Prairie Fever » Chicago area

Running Chicago trails

I lose track of time while running on trails. The sight of birds zipping through the understory and the discovery of a coyote’s paw print on the trail always make me forget about the ticking clock. The fragrance of trailside wildflowers has the curious effect of releasing my mind from schedules and obligations.

When running on city streets, on the other hand, I find it harder to acquire mental solace. Instead, I watch the minutes creep by.

Getting lost in the moment is just one reason why I prefer trail running to road running. Here are a few other features of trail running that make it an activity I always look forward to.

  • It has less of an impact on the body, thereby minimizing injuries and recovery times.
  • The air is cleaner.
  • You don’t have to contend with car traffic and all that goes with it, including stoplights, crosswalks, and driveways.
  • The wildlife, plants, trees and the natural landscape provide a welcome break from the ribbons of concrete.
  • It allows a temporary escape from the enormous crowds of people who inhabit Chicagoland (nearly 10 million at last count).
  • Running on an uneven surfaces creates better balance and strengthens more muscles in your feet and legs.
Elgin Spur of the Prairie Path

Aurora Branch of the Prairie Path

What makes a good running trail?

As someone who’s hiked and jogged all the best trails in Chicagoland (and many more trails throughout Illinois), you could say I’m a connoisseur of good trails. Here’s a list of features I look for when choosing a good running trail.

Accessibility. The best trails are the ones close by. If the trail is situated close by, you’ll use it more often and you’ll cut down on time spent in transit and the use of cars and gas. If you can reach the trail without getting behind the wheel of a car, all the better. I’ve used my bicycle and I’ve taken Metra trains to reach trails in parks and forest preserves.

Adequate length. Look for a trail system at least a few miles in length. If you must cover the same ground on a single run, so be it. It’s still better than pounding the pavement.  

Good maintenance. The best trails are ones that drain well (fewer puddles and less mud), and they are well marked with trail signs. Look for trails where erosion problems are quickly fixed and fallen trees are removed.

Variety. While it’s not always possible, I like to run and hike on trails that offer different types of landscape and vegetation. Shifts in topography and plant life means you’re more likely see different types of animals and insects, too.

The right level of difficulty. Most of the trails in the Chicago region offer a low level of difficulty thanks to a smooth trail surface and gentle terrain. Still, occasionally, you’ll find trails that offer more of a challenge because of rocks, roots, sand, and water ruts on the trail surface. Trails with hills and a sandy surface (such as those mentioned below at the Indiana Dunes) present a higher level of difficulty.

Where are the best running paths in the Chicago area?

The City of Chicago

While the Lakefront Trail in Chicago is a paved path, it offers long sections of gravel side paths throughout the 17-mile length. Expect loads of trail traffic on the northern half of the trail.

South Chicagoland

The Palos/Sag Valley Forest Preserve contains about 30 miles of trails, most of them topped with a smooth, crushed gravel surface. The forest preserve contains a growing network of singletrack trails; these must be shared with a steady stream of mountain bikers.

The Indiana Dunes in northwest Indiana offer superb running destinations for those who want a thorough workout. Both the 12-mile-long Li-co-ki-we Trail the 4-mile-long Cowles Bog Trail have surfaces that are mostly sand.

The I&M Canal Trail is a wide, crushed gravel path that runs for more than 60 miles from the outskirts of Joliet to the town of LaSalle in the middle of Illinois. Runners looking for many miles of remote ambiance will be thrilled.

Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area contains one of the largest remaining tracts of prairie in the Prairie State. Expect plenty of wildflowers along nearly 6 miles of unshaded trail.

West Chicagoland

Danada and Herrick Lake Forest Preserves contain about 8 miles of wide, crushed gravel trails that lead you through through a gentle, wooded landscape.

Blackwell Forest Preserve offers about 5 miles of trails that run through serene wetlands, prairie, and woodland. Take a training tip from the former Chicago Bears player Walter Payton and use the park’s big hill for an ultimate running workout.

Blackwell Forest Preserve

Blackwell Forest Preserve

Enjoy groves a stately oaks and quiet twisting streams in Green Valley Forest Preserve. Keep an eye out for equestrians along the park’s 4 miles of wide, crushed gravel trails.

The Illinois Prairie Path comprises about 30 miles of wide, crushed gravel pathway in the western suburbs. If you live in one of the communities along this path, you know it’s a favorite destination for local runners.

North Chicagoland

Deer Grove Forest Preserve contains an array of ponds and wetlands mixed in with thick fairytale woods. Expect about 8 miles of trails within this wooded oasis.

