Prairie Fever » Hiking

Winter walks around Chicago

Winter at the Morton Arboretum

Winter at the Morton Arboretum

At the height of winter, when trees stand naked, streams and lakes freeze up, and the landscape is wrapped in snow, the woods of the Chicago region seem lifeless. With only the sound of wind and the occasional call of a crow, nature apparently has slipped into a seasonal coma.

But if you happen to take a winter hike a couple days after a fresh layer of snow has fallen, you’ll realize that you’ve been fooled into equating winter with total dormancy. Fresh snow soon gets crisscrossed by an array of critters: raccoons, foxes, coyotes, rabbits, chipmunks, deer, and a variety of birds. The imprints of paws, hooves, and claws reveal bustling neighborhoods within the woods.

Hunting for animal tracks in the snow is just one of many simple pleasures to be enjoyed on a winter walk. People hike in winter for a variety of reasons: some seek solitude and some go out looking for a cure for their cabin fever. Others go for the sights and sounds: snow hanging on tree boughs, the wind sweeping through bare trees, and chickadees flitting among branches.

Whatever your reasons for getting out, the first step is finding the right place to go. Here are a few local spots perfect for winter hiking.

Morton Arboretum
3.4 miles
Difficulty: Easy
At the Morton Arboretum tree lovers could be kept busy for weeks surveying hundreds of types of trees grouped according to geographical origin, species, and habitat. While the arboretum is known for its woody vegetation, the woodlands and savannas are also great places to look for animals and their tracks.

For a 3.4-mile counterclockwise loop hike through the east side of the Morton Arboretum, start at the Big Rock Visitor Station and follow the Main Trail as it heads west toward the arboretum entrance. (The Main Trail is a series of four connected loops, numbered from west to east.) Growing along the Main Trail are trees from Appalachia; plantings of locust, honeysuckle, viburnum trees; and trees from Asia, such as mock orange and koyama spruce. Birds like flickers, juncos, and cedar waxwings show up in these areas during winter.

After skirting the edge of Bur Reed Marsh, you’ll enter an area with 43 types of oaks from around the world. If snow has fallen, look for spots underneath the oak trees where deer have kicked up the leaves while hunting for the acorns. Entering the dense woodland, keep an eye peeled for animal tracks within furrowed lanes in the snow: The stands of shrubs and abundant deadfall seem to draw in the critters.

After completing the hike, don’t miss the favorite stop for winter hikers at the arboretum: A warm café with a view.

Little Red School House Nature Center
2.5 miles
Difficulty: Easy
The Little Red School House Nature Center provides a good destination for young hikers because the terrain is gentle and the trails are short. Plus, kids have a chance to warm up while they check out the funky exhibits in the nature center that once served as a one-room schoolhouse.

Start the hike behind the nature center on the Farm Pond Trail as it hugs the shore of Long John Slough, a 35-acre lake fringed by oak trees. Stay to the right at the next two junctions and follow the Black Oak Trail through patches of savanna, prairie, and woodland. After hiking nearly a mile, a sign on the edge of the trail identifies the former site of the Little Red School House. First built here in 1870, the school burned down in the mid-1880s and was quickly rebuilt. In 1932 the school was moved (pulled by one mule, they say) to a location nearly one mile east, and then it arrived in its present location in 1955.

On the way back to the nature center, the trail takes you by a display of old farm equipment and three large cages containing live birds of prey: a great horned owl, a barred owl, and a red-tailed hawk.

Before starting the next loop, duck inside the nature center to see more live animal exhibits, such as an American kestrel (a small falcon) and a boisterous crow. Kids will want to press their ears against a Plexiglas box containing a buzzing beehive, and they’ll likely enjoy some of the mounted specimens, such as the five-legged bullfrog named Mr. Lucky.

After warming up, continue the hike on the White Oak Trail directly across the parking lot from the nature center. Cross the multi-use gravel path, and then bear right at the fork. Watch for woodpeckers and chickadees moving among the trees within this gently rolling savanna. Before heading back, you’ll see Joe’s Pond, one of the many small bodies of water in the area left behind by glaciers.

