Traveling Ted is a blog that takes readers along on my adventures hiking, canoeing, skiing, and international backpacking. Many blogs focus on one aspect of backpacking, but I tackle both the outdoor adventure side and international exploration as well.

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It can be tricky to find a suitable place to camp near Chicago during the three summer holiday weekends. The Wisconsin River is usually a suitable option, but water levels in May can often drown canoe camping intentions. We found a perfect option closer to home with a Castle Rock State Park canoe camp adventure on the Rock River.

Castle Rock State Park canoe camp adventure

Castle Rock State Park canoe camp adventure on the Rock River

Settled on Castle Rock State Park canoe camp adventure

I have been knee deep in my first year as a high school teacher, so I was thinking of just staying home, but my friend Sam was eager to take out his new canoe. He did some research and found that in Castle Rock State Park along the Rock River, there are boat-in or canoe-in campsites. We decided to meet at the Castle Rock State Park landing just outside the town of Oregon, Illinois and do a car shift.

Castle Rock State Park boat landing

Castle Rock State Park canoe camp adventure begins at the boat landing

Castle Rock State Park boat landing

Castle Rock State Park boat landing

Castle Rock State Park

Let the trip begin

Castle Rock State Park Landing to Grand Detour

We decided to only paddle six miles and just concentrate on the camping part. Since we had two cars, we shifted one up to the next town. The next town was Grand Detour. Sam and his wife Shawn brought two dogs, and they did not know how one would take to the boat. The short trip was probably a good idea as we battled stiff head winds both days making a six mile trip feel more like a ten plus mile trip.

Dogs Rock River Illinois

Getting Stagger Lee and Greta used to the water at the Castle Rock State Park boat landing

Fortunately, the dogs did great, and happily got settled in the canoe after only a few minutes. I paddled solo in an aluminum canoe. Despite the wind, the days were beautiful with temperatures in the 70s.

Wenonah canoe

Dogs doing well in Sam’s new Wenonah canoe

Two mile paddle to the Canoe camp area

We paddled into the canoe camping area in less than an hour. There were a few groups already there, but we found an ideal spot and set up camp. One of the groups was just picnicking and soon left, so on Memorial Day weekend, there was just one other group in the site. There are eight individual sites and a group site.

Castle Rock State Park


Castle Rock sandstone butte

The most outstanding geological feature along the river is the Castle Rock butte. This is a sandstone cliff situated about a mile downstream from the boat landing. There is a scenic grove of pine trees on top of it and the cliff itself is a pretty white and brown formation. While paddling next to it, cliff swallows flew in and out of their little nests they built on the cliffside.

Castle Rock State Park canoe camp

The boat-in camp as seen from the pier

Description of the Canoe Camping sites

The canoe camping sites are basically picnic tables set on a grassy flat section right along the river. There is a metal dock, which was helpful for loading and unloading the canoe. There were fire pits with a metal grill over the fire and one relatively clean portable toilet with toilet paper.

Castle Rock State Park canoe camp

My Big Agnes tent at the Castle Rock State Park canoe camp

A gravel road came in from the road, but there is a gate to discourage people from driving in. Some people park there and walk in, but you are not supposed to walk in and camp. The sites are only for canoeists and boaters. Just before you get to the road, there is a walking trail, so you can access some of the state park trails from the campsite.

Rock River camping Illinois

Rock River and the Castle Rock State Park boat-in camp – The group camp is the set of picnic tables to the right

No ticks, no mosquitoes, but a few spiders

With all the rain we have received in Illinois, it was no surprise that the greenery along the river was a lush green with bountiful wildflowers. What was a surprise was there was no ticks or mosquitoes. I don’t think I was bitten or even harassed by one mosquito.

There were a lot of spiders, but most of them were harmless and small. One decent sized spider did park himself on my rain fly, and when I got out of the tent, I was face-to-face with him. That will wake you up quicker than coffee. I will take spiders over ticks and mosquitoes if I had a choice.

Wildflowers Rock River

You belong among the wildflowers

Wonderful night camping with a few beverages

We enjoyed a wonderful campfire and roasted hot dogs over the fire, told stories, and had a few drinks. It was the perfect Memorial Day camping experience. We brought plenty of firewood, but there was some already in the campsite.

Castle Rock State Park boat-in

A Sam selfie of the campsite with Shawn and I in the background

Bald eagles and pelicans

The next morning, we built a fire and enjoyed breakfast. I saw a flash of white coming up river, and it was a flight of white pelicans. Many people do not realize that we have pelicans in Illinois. The brown pelicans stay in Florida, but white pelicans fly north and live in the bigger bodies of water in the U.S. and Canada.

White pelicans Illinois

A pod of white Pelicans in the Rock River

When we were canoeing we passed a pod in the middle of the river. I decided not to get my camera out, which I regretted. Fortunately, another pod were hanging out at the end of an island just around the next corner. I switched my lenses to get my zoom out and got myself in a favorable position for photographs.

White pelicans Rock River

Zoomed in on the pod of white pelicans – Taken with a Sony A7RIII with Sony FE 200-600 mm zoom lens

The stiff wind actually worked out advantageously here. The wind was blowing at about the same rate as the current, so I basically floated in the same position and was able to comfortably take photos without disturbing the birds. We also saw about three or four bald eagles on our trip.

Aluminum canoe Rock River

Taking one last break in order to extend the weekend trip

Take out and end of the trip

We enjoyed our trip and vowed to return. We pulled into Grand Detour and Shawn gave me a ride back to my car. The Castle Rock State Park canoe camp adventure was a success.

Rock River sunset

A sunset you can only see if you canoe into the Castle Rock State Park

Castle Rock State Park canoe camp tips

  • The Castle Rock State Park campsites are first come first serve. If they are all full you can use the group site.
  • Good camping etiquette is to only take the group camp if not being used and give it up if a group does arrive.
  • The sites are $6.00 per night and there is a slot where you can deposit the money. A ranger came in the morning to collect.
  • The next take-out downstream after Grand Detour is Lowell Park. This would make the second day’s trip 11 miles instead of 4.
  • White Pelican Canoe Rental services this section of the river if you need canoes, kayaks, or SUPs they can take care of you.

Adventure on!