Des Plaines River Trail runs for about 31 miles between the south and the north boundaries of Lake County. The wide, crushed gravel trail follows a string of eye-catching forest preserves that line the banks of the Des Plaines River.

Moraine Hills State Park is big, varied, and persistently beautiful. Follow a series of trail loops for about 8 miles through wetlands and around a lake carved out by a receding glacier.

Chain O’ Lakes State Park contains more than a dozen miles of trails that run through all types of landscapes: prairie, river bank, woods, wetlands, and savanna. The west side of the park is rugged and less visited. The east side offers a gentler landscape with picnic areas and campgrounds.

What do I need to know about safety?

Navigation. Until you get to know a trail system, consider bringing a map. If you don’t have a map and are unfamiliar with the trails, you might try the “left turn strategy.” Simply keep turning left. This allows you to find your way back to the trailhead by turning around and taking right turns.

What to bring. Along with a map, some joggers like to hit the trails with an energy bar, water, and a cell phone. Depending on the time of year, you may want to bring a light jacket.

Trail etiquette. When trails get busy, knowing the ins-and-outs of trail etiquette becomes essential. Stay to the right and give slower trail users the right of way. If stopped, remember to step off the path. Keep the volume turned down on your ear buds. If the trail is busy, leave the ear buds at home. Never run more than two abreast.

Personal safety. Very few violent incidents occur in Chicago-area forest preserves and state parks. Some ways to enhance your safety on the trail include bringing a friend (human or animal), bringing a cell phone, and visiting places where you’ll see plenty of other people. Also, you may consider hitting the trails early in the day and contacting the park staff to ask if incidents have ever occurred in a particular park.

Joe-Pye Weed at Cowles Bog Trail

Joe-Pye Weed on Cowles Bog Trail at the Indiana Dunes

How can I learn more?

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New books released!

Just in time for the arrival of summer in the Midwest, I’m thrilled to announce the release of four new outdoor recreation guidebooks that I wrote. Here they are.

I’ve been busy posting photos and putting together slide show/videos highlighting many of the destinations in the books. Here’s one of the slide shows that prominently features my friend, Tim Merello.

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Down the lazy river

A July morning on the Fox River

A July morning on the Fox River

The following article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Competitor Chicago magazine. Thanks to the magazine for allowing me to post the article here.

Ten feet above my head, a single swallow twirled through the air, every so often dipping down to skim the water in front of my sea kayak. After spraying a bit of water along the surface, the little bird flapped feverishly to regain its former position above my head and start the process again. Getting a drink of water on a warm summer day never looked so fun.

I was paddling a dozen miles on a mid-section of the Fox River as it flows through the western suburbs of Chicago. I decided to launch in Elgin and pull out downriver in Geneva because both cities contain Metra stations, allowing access to and from the river with my 13-foot folding sea kayak. The kayak and all the necessary gear stuffs into a large backpack that weighs about 45 lbs.

The Fox is a wide, slow-moving river. Multiple dams keep the water moving at a sluggish pace, often creating the feel of a long lake rather than a moving river. Some paddlers find lazy rivers like the Fox boring because the only navigational imperative is to keep yourself from drifting into the private docks and colliding with the occasional motorboat whizzing past. As someone who typically prefers paddling narrow, fast rivers that run through woods and countryside, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the Fox’s calm, steady flow. It provided an opportunity to decelerate, let my thoughts wander, and enjoy a day of dawdling.

First portage: smooth and short
My lazy river vanished when the wind picked up, causing small waves to splash over my kayak’s bow. The wind blew north while the river flowed south, canceling each other out. When I stopped paddling, I remained stationary or started drifting toward shore. The wind relented as I approached the first portage.

To get around the 8-foot dam in South Elgin, I pulled the boat up a small embankment of rip-rap, over a guard railing, and then dragged the kayak 75 yards through Panton Mill Park. After lounging in the park and filling up my water bottle, I rejoined the river and soon glided past another park—this one containing a collection of old trolley cars on display at the Fox River Trolley Museum. A steady stream of cyclists cruised up and down the Fox River Trail.

Heading under a railroad bridge south of Elgin

Heading under a railroad bridge south of Elgin

The current quickened as the river threaded its way around a cluster of islands, most of them wooded. One was just a sandbar where someone had installed a birdhouse high on a steel pole. After passing through the supports for a pedestrian bridge for the Fox River Trail, the river runs between two forest preserves. Red oak, silver maple, and occasional willow trees decorate the banks of John J. Duerr Forest Preserve on the right and Tekakwitha Woods on the left. Kingfishers chattered from nearby branches; turtles plopped off logs, and patches of tiger lilies grew on islands mostly covered with floodplain forest.