Indiana Dunes State Park
7.5 miles
Difficulty: Challenging because of the length and the sandy dune climbs
Among the many regular visitors to the Indiana Dunes, few have seen the dunes in winter when snow covers these monster-sized sandy hills, strange ice formations develop along the shoreline, and views are enhanced by the absence of foliage.

Starting from the Indiana Dunes State Park Beach House, head to the right for a 2.7-mile walk along the beach. Look for deer, raccoon, and skunk tracks near the water. You’ll likely see some shelf ice along the shore. Shelf ice develops when the winter winds blow piles of ice against the shoreline. The ice freezes together forming dramatic ice sculptures, and sometimes the shelf extends hundreds of feet into the lake. (Don’t walk on the shelf ice—it’s not solid. Signs in the park offer stern reminders that falling in the water in cold weather is extremely dangerous).

At the marker for Trail 10, head inland into a dune forest of oak and pine. Attentive hikers may catch a glimpse of a pileated woodpecker. This elegant, crow-sized bird with a prominent red tuft on its head is rarely seen in the region. Also, keep watch for small groups of wild turkeys crossing the path in front of you.

Turn right on Trail 9, and soon you’ll come to a large blowout. A blowout forms when winds blow sand inland, carving out what looks like a large sandy amphitheatre. From the blowout, the trail traverses a dune ridge. Tall white pines and stately black oaks rise from the ravine on the left. Through the bare trees on the right, the Chicago skyline is usually visible 30 miles away.

After passing another large blowout and then dropping down from the dune ridge, stay to the right at successive junctions for Trail 9, Trail 10, and Trail 8.
Now, get ready to climb the big ones.

Following arduous climbs up Mt. Jackson and Mt. Holden, you’ll enjoy views high above the treetops of the dunes parkland and beyond. Climbing the staircase up Mt. Tom rewards you with expansive views of the lake’s shoreline to the west. Trail 8 takes you down the beach, where you’ll turn left and hike back to the parking lot.

Ice sculptures on the shore at Shabonna State Park

Ice sculptures on the shore at Shabonna State Park

Winter hiking tips

  • Snacks and liquids are highly recommended during any walk. This is especially true in winter when a thermos of warm soup becomes a source of deep happiness.
  • The old advice about dressing in layers still holds true: stay comfortable by peeling layers off and putting them back on.
  • Snowshoes are generally unnecessary for local winter hikes. Even when snow is more than six inches, trails get packed down quickly.


Learn more about hiking in the Chicago region by checking out 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago, recently available in a second edition.


Climate change turns up heat on Chicago

What’s outdoor recreation in Chicagoland going to be like in future years as the climate continues to change? Well, you’ve already had a taste of this transformation. Since 1980, Chicago’s average temperature has risen approximately 2.6 degrees. And according to a new report drawn up by leading climate scientists to describe various scenarios for Chicago’s climate future, the city could experience more extreme heat, heavier, more damaging rainstorms, growing flood risks, and greater loss of habitat for native plants and animals.

The city-commissioned report, called the Chicago Climate Action Plan, provides an in-depth view of the effects of climate change on area temperatures, precipitation, human health, ecosystems, and infrastructure. Here is a thumbnail sketch of details in the report that will inevitably affect local outdoor activities:

Temperature: With 15 of the last 20 years showing above-average annual temperatures, it’s very likely that Chicago summers will continue to be hotter with a higher frequency of intense heat waves. Moreover, a likely increase in humidity could make hot days feel even hotter. By mid-century, Chicago’s climate could resemble that of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with summer temperatures reaching 90+ degrees on more than seventy days and 100+ degrees on more than thirty days.

Precipitation: As anyone who owns a pair of cross-country skis can attest, we’re already experiencing less snow in winter, and an earlier snow melt in spring. In years to come, expect more flooding and erosion as downpours increase in intensity. This could lead to trails getting washed out more frequently, and will likely create long-term trouble for parks and preserves prone to high water from nearby lakes and rivers.

Plants and animals: Those who enjoy identifying wildflowers and watching local wildlife may have already seen some changes happening in local ecosystems. Chicago’s “plant hardiness zone,” as it’s called, shifted to that of central Illinois in 1990. If left unchecked, plants from northern Alabama will be very comfortable growing in the Chicago region by the end of the century. Of course, when plant species go, the creatures that feed on those plants follow.

