Category: Campgrounds

Thomas Woods Campsite – Marengo Ridge Conservation Area

Recently, we took our first family camping trip with our 9 month old baby. We weren’t sure if he’d enjoy his first camping experience, so we decided to camp for one night at Thomas Woods Campsite, less than an hour from our home. Thomas Woods is in the Marengo Ridge Conservation Area in Marengo, IL. If you’re looking to camp somewhere scenic and close to the Chicago area, I’d highly recommend Thomas Woods.

Thomas Woods Campsite #39

Marengo Ridge is just over 800 acres with five miles of hiking trails. Thomas Woods campground offers both car camping and hike in sites. On the early May weekend we camped there were only a handful of sites taken. We chose site 39, but there wasn’t a bad site in the campground.

We had a hard time keeping our baby on the blanket we laid out for him. At this age he just loves to explore and hates being confined (getting him into his car seat is a challenge). He spent a lot of time crawling around on the soft moss that covered the ground. He had a blast playing with the rocks, sticks and pinecones scattered about our site.

We took a couple hikes and spotted a good variety of early spring flowers. There were a few lookout points with sweeping views of the grasslands and surrounding farms.

We brought along our clip-on high chair and tray, which worked well with the picnic bench at mealtimes.

To our surprise, the baby slept better in our tent than he does in his crib at home. I guess he liked being snuggled up between us in our double sleeping bag.

We packed light for this camping trip and managed to fit all our essentials plus our pup Lacy in my Jetta Sportwagen. We did bring our huge sleeping pads to make sure that the baby got a good night’s sleep. We kept our meals simple as well. We made veggie quesadillas in our pie iron for dinner and egg and cheese sandwiches for breakfast.

Judging by his smiles, I think our baby had a great time. We’re looking forward to our next family camping experience.

  • Thomas Woods Campsite website
  • Location: 3100 IL-23, Marengo, IL 60152
  • Reservations: Call (815) 338-6223, ext. 1200 by 11 am on the Thursday before you camp, or register with the camp host when you arrive.
  • Camping fees:
    Non-Electric Site: $10 Residents / $15 Non-Residents
    Electric RV Only Site: $20 Residents / $30 Non-Residents
    Holiday weekend surcharge: $2 Residents; $5 Non-Residents
  • Firewood: No outside firewood permitted. Good quality firewood available on-site for $5 a bundle.
  • Things to know: Dogs are welcome, though it is not mentioned on the website.

Off the Beaten Path in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains

The area surrounding Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains has a touristy reputation, but just 30 minutes from the tourist town of Gatlinburg, there’s a small town called Cosby that has a lot to offer. Here are a few things we discovered while we were camping near Cosby.

Off the beaten path in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains

Our Place

115 Cricket Hollow Road, Cosby, TN 37722 (on 321)

Blink and you’ll miss it, but Our Place is definitely worth turning around for.

Our Place - Off the Beaten Path in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains

We stopped in for some coffee and books.

Our Place - Off the Beaten Path in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains

So many books! The selection was amazing. We bought a few field guides, a cookbook and some beautiful note cards from a local artist. It’s definitely worth a look around while you sip your coffee.

The Front Porch Restaurant

2912 Cosby Highway, Cosby, TN 37722

The owner of Our Place told us to stop into The Front Porch Restaurant for some great southern cooking. We decided to head over there on a Saturday night to hear the live music ( from 6-9 on Saturday nights).  After a long hike we were starving, and all the food was delicious.

Front Porch Restaurant - Off the Beaten Path in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains

I really liked their fried green tomatoes and Billy especially liked the cornbread. He said the cornbread was the best he’d ever had (sorry mom). We finished the meal off with some delicious pecan pie. We ordered a ton of food and our meal was only $30.

One woman we ran into said the restaurant sent food to her home when she was home bound for a period of time. Gotta love that.

The Front Porch Restaurant is a BYOB, so don’t forget to pick up a beer on the way there.

Cosby Campground

471 Cosby Park Rd, Cosby, TN

We camped in the beautiful but little-used Cosby Campground in Smoky Mountain National Park. I’ve heard that it’s a lot less busy than other campgrounds in the park, but I don’t know for sure because there was so much traffic on the road to Cade’s cove that we turned around! You can read my review of Cosby Campground here.


There are three hikes nearby that I really liked. All of them start at Cosby Campground. You can see where each of these trails start on this map.

Hen Wallow Falls (4.4 miles roundtrip)

I really enjoyed this moderate hike through the forest and up to the falls.

Hen Wallow Falls - Off the Beaten Path in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains

Take Gabes Mountain Trail and watch for signs for Hen Wallow falls. More information here.

Sutton Ridge Overlook (3 miles roundtrip)

We took this short hike on the Lower Mount Cammerer Trail to a beautiful overlook.

Sutton Ridge Overlook - Off the Beaten Path in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains

{Sutton Ridge Overlook just before sunset}

To get to the overlook, hike for 1.4 miles on the Lower Mount Cammerer Trail. Turn right at the spur to hike up to the overlook.

Self Guided Nature Hike (1 mile round trip)

We went on the self guiding nature hike our last afternoon in Tennessee. It’s only a mile, but the guide (50 cents) was interesting and well written.

self guiding nature trail

I will return, hopefully soon.

Cosby Campground – Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We recently took a last-minute trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to enjoy some fall colors. We didn’t have reservations, so we decided to camp at Cosby Campground. It’s one of the least popular campgrounds in the park. In my book, that’s a good thing. Cosby is about 30 minutes east of the tourist mecca of Gatlinburg, so we didn’t have to deal with traffic or crowds. Here’s a map of the entire park >

Camping - Cosby Campground - Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It was dark when we arrived at the campground. We selected site B67. It is located in the back of loop B (Cosby Campground map). These sites are among the best in the campground. They are elevated from the road and surrounded by woods.  The entire campground is wooded, but there isn’t a lot of undergrowth, so the sites are only semi-private. Each site has a picnic table, a fire ring with a nice cooking grate and a flat, crushed gravel pad for your tent.


We had just arrived and I was rolling out our sleeping pads in the tent when someone from a couple of sites over came over and told Billy that there was a bear nearby. She shined her flashlight into the woods and the bear was 20 feet from our tent – the tent that I was inside! I got out of the tent barefoot and walked quickly toward the car, not even bothering to zip the tent shut. Moments later the bear stuck his head inside our tent! He then circled around the tent and then slowly walked away. Our hearts still pounding, we drove over to the camp host’s trailer to let her know about the bear.

Our bear encounter was the talk of the town the following day. When we went to buy firewood, the shop owner exclaimed “that was you!?” We saw a couple more bears during our stay at Cosby, but we were careful not to leave food out so we didn’t run into any problems.

Cosby campground is very beautiful. It’s a clean and well maintained campground, including the bathrooms. The bathrooms don’t have soap, so don’t forget to bring some from home.

Camping - Cosby Campground - Great Smoky Mountains National Park

{us after five days, no showers}

There aren’t any showers at Cosby. I’m fine with not showering for five days, but if you are desperate for a shower, you can take one for $5 in the town of Cosby.

There are lots of hikes of varying difficulty that start at Cosby campground. We especially enjoyed the hike to Hen Wallow Falls and the self-guiding nature trail. Hiking and other things to do in the Cosby area >

Location: 471 Cosby Park Rd, Cosby, TN
Reservations: Only a handful of sites are reservable online. Most sites are first come, first serve. With the exception of holiday weekends, you should have no problem finding a site.
Camping fees: $14/night

Have you visited the Smoky Mountains? Where did you stay?