From where the river makes its famous hairpin turn, the banks intermittently expanded and contracted for the next four miles to St. Charles. Wooded bluffs accompanied the river for much of the way. When the woods receded, river houses sat shoulder to shoulder, often with inviting waterside decks and nearby motorboats perched on metal stands. For the moment, I was relieved that the huge fleet of ski boats and beer boats sat idle along the shore. At Norris Woods Nature Preserve, a sandy patch of shoreline in the shade of silver maples offered a good location to take a break from the river, stretch my legs, and eat lunch.

Gazebo in St. Charles

Gazebo in St. Charles

Second portage: long and complicated
It was heading toward late afternoon when I returned to the river only to discover the motorboats were alive and well, and now using the river as a drag strip. A couple of the boats hauled kids around in big inflatable donuts; others were out for scouting fishing or swimming spots; and some boaters were simply joyriding the length of the river. Within this last category, the most puzzling development was the guy on the WaveRunner who passed me at 5 minute intervals, throttle fully open, the engine screaming. He sped downriver and then headed back up, down and then back, again and again. I wondered if something was wrong with him, like a record that keeps skipping.

Arriving in St. Charles, a big paddleboat containing two decks of passengers rumbled upstream. I pulled my kayak out of the water at the back door of the St. Charles Police Department—about 50 yards before the 10-foot drop of the dam that marked my second and final portage. Rising up next to the dam is an Art Deco-style white marble municipal building with an 84-foot octagonal tower. A quick glance downriver revealed that a construction project next to the municipal building prevented access to the regular launch site just below the dam.

After seeking advice from the police department staff, I scouted an alternative put in that required a one-half mile walk downstream. Hauling my fully assembled boat that distance would be grueling. The steady wind would have made it exceptionally awkward to carry it on the narrow sidewalks and across Highway 64, which was mind-bogglingly busy with afternoon commuter traffic. Fortunately, folding kayaks shine in situations like this. In 10 minutes, I knocked the boat down, stuffed it in its backpack, and started walking to the new launch site.

No surprise that the river grows quiet between St. Charles and Geneva—the distance of less than two miles between the dams in each town means fewer homes and fewer people using the waterway. Water birds seemed to prefer this serene stretch of river: herons appeared more frequently, as did geese and ducks; cormorants showed up for the first time, and I’m nearly certain an osprey, rarely seen in the region, briefly soared overhead.

Gravelly banks allow you spots to pull out.

Gravelly banks create spots to pull out.

This small slice of the Fox proved to be more welcoming than I expected. I thought I’d quickly grow impatient with the river’s lackadaisical progression. Instead, it allowed me to fully relax while watching tree branches brush the surface of the water and listening to fish jump on the opposite shore. A slow river leaves more time to feel the pull of the water as it gently carries you downstream, around bend after bend, over ripples, crosscurrents, and eddies. In Geneva, 12 miles of easygoing paddling behind me, it was time to disembark for the day. Returning the boat to its bag, I strapped it on my back and started a one-mile walk to the Geneva Metra station to catch a train back to the city.

Stopping for a break

Stopping for a break

If you go
In some ways, the Fox River is a great option for beginning paddlers: it’s wide, slow, shallow, and numerous parks offer spots where paddlers can pull off. Not so great for beginners are the frequent portages around dams and the number of motorboats on some sections. The river’s slow-moving current allows for a type of paddling trip unheard of on most rivers: out-and-back excursions.

Rent a boat: Geneva Kayak Center, the most extensive kayaking store in the region, is located at the take-out point in Geneva: 34 North Bennett Street, Geneva; (630) 232-0320. Will pick up and drop off the boats for you.

Decide when to go: Many stretches of the Fox can get busy, particularly on the weekends; consider paddling during the week. You’ll find more solitude earlier in the day. Ask local outfitters about water levels. Some sections of the Fox—between Geneva and Batavia, for example—tend to be very shallow during low water.

Know the dams and portage spots: Openlands publishes maps showing the dams and portages. Local outfitters will know if portages are clear. Construction will be finished on the St. Charles portage in spring 2010. Be very cautious while paddling near the dams. Fatalities have occurred in recent years at dams on the Fox River.

The trip is now in the bag.

The trip is now in the bag.

Entering the fold
Folding sea kayaks serve as the perfect solution for apartment dwellers who have limited space for storing a sea kayak. They’re also great for the traveler with an urge to paddle and people who like the idea of car-free paddling trips.