There is overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is mostly a human-made phenomenon resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases. Of the two main sources of greenhouse gases in Chicago, 70 percent of the gas emissions come from buildings or the energy production needed to serve them. Another 21 percent comes from the burning of fossil fuels to operate cars, trucks, buses, and trains. Most of the remaining greenhouse gas emissions come from waste and industrial pollution.

The Chicago Climate Action Plan states that the timeline for these changes depends on future levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The authors make it clear that there is time to lessen or even eliminate some of the negative effects of climate change in the Chicago area. In addition to laying out larger goals and action plans for business and government, the report offers plenty of suggestions for individuals.


The Fox River Trail

Located only 30 miles west of downtown Chicago, the Fox River Trail has plenty of good things going for it. As this pathway hugs the Fox River for 33 miles between Aurora on the south and Algonquin to the north, it passes more than a dozen community parks and forest preserves. These quiet riverside parks offer great views of the big winding river.

In Elgin, the Fox River Trolley Museum sits alongside the trail. In Geneva, the 300-acre Fabyan Forest Preserve contains a restored Dutch windmill that dates back to the 1850s. Also alongside the trail at Fabyan are a pristine Japanese garden and the Villa Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Fox River Trail

The Fox River Trail

Along with the natural and historic attractions, the trail also passes through a string of enjoyable downtown areas. Some of the towns—particularly Elgin, Geneva, and Batavia—have done great work in creating attractive urban riverfront areas with flower and sculpture gardens, pedestrian bridges, and scenic walkways.

A runner in Norris Woods

A runner in Norris Woods

Since you’re never far from one of the nearby towns, there is usually a variety of restaurants, ice cream parlors, and watering holes not far down the trail. In East Dundee, you can choose between two locally-owned trailside coffee shops.

The Dutch windmill at Fabyan Forest Preserve.

The Dutch windmill at Fabyan Forest Preserve.

If you’re keen on a longer trip, the Fox River Trail allows you to connect with a handful of other Chicagoland recreation trails. Heading north, for example, will connect you with the Prairie Trail, which will take you all the way to the Wisconsin border.

And finally, the gamblers among us will be happy to know that the Fox River Trail might be the only long recreation path in the nation with two riverboat casinos located steps from the trail.

Japanese Garden at Fabyan Forest Preserve

Japanese Garden at Fabyan Forest Preserve

Nearly the entire Fox River Trail is paved; only a few short sections are covered with crushed gravel. The trail is eminently reachable via Metra trains.


Ted Villaire, the author of this post, is also the author of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago (now available in a second edition).


Bird watching in Chicago

Chicago holds a central position on the migration route for millions of birds every spring and fall. About 250 bird species use the Mississippi Flyway, as it’s called, in the spring from mid-March to early June, and in autumn from late August to late October.

While passing through Chicago, migrant birds use the city’s ponds, parks, and natural areas as resting and feeding stops. Migratory birds can be seen throughout the city, but most often, they turn up near the lakeshore.

A couple of the best lakeshore spots for seeing the city’s avian visitors are Montrose Point and the Paul Douglas Nature Sanctuary in Jackson Park.

Montrose Point, located just east of Montrose Beach, contains a 150-yard stretch of shrubs and trees often called the Magic Hedge. The hedge is well-loved by warblers, thrushes, sparrows, purple martins, woodpeckers, and dozens of other types of birds.

Jackson Park’s Paul Douglas Nature Sanctuary (also called the Wooded Island) lures in scores of different species of migratory birds. The 16-acre island was created as part of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. While there, be sure to visit the lovely Osaka Garden.

For more info:
Chicago Region Birding Trail
City of Chicago birding resources


Learn more about exploring natural areas in the Chicago region by checking out 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago, recently available in a second edition.


Climb the dunes at West Beach

While it’s true that West Beach is one of the more popular destinations at the Indiana Dunes, it’s also true that you lose the crowds rather easily once you escape to the 3.6 miles of hiking trails that loop through the area.

Dunes at West Beach.
Dunes at West Beach.

Located just 40 miles southeast of Chicago, West Beach is a perfect spot for a quick escape from the city. After you’re done climbing big dunes and scouting out water birds and unusual plants, you just might be compelled to pull out the picnic basket and change into your swim trunks (if the weather is warm enough, that is).

