve seen men and women, both smarter and tougher than myself, freak out and panic when confronted with a similar situation. I’m not making fun of them; it’s a natural reaction to freak out a little when you realize that where you actually are is not where you believed yourself to be. It’s an emotional response that can override logic and rational thinking in some people; it doesn’t occur to them that they are on a major highway, they’re near homes and vehicles, and that they have a device in their pocket capable of not only calling for help, but also of mapping an exact route to the desired location. For some people it’s only after minor panic that they realize they’re not in any real danger.

It’s a reaction that I have had several times myself when I was a child and young teen. That gut-check feeling of, “Oh my god, this isn’t where I’m supposed to be, where am I?” But I had friends that drove it out of me, like my close friend Brandon. Our teenage voyages through the cornfields, railroad tracks, and wooded areas near his home slammed me into the experience of not knowing where I was over and over again, countless times each summer. Because of this, I don’t really panic at the idea of not instantly recognizing my location. I’m not some tough guy, I’ve just gotten used to it. The emotional reaction is still there, but it doesn’t override my critical thinking, at least not in situations like this one, anyway. Clarissa, to her credit, kept her cool as well.

A little exploration down the road revealed where we were; we located the turn off to Loud Thunder State Park, and continued our hike on the side of the road. We were a bit more exposed to the sun, but we also encountered a wonderful breeze, enjoyed the scent of the growing corn, got some waves from a lot of friendly bikers, and discovered that some tricksters had paid a visit to a sign or two.

Reindeer crossing?
Reindeer crossing?

So if you find yourself off of the expected path, don’t panic. At a place like Loud Thunder, you’re not likely to get hopelessly lost, and you’ll probably enjoy some of what you’ll encounter along the way. Adventures seldom follow straight lines.

We intended to rent a couple kayaks and spend the afternoon on the lake, but they were all spoken for, as were all the canoes. Instead, we spent an hour exploring Lake George in a small jon boat. The throaty roar of the 24 volt trolling motor didn’t provide enough speed for us to explore much of the lake, but it was nice to relax on the water and soak up a little sun. Not every adventure needs to be fast paced. In fact, some of them shouldn’t be. Slowing down and relaxing can be fun as well.

That night I made the best fire of the weekend, and spread out some coals on the ground for some dutch oven baking.

My little camp shovel had my hands too close to the heat for comfort, so I had to improvise.

Clarissa had mixed up a peach dump cake, and after about 45 minutes and swapping out the coals once, we had a tasty dessert after dinner. With just the two of us, however, there was a lot of extra cake! We each had a big piece, packed up two big pieces to bring home with us, and we still had a lot left over.

That’s a lot of dump cake for the two of us.

We decided the best thing to do was to share with our camp neighbors. The guys who had spent Friday evening next to our camp had vacated while we were hiking, so the nearest campers were a family staying three or four spots down. We felt a little bad for them, since the neighbor on the other side of them was blaring heavy metal for most of the day. There isn’t much we could do about that, but a little bit of our dump cake did cheer them up a bit.

Would this not cheer you up?
Would this not cheer you up?

When the father, a former marine named Jeremy, returned our plate, we had a nice talk with him for about twenty minutes. That’s one of the positives about a public campground; sometimes you might get stuck with loud or rude neighbors, but other times you get a chance to chat up some nice people. You never know what you’ll get, but it’s always best to be nice and polite, just in case you meet some cool people.

Loud Thunder was a solid campground, and I’m glad that we decided to head out and unwind for a weekend. Waking up to a view of the Mississippi River just made me excited to get up and go about my day, even Sunday morning, when I knew all we would be doing was packing up and heading out (with a stop for breakfast along the way). The park itself was in good repair, with some fairly new bathrooms and showers, and some nice boats at the dock.

The entire time we were there, I didn’t spot one single raccoon. That was a first for me at a camp like this. They may have gone after campers with sites messier than ours, but with our position right next to the woods I have trouble believing that they wouldn’t have at least tried their luck. We know that there were some nearby; we saw plenty of tracks along the river and while we were hiking. We just had absolutely no problems with them.

The Riverview camping area where we stayed was fairly desolate. There were only five to seven sites occupied while we were there. On a busy weekend, however, it’s easy to imagine the area being a little cramped. If that’s the case, don’t expect to be able to check out those sweet morning views of the river. With that caveat, if you find yourself in the Quad Cities area looking for a place to car-camp, I’d recommend Loud Thunder State Park.