Manufactured for the past century and then overtaken in the 1950s with the introduction of fiberglass kayaks, folding Kayaks look and feel much like the original sea kayaks developed by seal and walrus hunters of Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland over the course of 4,000 years. A boat-in-a-bag will tend to be more expensive than the average polyethylene kayak, but it likely will have a longer lifespan and more stability in the water. With a minimal amount of upkeep, folding kayaks are surprisingly durable. Their sturdiness was demonstrated as far back as the 1950s when a German man crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a standard 17-foot Klepper folding kayak.

Not quite built for crossing an ocean, my 13-foot boat is better suited for inland water and Lake Michigan on a calm day. With a little practice, I can put together my Feathercraft K-Light kayak in 15 minutes. The heavy-duty nylon and rubber skin fits over a frame of aluminum poles. Instead of airtight bulkheads used in the typical sea kayak, inflated bags inside the folding kayak maintain buoyancy in case the boat gets swamped with water. Folded up, the boat fits inside a bulky but very manageable backpack that I’ve hauled into taxicabs, onto trains and buses, and on a trailer pulled by a bicycle.

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Book presentation and signing

Kick off your summer by learning about great places to hike in the Chicago region.

On Wednesday, May 5, 2010, I’ll be giving a presentation at the Warrenville Public Library. While showing photographs, I’ll be highlighting some of the lovely natural areas in Chicago’s west suburbs and beyond. Whether you’re looking for rivers, prairie, thick woods, long trails, or short, I’ll cover a variety of great local places to stretch your legs.

The presentation starts at 7 p.m. Bring your questions. I’ll have copies of 60 Hikes with 60 Miles: Chicago to sign and sell, as well as copies of my just-published books, Road Biking Illinois: A Guide to the State’s Best Bike Rides and Camping Illinois: A Guide to State’s Best Campgrounds.

The library is located just off Butterfield Road in Warrenville.

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New guidebooks coming

Tunnel Hill Trail in Southern Illinois

Tunnel Hill Trail in Southern Illinois

Anyone who’s passed within 100 feet of me during the past year knows that I have four new guidebooks that will be released this coming spring.

Three of the books—Best Illinois Rail Trails, Illinois Road Biking, and Camping Illinois—required many months of research and writing. While researching the books, I camped for several months and I drove and bicycled for a few thousand miles. I explored Illinois from head to toe, visiting nearly every major park and most of the state’s historic attractions. I explored the rocky cliffs in the Shawnee National Forest and I cycled along the banks of the state’s big rivers. I traveled for many miles on old farm roads where the only sound was the twittering of sparrows.

All in all, it’s been the best job I’ve ever had. I love the process of exploring new places, gathering information, and then shaping the details into something that is eminently useful and fun to read. While this process gives me a special thrill, even more satisfying is the next step—getting the books into the hands of readers.

The other book to be released this spring is a new, shorter version of my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago. It’s called Easy Hikes Close to Home: Chicago and it’s geared specifically toward newbie hikers who are interested in less strenuous local hikes. Like the other books, I’m eager to see this book put to good use. Enticing new people to explore local trails is an exciting prospect.

All four books are now available for pre-order on Amazon.com. Titles listed below link to a description of each book, its full table of contents, and a page for pre-ordering.

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Nature, family, solitude and just plain fun

The spring at Silver Springs State Park; photo by John Tarzynski

The spring at Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area; photo by John Tarzynski

During the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with several people who have committed themselves to working their way through the hikes in my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago. I met a married couple at a party who said they have already completed 20 hikes in the book. I loved hearing about their explorations and their descriptions of the places they enjoyed the most. They told me they often hike more than one trail in a single day by choosing hiking destinations that are close together. We had plenty to talk about because they had camped and hiked in the Shawnee National Forest, a place where I’ve spent time, too (it also happens to be the one of the best areas for hiking and camping in Illinois).

In addition to meeting this friendly couple at a party, I recently received the above photo and following e-mail letter from John Tarzynski, who lives in St. Charles.

Hi Ted,

My name is John Tarzynski. First of all, I have to compliment you about your book. Wow! It’s concise, accurate and fun to read. Your descriptions of the trails and how to navigate them are dead on, and you have great suggestions for additional activities.

I’m new to hiking, biking, camping and backpacking this year but I’m getting out there, doing it all and love every minute of it. I purchased your book 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles (2nd Edition) back in March at the REI in Schaumburg to assist and enhance my hiking experience, and it’s done just that. So far this year I have been on three of the trails (Silver Springs Trail, Fullersburg Woods and Danada). I enjoyed them so much I went back to a couple of them with my wife and two daughters. They, too, very much enjoyed the hikes (and horses at Danada!). I’m planning to hit one of the Palos/Sag trails this Sunday afternoon since I’ll be in the area for band rehearsal (I play drums). So the timing is good and the weather forecast looks great.