If you’re a first-time visitor to the dunes, you’ll soon learn that this park occupies a very unlikely piece of real estate. Who would have thought to put a good-sized national park smack dab in the middle of an area with the highest concentration of heavy industry in the nation? Well, in any case, I’m glad they did. And once you’re away from the beach, the nearby smokestacks tend to be forgotten.

Catch the hiking trail on the east side of the beach, and you’ll follow a long series of stairs and boardwalks that bring to mind the artwork of M.C. Escher. The stairs lead you to a series of high dunes topped with marram grass, jack pine, and cottonwood trees.

Coming off the dunes, the trail runs alongside a small lake fringed with cattails and blanketed with lily pads. Look for egrets, great blue herons, and kingfishers from the viewing deck alongside the trail.

Near where the trail crosses the park road, prickly pear cactuses grow in dense clusters; closer to the woods, milkweed plants and small sassafras trees push up through the sandy soil.

Pond at West Beach
Pond at West Beach

The final section of this trail climbs a dune ridge under a thick oak canopy. Small patches wetlands sit at the foot of some wooded ravines. Eventually, you’ll reach the top of the final dune for another spine-tingling view of the lake and the surrounding landscape. All that’s left now is running (or rolling) down the dune to the parking area below.

The National Park Service offers driving directions and a good map of the trail. During summer, the park charges an entrance fee for West Beach.


Learn more about hiking in the Chicago region by checking out 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago, recently published in a second edition.


Fall hikes around Chicago

Fall provides the perfect excuse to explore local trails: moderate temperatures, migrating birds, and a dormant bug population make the explosion of color all that more enjoyable. Here in the Prairie State, early fall is also the time when you can hike through a sea of prairie grass that is 8 to 10 feet tall.

Chicago hosts many great fall hiking options
Chicago hosts many great fall hiking options

Here are several great fall hiking options in the Chicago area.

Chain O’ Lakes State Park
The rugged trails on the west side of the park contain dense woods, wetlands active with water birds, and some of the biggest hills in Lake County. In early fall, swaths of big bluestem prairie grass reach 8-to-10 feet in height. Named for its attractive mauve stalks, big bluestem is the dominant grass of tallgrass prairies-the type of prairie that originally existed throughout the northern three-quarters of Illinois.

Trails on the east side of the park meet up with the Fox River and Grass Lake, and allow fine views of the exquisite Fox River wetlands. Explore nearly 15 miles of trails at this park located in Lake County near the Wisconsin border.

Geneva Lake Shore Path
Given the exclusive atmosphere at Geneva Lake, many visitors are surprised to learn that there’s a public footpath circumnavigating the entire lake. While walking through people’s yards may feel intrusive at first, this feeling diminishes once you see the many pleasant walkways installed by homeowners. Along the way, you’ll encounter flower gardens, carefully landscaped lawns, boathouses, and little villages. In the fall, the hills and bluffs surrounding this silvery lake light up with color.

Consider starting at the Lake Geneva Library and taking a 10-mile walk to the village of Fontana. For the return trip, catch a tour boat back to your starting point. Geneva Lake is located about 10 miles north of Harvard, Ill. in Walworth County, Wis.

Marengo Ridge Conservation Area
If you enjoy hikes through hilly terrain crisscrossed with intermittent streams and blanketed with dense woods, you’ll be charmed by this 3-mile hike in southwestern McHenry County. Situated up on a ridge left by the last glacier, this wonderfully wooded landscape provides visitors with an unusually isolated atmosphere.

The park’s 15 species of conifers don’t offer much color-wise, but they do provide a rich fragrance rarely encountered in the Chicago region. The hillsides of oak, hickory, poplar, sumac, and ash trees guarantee an abundance of fall color. Consider pitching a tent in the park’s small campground.


Learn more about hiking in the Chicago region by checking out 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago, recently published in a second edition. A different version of this article first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Windy City Sports magazine.


