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Overnight hiking trips near Chicago

Sleeping under the stars is one of the great pleasures of summer. Listening to owls, crickets, and tree frogs while drifting off to sleep promises a peaceful slumber. For many, camping is even better if you’re able to get further into the wild woods, away from parking lots and Dairy Queens. Of course, camping in remote places usually means carrying your own gear. Strapping a tent, sleeping bag, and food on your back will sound unappealing to some. For others, it instills a sense of adventure, freedom, and self-sufficiency.

While plenty of options exist for camping around Chicago, most of these places are very busy during the summer. Camping overnight on trails takes you away from the hubbub of a campground. Campsites along trails are nearly always empty and quiet; sometimes reservations may be required, but generally, few people entertain the idea of visiting regional trails overnight.

This is part one of a two-part article focusing on overnight excursions that can be found hiking and biking trails in the region. The first installment highlights a few backpacking trails within 3 hours of Chicago. The next installment will look at overnight biking trails in the region.

Forest Glen Preserve

Forest Glen Preserve is a surprisingly large county park nestled alongside the Vermillion River, just south of Danville, Illinois. The park’s 11-mile backpacking trail takes hikers through prairie, savanna, and bottomland woods. Dozens of ravines blanketed with maple and oak trees provide hikers with a thorough workout. (Be sure to hike clockwise so the trail markers are visible). Some of the campsites for the backpacking trail are perched on the edges of these ravines.

In spring, the trail comes alive with wildflowers. Some 230 species of birds have been seen in the park, including pileated woodpeckers, a variety of owls, and a full compliment of Illinois warblers. Don’t miss a climb up the observation tower overlooking the river valley. In addition to 25 miles of hiking trails, the park contains a pioneer homestead exhibit, a nature center with live animal displays, and an arboretum where visitors can walk among hundreds of native and non-native trees, shrubs, ornamentals, and conifers. The park is located on the Indiana border 180 miles directly south of Chicago.

Kettle Moraine State Forest North Unit and South Unit

When completed, the Ice Age Trail will follow a snaking route for some 1,000 miles through Wisconsin along the southernmost edge of the last glacier. Currently, 600 miles of the trail exists in discontinuous segments throughout this terrain dense with lakes, ridges, and rugged hills. Fortunately, a couple of excellent segments of this trail are within striking distance of Chicago.

A 35-mile segment of the Ice Age Trail runs through the Kettle Moraine State Forest’s southern unit and an 31-mile segment of the trail runs through the park’s northern unit. The north unit is 150 miles north of Chicago and south unit is 100 miles northwest of Chicago. While the southern unit is more accessible from Chicagoland, the northern unit boasts fewer visitors, more of an isolated ambiance, and less encroachment from nearby development.

Both parks feature rugged glacial terrain with ridges, bluffs, thick hardwood forests, and expansive hilltop views. Wetlands, ponds, and small lakes are a matter of course. Both parks offer a handful of primitive shelters alongside the trail for camping. Because you’re in Wisconsin where people like to spend time outdoors, call the park for reservations. Visitors thin out considerably midweek.

Sand Ridge State Forest

A sand desert in the middle of Illinois cornfields? Well, yeah, sort of. Fifteen thousand years ago the floodwaters of the most recent glaciers receded down the Illinois River Valley leaving a vast deposit of sand in the area. Shifting winds sculpted 100-foot high sand dunes that now are the wooded ridges for which the forest is named. Sand Ridge State Forest is one of few places in Illinois that supports an intriguing variety of plants and animals more associated with the Southwest than the Midwest. The rolling terrain is covered with oak-hickory woods, plantations of pine, open grasslands, and unique sand prairies. Prickly pear cacti thrive in the sandy soils.

At 7,200 acres, Sand Ridge State Forest is one of Illinois’ largest state-operated natural areas. A dozen primitive campsites are located along more than 40 miles of trails. The yellow trail is the longest loop at 17 miles, with tent sites along the way. Be warned, though, many of the trails have a sandy surface, which can be difficult hiking for some. Sand Ridge is about 15 miles south of Peoria and about 185 miles southwest of Chicago.


Check out my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago, recently published in its second edition by Menasha Ridge Press.

Other posts you may be interested in:


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4 Responses to “Overnight hiking trips near Chicago”

  1. Time for the ‘Green Travel Carnival’. Says:

    [...] Villaire offers us the chance to discover some Overnight Hiking Trips Near Chicago posted at Prairie Fever, all within three hours of the big [...]

  2. Chris Says:

    Hi – The website for the Forest Glen preserve actually explicitly states that any camping is restricted to two established sites, so I guess that one’s out.

  3. Ted Villaire Says:

    Hikers using the backpacking trail at Forest Glen have the choice of camping at two different spots along the trail. One is the group camping area (despite its name, individuals can camp there) and the other is the East Camp. The park also offers conventional camping at the main campground and an excellent walk-in campground situated next to a wooded ravine.

  4. Ken Says:

    I’ve been looking everywhere for an article like this. Thanks guys! Although I’ve pulled my hair out in finding two of the three sites listed already, I had not discovered Forest Glen yet. I wish I would have found this sooner!

    Also, as Chris already commented, most of the backpacking trails require you to camp in designated areas. I can’t wait to plan a trip to the Shawnee National, but until then designated sites are better than no where at all!

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