I have to thank you again for such a great book. You have not only provided a great resource for Chicagoans, but you have provided me with a goal. That goal is to hike every trail in the book. No special time frame, it’s just something I’ve set out to do because there is so much to see and experience out there in nature, family, solitude and just plain fun. Hiking has really helped me decompress from the daily stresses of life.

I wanted take some time to write you, as I imagine most people don’t take the time to communicate their appreciation for your hard work.

Thanks again and hope to meet you out on the trails someday!

Respectfully,

John Tarzynski
St. Charles, IL

P.S. Nice website, too. I have subscribed to your Prairie Fever newsletter. Also, I have attached a photo to share with you from my very first hike ever, which was at Silver Springs Trail on April 17, 2009. It was early evening and I was standing on the wooden dock directly above the spring. It reminded of the Yellow Brick Road…only in green! Hope you enjoy it.

I was utterly thrilled to receive John’s letter and hear about his newfound passion. And of course, I was excited about his goal of hiking all the trails in the book. I was especially pleased to hear that John was sharing his love for hiking close to home with his family. I asked him to keep me posted about his hikes as he works his way through the book. Thanks again, John.

If any hikers want to share their experiences on local trails, I’d love to hear from you. You can add comments and information about individual hikes in the photos section.

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Moraine Hills trails garner national attention

Wetlands and ponds cover much Moraine Hills State Park

Wetlands and ponds cover much of the landscape at Moraine Hills State Park

In observance of National Trails Day on June 6, the trail system at Moraine Hills State Park in McHenry County was designated a National Recreation Trail.

The Moraine Hills trail system is one of only eight Illinois trails that have been designated as National Recreation Trails. Two of these trails are in the Chicago area: the Danada-Herrick Lake Trail and the Springbrook Prairie Trail. According to American Trails, the National Recreation Trail designation is given to “exemplary trails of local and regional significance.” I’d say that’s a concise description of the trails at Moraine Hills.

To learn more about these trails, read the chapter from my book that focuses on Moraine Hills State Park. Also, take a look at some of my photos of Moraine Hills.

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To the Dunes!

It’s a stroke of luck that one of the best hiking destinations in the Chicago region is easily reached on a commuter train. A ride from downtown Chicago aboard the South Shore Line will take you to Indiana Dunes State Park. From Millenium Station downtown, catch the train to the Duneland Park Station, and then walk one mile north into the park.

It’s a perfect car-free getaway with about 10 miles of excellent hiking trails and several miles of sandy beach perfect for picnicking. Here’s a new slideshow focusing on the often stunning trails within the park. Thanks to my gifted friend, Doublebrightness, for providing the music.

While picnicking on the beach, consider bringing some extra food in case you encounter Bigfoot (I understand that it likes sliders). Here’s a video clip someone posted on YouTube of a big hairy visitor at the Dunes.

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Hiking with kids means having fun

Hiking with kids means having fun.

There’s no arguing with the benefits of taking kids on a hike. It allows the family to spend time together, keep fit, and experience the pleasure of exploring the natural world.

When looking for a Chicago-area hiking spot to bring the family, keep in mind that some destinations will be better than others.

  • A visitors center with engaging nature exhibits is always a plus for kids.
  • Generally, younger children will prefer a shorter hike through a gentle landscape.
  • Avoid places that are overly busy. During summer weekends, Chicago’s Lakeshore Path or Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in DuPage County can be overwhelming, not to mention dangerous, for a small child on foot.
  • Build a child’s interest by asking him or her to help choose the destination. Consider your own preferences, too. If parents are enthusiastic, it will likely rub off on the kids.

So your kids are on the trail, now what? The trick, as many parents know, is making sure the kids have fun. The June 2009 issue of Backpacker magazine contains a short article with some great tips on hiking with kids. Here are a few of the suggestions offered:

  • Start hiking early and quit before their energy goes on a sharp decline.
  • Make sure you match the kids’ interests and hiking ability with the right trail and the length of time hiking. Take a rest break every half hour or so.
  • Play hide and seek by having the kids run ahead on the trail. After everyone walks by, the kids can surprise the family from behind.
  • Ask kids to find items along the trail: a purple flower, a red rock, or a type of leaf.
  • Consider bringing items such as binoculars, a magnifying glass, and a camera.

Local parks and county forest preserves throughout the region offer a host of fun programs geared toward teaching kids about the natural world. Keep watch for activities in your community on these websites:

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Parents may find it useful to check out my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago. It lists the top kid-friendly hiking destinations in the Chicago area and describes each hike in detail.

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Chicago hiking slide shows

Take a look at a couple slide shows I recently created highlighting hiking destinations featured in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago.

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