The important takeaway from this trip isn’t the trails, the riverfront cleanup, the fire-building, or the dutch oven dump cake (not that those aren’t awesome, which is why I shared them with you). The important thing to remember about this trip is that we drove less than half an hour to get to the park. Even with our stop to pick up supplies we had forgotten, we had our camp set up in roughly an hour. We spent probably between $50 and $75 on site rental, boat rental, and supplies. The weekend away was well worth that cost, and if you’re feeling a little boxed in by a week at the office, housework, and errands, you should take a similar trip. Get online, find a State Park near you, get a loved one or a buddy to join you, and spend a few days out in nature. I promise you won’t regret it!

It was a good weekend.
It was a good weekend.

Until next time, stay intrepid.

4 thoughts on “Car-Camping at Loud Thunder Forest Preserve

  1. Sounds like it was a great week-end 🙂
    It’s a shame about your camp neighbours. It’s great for people to get outdoors but we should all be more respectful. Surely they wouldn’t leave their back garden in such a mess, so why do it elsewhere?

    I can relate to mosquitoes wearing your down on a hike… I agree that the best thing is just to keep going as eventually something will appear that’ll make it all worthwhile 🙂

    That cake looks delicious!
    I really need to learn how to cook better when I’m camping. Pasta and canned sardines get a bit boring after a while…

    1. You can’t pick always get the good camp neighbors, I guess, but we make the best of the situations in which we find ourselves. I’ve had some really great camp neighbors in my day as well, so I won’t complain too much. Having never camped in England, I’m not very knowledgeable about what’s available on your side of the pond, but a Queen Scout that once visited a Boy Scout camp I staffed told me that dispersed camping opportunities were few and far between; that you essentially had to camp at public sites or on private land. Has that been your experience, Allysse?

      I can’t take much credit for the cake, since all I did was build the fire and move coals, but it was delicious. One of the great things about camping out of your car is that taking a dutch oven, a percolator, or a skillet isn’t a big deal. I also highly recommend foil dinners; they’re inexpensive, easy to prep, easy to clean up, and there are lots of things you can do with them.

      Still, there is something to be said about the simplicity of pasta and canned sardines!

  2. That’s correct. I’ve never come across any dispersed camping in the UK.
    In the UK, a campsite is usually a field that a farm is not using, a camping and/or caravan park. So the closest to dispersed camping is wild camping – but it’s largely illegal. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland pretty much all land is privately owned, so wild camping is not allowed (with the exception of Dartmoor, a national park in the South West). Scotland is a little bit different as they allow wild camping. But in reality, as long as you’re discreet and considerate, it’s not really an issue. I’ve done it a fair number of times now and I’ve never had a problem. Even people I met along my hikes have always been supportive of it.

    Foil dinners are a good idea 🙂 I used to have quite a lot of those at summer camps when I was a kid. I really need to learn how to build a fire safely and responsibly (I have to admit, I’m a little scared of doing it all wrong and having the fire get out of hands…).

    1. That’s really interesting; there is illegal wild camping in the US as well, but dispersed camping is permitted in any National Forest. This may have more to do with larger landmass meaning more public land than anything else. I couldn’t say.

      It sounds like even though it’s against the law (you little rebel you!), wild camping is culturally acceptable, and perhaps even favorably looked upon by some. So when you’re camping this way do you try to hide your location a bit, or do you just do it knowing that while there could be a problem it isn’t likely? Forgive my interrogation, I’m just so curious about this? I’m going to have to camp in your country one of these days so I can experience it myself!

      In my way of thinking, safe fire-building comes down to three things: 1.Isolating the fire from potential fuel sources; 2. Keeping it a manageable size; and 3. Having the needed material to extinguish the fire on hand. If you clear the area, building a campfire ring or digging a campfire pit and move all tinder, kindling, and larger wood away from the flames, you’ll take care of the first. The second is possibly the easiest; if you have your doubts, keep it smaller. You can always build a fire up after it’s burning, but it’s harder to safely make it smaller once you have a blaze. Realistically, for most people’s needs the flames won’t need to exceed one or two feet in height. The third can be deceptive, because a lot of people don’t realize just how much water it can take to make sure a fire is dead out! Having plenty of water and dirt ready to extinguish the flames is a really good start.

      Once upon a time I taught firecraft to younger Boy Scouts. Perhaps I should scrape that information out of the vault of my memory and write a series of posts about firecrafting…

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