Wichita on the Cheap

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Camping in Kansas

For a few years now, my family and I have traded traditional vacations for camping locally. It’s been a real luxury to get away from the hustle and bustle of the “big city” of Wichita (ha ha) and get out in nature, usually near a lake. We leave our chores and burdens at home and head out for a weekend without distractions. 

When we were younger, tent camping was our scene. As a result, we limited most of our camping trips to seasons when the weather would cooperate – generally spring or fall. Later we purchased a small camper that was light enough for our vehicles to tow and which has that all-important a/c. We’ve also stayed in a state park cabin and once, before we owned our own, we rented an RV.

Whether you want to tent camp, book a cabin, rent an RV, or tow your own camper, you have a lot of good choices when it comes to camping in Kansas.

Camping in Kansas – what you need to know

Here are some basic things you will need to know when looking for a good place to camp in Kansas. 

How to find a campground and reserve a campsite

Around Wichita, we have a variety of campgrounds – both public and private. Among the public campgrounds, we have city, county, state, and federal campgrounds – so finding and reserving a spot isn’t as easy as just going to one website and booking something. You need to know which entity runs the campground and how to reserve a spot for your camping trip.

Keep reading for more information on each of the campgrounds closest to Wichita, and how to book at the various campgrounds in Kansas.

  • Lake Afton near Goddard is run by Sedgwick County and you can pay at the pay-station right outside the office. Find more info at the Lake Afton Park website.
  • Cheney Lake, El Dorado Lake, and Kanopolis are Kansas State Parks, so you make campground reservations at ReserveAmerica.com.
  • Winfield Lake is a city lake. You book a campsite by calling or you can use one of the self-pay envelopes when you get there. Find out more at their website
  • Santa Fe Lake camping – in 2020, at least – is only open for season pass members. This campground and lake is run by the city of Augusta, KS. Website
  • Harvey County East and Harvey County West are both county campgrounds. Both are first come, first served for camping. Harvey County Parks website
  • Marion Reservoir and Fall River both have Corps of Engineers campgrounds. These are federally-run campgrounds. You make your reservation through Recreation.gov 

I believe all of these campgrounds have at least some spots that are “walk-up” — in other words, you can’t reserve them; you just have to be the first one there to get the spot. Some of the above campgrounds are walk-up only, and some may change at the beginning or end of the camping season in Kansas. 

Swimming beaches and Kansas lakes

One of the reasons we like to camp is to be near a lake for swimming, fishing, and enjoying the gorgeous sunrises and sunsets on the water. 

Before you swim in any Kansas lake, you should head over to the KDHE website to see if there is a Harmful Algae Bloom notice for that particular lake. Blue green algae can be very dangerous at certain levels, so go ahead and heed the advice of KDHE. At that link you can learn the difference between the different alert levels: watch, warning, and hazard. This is usually more of a problem in the hottest part of the summer, but a quick click on the link is warranted any time during the regular camping/swimming season. 

Some common rules at Kansas campgrounds

To fish at all public lakes, you must have a valid Kansas fishing license

If you want to take a boat out on the water, you’ll usually have to get a permit. The fee for this is typically not included in the camping fee.

Before you rely on your good old generator to keep you powered up, be sure to see if generators are allowed at the campground you’ll be visiting. Where they are allowed, there are usually quiet times when generators can not be run. The rules vary at each location.

In general, campfires are only allowed  in designated campfire rings, and must be completely extinguished before you leave. 

This is obvious but at any campsite you need to pick up your own trash and dispose of it in the designated dumpster or trash can provided by the campground. 

City and County Lakes and Campgrounds near Wichita

Wichita is in Sedgwick County, but we have several different counties that are near neighbors. Some of these counties operate campgrounds near Wichita. The ones I’ve written about below are campgrounds we’ve stayed at with the one exception of the Harvey County parks – they’re all walkup only and we haven’t had the nerve to attempt it yet. (Maybe this fall when campgrounds aren’t so busy!) But we do have friends who have camped in the East park many times. 

Lake Afton

One of the closest county campgrounds near Wichita is Lake Afton, and that lake is run and managed by Sedgwick County. 

Lake Afton Park offers boating, camping, water skiing, swimming, and picnic areas. It also has enclosed shelters that can be reserved. There is a bait shop and store on grounds, which is also the park office. 

The majority of the camp sites at Lake Afton are primitive or offer electric hookups only; a small section of the campground (16 sites in all) does have both water and electrical hookups. The Lake Afton website says that generators are not allowed. 

Fees range from $5 for a day pass (per vehicle) to $15 per night for water and electric. Boating permits are required for an additional fee. 

To reserve a campsite at Lake Afton, call the park office at 316-794-2774. More information at the Lake Afton website. 

Harvey County Lake

Harvey County actually has two lakes with camping areas. Harvey County East Lake is larger and has several campground areas east of Newton. Harvey County West Lake has a smaller campground and is located near Burrton, KS .

Harvey County East has a 314-acre lake and offers camping, fishing, boating, nature trails, and more. It has enclosed and open shelters, all of which can be reserved. 

Harvey County West is a smaller campground near Burrton, KS with a 16-acre pond and the Little Arkansas River. West Park Bait Shop is open seasonally. It is located at 15835 NW 24th St. in Burrton. 

Camping fees at either Harvey County park are $10 per night for primitive sites and $20 per night for campsites with electric hookups. Boating requires an additional fee. 

To reserve a campsite at either Harvey County East or Harvey County West, call (316) 283-5420. More information at the Harvey County Parks website.

Winfield City Lake

Winfield Lake has very nice campgrounds, some of which include full hookups (electric, water, and sewer) on both sides of the lake. The swimming beach has a large sandy area with a nearby bathhouse and restrooms. 

