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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How can I learn more?
- Run Too offers a nice collection of local running links, including a list of good local trails for running.
- For those who want to get involved in competitive trail running, check out the Chicago Trail Series.
- Want more information about the destinations listed above? Check out my books 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago and Best Illinois Rail Trails. Also, you can check out the photos I’ve posted for many of the destinations listed above.