If you love the great outdoors but still long for the comforts of home, Starved Rock Country offers private camping resorts.
These parks, much like tiny cities, offer swimming pools, beaches, lakes, stores and much more.
Those who are looking for extended camping experiences can join these associations by purchasing property on the sites.
Two of the larger resort parks in Starved Rock Country include Woodsmoke Ranch in Seneca and Woodhaven Lakes in Sublette.
'I feel like I'm on vacation'
Woodsmoke Ranch, a recreational vehicle resort park near Seneca, is designed to be a community of second homes. But for many residents, it’s the home that’s first in their hearts.
At the core of the 1,500-acre Woodsmoke Ranch property is 400 rolling acres with 1,485 campsites along 14 miles of paved, curving roads.
The wooded property enhances the privacy of the RV home sites, all of which have water, electric and a 1,500-gallon holding tank for sewage.
There are extensive recreation facilities, including lakes, two heated pools, two baby pools, a horse stable and a restaurant at Woodsmoke.
The average lot sells for $1,500. Lots with RV units range from $20,000 to $60,000 and financing can be arranged through First Midwest Bank in Seneca. The annual dues are $875 and the property taxes are only $229. That’s because the tax only is on the land, and not on the RVs, which are considered personal property.
Owners are allowed to stay 182 nights a year at the park. A portion of the owners are there for the full six months and then go to Florida or another other warm place for the winter, sometimes taking their RV with them.
There are numerous planned activities for the residents, who mostly visit from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
But the busiest day of the year is Halloween Saturday, where there are contests and a haunted house plus massive trick-or-treating on the resort park’s safe roads.
“There’s not the cars, everyone walks,” said Sharon Tolomei, the resorts’s managing broker for sales and a property owner. “I go through over 600 pieces of candy.
“Woodsmoke Ranch is a place for great happy people that like to get away,” Tolomei said.”It’s also a multi-generation park with owners ranging from families with young children to retirees.
Jim and Georgia Scarpa have been owners for 32 years.
“We first came out here just to get a free grill they were giving away,” said Georgia. But then when they investigated the available properties and found one with a huge ancient oak tree she was sold, and so was Jim.
When they returned they could not find their property among the curving roads. So they sent their son off on his bicycle. After some scouting he found it and led his parents there.
At the time they bought, the Scarpas lived in Schaumburg and Jim was a mechanic for United Air Lines at O’Hare Airport. Now their permanent home is in Sycamore, because it’s closer to Woodsmoke.
After years of family weekend visits, the Scarpas bought their son his own unit, and now their grandchildren are regular visitors for outdoor meals and parties.
Now retired, the Scarpas have a pass to fly for free with United.
“But we’d rather be here,” said Georgia. “We love the trees, the atmosphere and the beauty.”
It’s a similar story for nearby residents Tim and Joann Casey.
They live in Homer Glen and Tim works at a power plant in Chicago.
What brings them to Woodsmoke every weekend possible is, they say in unison, “the peace and quiet.”
The Scarpas and other neighbors are more like family than friends, say the Caseys.
For many years, the Caseys made more use of the recreation facilities, but now relaxing is a higher priority.
If there is a downside to Woodsmoke, says Tim, it’s that he has to maintain two residences.
“But that’s more a labor of love,” he said.
The Scarpas and Caseys are typical of people from the Chicago metropolitan area who end up with RV homes at Woodsmoke.
“People from the burbs and the city get out to this area and just fall in love with it,” said Tolomei. “And pretty soon they’re located out here.”
But there’s also a fair number of people from La Salle County with units, said Vince Pacetti, the president of the seven-member Woodsmoke Homeowners Association board of directors.
“We have a lot of people from the area out here,” he said.
Pacetti was living in Palos Hills when he first came to look at a Woodsmoke Ranch location in 1982.
Before long he made the move to a home in Seneca, leaving the suburbs behind. But he also enjoys the quick and easy transition to Woodsmoke when he wants to relax.
“The people out here are terrific,” he said.
Residents say they enjoy the serenity and safety the gated resort offers. A guard is on duty around the clock and only residents or their registered guests may enter. Children are free to have the run of the resort either on foot or on bicycles.
There are smiles and friendly waves from residents to visitors.
“I’ve had a place out here for 25 years,” said Jean Ganze, another of the Woodsmoke’s property brokers.
“But even now when I come through that front gate the stress goes out of me and I feel like I’m on vacation.”
God's Country in Starved Rock Country
Woodhaven Lakes campground is a city unto itself, complete with supermarket, hardware store, swimming pools, tennis courts, hiking trails, live entertainment, Wi-Fi, laundromat, bank, beaches and church services. And of course, there's a bait shop.
Woodhaven may have many of the amenities of a city, but nothing of the hurly-burly one finds in Chicago, because if it did, Richard Guzik might never have bought a Woodhaven lot 40 years ago.
"It's very slow here. No rush, no hurry, no push to do anything," Guzik said.
The bearded grandfather is retired as head of computer services for the city of Chicago. He continues to live in the metropolis, but spends every weekend from spring to fall at Woodhaven. He said he bought property at the resort when Woodhaven Lake — the largest of seven lakes — was nothing but a "big hole" with junk trucks piled up in it to nurture fish.
"Everything you need is right here," Guzik observed.
Woodhaven Lakes, established in 1971, is nestled amid oaks and pines in central Lee County, about 120 miles west of Chicago. The Green River courses nearby and a public golf course is about a mile away. The campground has 6,140 sites, with about 10 percent usually available for purchase. Of 128 sites recently for sale, the highest priced property was $89,900 and the lowest was $3,500.
An owners association oversees the resort. During holiday weekends, the population can swell to 14,000 people.
Former Illinois resident Pauline Lindaas now lives in Arizona, but nonetheless returns to the state every summer to enjoy life at Woodhaven.
"It's such a wonderful place. So much to do. There are things for kids every day and the grounds are really kept well," Lindaas noted.
Tim Strauts has been coming to Woodhaven from suburban Park Ridge for 35 years; he is 36 years old.
"It's a great family place. Kids can't get into too much trouble here!" Strauts said. "It's a camping experience, but without pitching a tent.
509 La Moille Road, Sublette
Woodhaven Lakes Realty
2795 E. 28th Road, Seneca