Camping fees are $17 for electric or full hookups and only $5 for primitive sites. A daily vehicle permit is $5. Boating requires an additional fee.

According to its website, if you’re primitive camping at Winfield City Lake you can pitch your tent anywhere. 

To reserve a campsite at Winfield City Lake, call the lake office at 620-221-5635.

State Park Campgrounds near Wichita

Kansas has some amazing state park campgrounds, including several near Wichita. Booking a campsite at any Kansas State Park is easy to do online at ReserveAmerica.com, or you can call each park directly to make a reservation. The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism also has an app called CampIt Kansas, which I have on my phone, but I prefer going to the website to find a spot; it’s easier to pan around the campsite maps to see exactly what site number I want and how close it is to the waterfront, bathrooms, or other campground amenities. 

Kansas State Parks often have cabins that can be rented, which is excellent if you don’t have a camper and you don’t want to sleep on the ground. These are usually booked well in advance, however, so be sure to plan ahead as much as you can. It’s also a great idea to get the annual vehicle permit for each of your cars so you don’t have to pay the $5 per day vehicle fee when you bring a second car. 

Some Kansas fishing lakes offer primitive camping only, although we did see a cabin when we were driving around McPherson Lake. 

We haven’t camped at every state park near Wichita, but I’ll include information about the ones closest to us and you can visit the website to learn more. 

El Dorado State Lake

El Dorado lake at sunset, El Dorado State Park Kansas
A summer sunset from our camping area at El Dorado lake

El Dorado Lake State Park in Butler County is massive, with an enormous number of campsites in several different campgrounds. It even has numbered areas within the various different campgrounds. (Our family once spent an entire day driving around to get acquainted with the various campgrounds at El Dorado State Park. If you are planning to scope out the best spot ahead of time, be sure to pack a lunch!) It’s a fantastic place to camp, and very close to east Wichita.

El Dorado offers cabin rentals, primitive camping, campsites with electric and/or water hookups, fishing, boating, swimming, water skiing, nature trails, a kids’ fishing pond, and more. They also have an equestrian campground if you want to bring your horses. 

Some of the campgrounds in El Dorado State Park are not on the reservoir itself, but are in meadows and fields or on the Walnut River. I highly recommend you download the pdf called El Dorado SP, which is a black-and-white visual overview of the different parts of the campground. I believe this is also available at the park itself, usually in one of the information kiosks you pass as you enter the park. 

The Walnut River campground has an unusually nice trail leading to the swimming beach nearby. We found it while we were exploring the whole park, and I’ve shared some pictures here before.

Bridge over Walnut River El Dorado State Park
A bridge over the Walnut River in El Dorado Lake State Park
El Dorado State Park Walnut River Area photo by Carolyn Erickson
Stairway on the trail in El Dorado State Park in late summer

Cheney Reservoir

Cheney Lake State Park is another good camping spot near Wichita. Cheney Reservoir is a large body of water with campgrounds on both the east and the west sides of the lake.

Cheney State Park offers a large number of primitive sites right on the water. Electric and water hookups are available in certain campgrounds, some of which are within a stone’s throw of the water and some that are a decent walk away. Cabins are available to rent too. 

If you go to Cheney Lake, I highly recommend visiting both the Spring Creek and Geifer Hill nature trails. These are on the West Shore side. I could not believe what we almost missed when we sort of half-heartedly decided to check them out. They were both just gorgeous – at least when we were there in the spring – and both wind through really shady natural areas, which is a treat when it’s hot outside. 

In my opinion, the East Shore side of Cheney Reservoir is a bit wilder, and the mud there is redder. (It will stain your clothes.) While my husband grew up camping on the East Shore, my preference is to camp on the other side because of its grassy campsites and whiter sand. But both are really nice; it just depends on what you like. The east side of Cheney also has a wildlife area.

Cross Timbers State Park

We rented a cabin in the fall at Cross Timbers State Park in southeastern Kansas. We had no idea what we were in for, but it was beautiful! 

Our cabin was not right on the water but above it, on a rocky, wooded elevation that looked out over the water. It was a real treat. 

If you’re renting a state park cabin in Kansas, you have to bring your own bedding and food, but they supply things like kitchen utensils and dishes. There’s also usually a fire pit outside. 

Pets are not allowed inside state park cabins, so be sure you have an alternate plan for Fido that weekend. 

Milford Lake Camping

Milford Lake is huge; so huge,  in fact that it accommodates both state park campgrounds and Corps of Engineers campgrounds. 

Corps of Engineers (Federal) Campgrounds in Kansas

To book a reservation at one of Kansas’ Corps of Engineers campgrounds, you will need to go to Recreation.gov.

These federal campgrounds are favorites because they often have amenities you won’t find at every other campground. For example, at the Corps of Engineers campground on Marion Reservoir, the campsites all have a covered pavilion for shade, a picnic table, a grill, and a fire pit with a grill. There are also some sites right next to the water that have water and electric hookups. 

We have personally camped at Marion Reservoir and Fall River Corps of Engineers campground and highly recommend them both. They were well-maintained and had plenty of beautiful campsites. 

At Fall River, we tent-camped on a group site with several other families. I don’t remember much about the RV hookup sites, but the group campsite was really nice. Our spot was not right on the shore, however. You had to climb down some pretty large boulders to get to the shore to fish. 

Marion is one of my favorite campgrounds so far. It has some really nice sites that are either primitive, water only, water and electric, and a very few full hookup sites. They’re doing some work at Marion right now but the main campground areas are still available. Just be sure to call or reserve ahead of time at Recreation.gov. 

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