Fall author appearances

Lincoln Park REI Grand Opening

Saturday, October 4, 11 a.m., book signing

Saturday, October 4, noon, presentation on Chicago-area hiking

I’ll be doing a booksigning and a presentation at the grand opening for the new REI store in Lincoln Park. The store is located at 1466 North Halsted Street, just south of West Blackhawk Street. During the weekend, there will be other speakers, as well as product giveaways at the store.

Morton Arboretum Fall Festival

Saturday, October 18, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Going on throughout the month of October, the Arboretum’s Fall Festival features an outdoor marketplace, wine tasting, theatre hikes, and various events for children. Drop in for a visit while I’m at the outdoor marketplace signing copies of my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago and answering questions about outdoor recreation in Chicagoland and Illinois.


Great places to hike close to Chicago

There’s something about living in a megalopolis like Chicago that makes people skeptical of finding scenic trails. Even outdoorsy Chicagoans express surprise when they learn about the assortment of well-maintained parks and foot trails close to the Windy City. Outdoor activities, they assume, require a lengthy trip somewhere else.

Chicagoland claims an impressive collection of foot trails that wind alongside streams, over wooded hills and through prairies and wetlands. And many of these spots are less than an hour from downtown. For some, hitting trails close to the city is especially attractive because it allows them to leave the car at home. Instead of getting in a car, they’ll hop on a bicycle or one of Chicago’s commuter trains to reach the trailhead.

So, here are a few of the best trails within spitting distance of Chicago.

Indiana Dunes State Park

At the Indiana Dunes State Park, some of the largest sand dunes on Lake Michigan’s southern shore are mixed in with woodlands full of giant oaks, many acres of wetlands and smaller wooded rolling dunes. While the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore offers a far greater number of trails, the state park contains the most dramatic and isolated trails.

Trails 2, 8 and 9 provide a total of about five miles of outstanding hiking. Pick up a park map at the guardhouse and start from the park’s nature center near the campground. Trail 2 takes you through a wet bottomland dotted with small ponds. A half-mile stretch of this trail follows a wooden boardwalk that spans a wetland called the Great Marsh.

After finishing Trail 2, make your way to Trail 9. Trail 9 eventually leads you to a 0.7-mile stretch of trail that follows a dune ridge topped off with cottonwood, juniper and patches of marram grass. A ravine blanketed with white pine and black oak plunges downward on one side of the trail. On the other side, the dune drops to the shore of Lake Michigan. The Chicago skyline juts out of the lake about 30 miles to the northwest. The ridge trail connects a couple of enormous blowouts–large areas of open sand and marram grass hollowed out by wind from the lake.

After wrapping up Trail 9, pick up Trail 8 near the nature center, and then get ready for a steep, sandy climb up Mount Jackson. After Mount Jackson, the trail takes a short dip before climbing again, this time up to Mount Holden, followed by the highest dune, Mount Tom. The tops of these dunes reveal expansive views of the shimmering lake and many miles of wooded landscape. If it’s a hot day, you’ll enjoy the cool, wet reward where Trail 8 ends at the bottom of the dune.

The park is a snap to reach on the South Shore Line, the northwest Indiana commuter train.

Palos/Sag Valley Forest Preserve: Cap Sauers Holdings

Outdoor explorers in the Chicago area are lucky souls to have the massive Palos/Sag Valley Forest Preserve in their midst. With more than 14,000 acres of hilly woodland, rolling prairie, scenic wetlands and quiet oak savannas, this giant natural area located southwest of the city contains some 35 miles of multi-use trails, and many more miles of narrow unmarked trails.

One of the highlights of Palos/Sag Valley is the isolated trails within Cap Sauers Holdings. For a 4.75-mile hike, start from Teasons Woods parking area at the corner of State Highway 83 and 104th Avenue, and head east on the yellow trail as it runs along the base of the 80- to 100-foot-high wooded bluff known as Swallow Cliff. Head up the bluff on the lengthy stone staircase that accompanies the decommissioned toboggan slide. Stay right at a series of junctions and then cross 104th Avenue.

After passing through a series of oak savannas, take the green trail to the left. Nearly a half mile ahead, look for a trail marker on the right and take the narrow trail up a small hill. Soon, the trail starts to snake along the top of what is known as Visitation Esker. Sloping down 40 to 50 feet on each side of the trail, the esker looks like a perfectly shaped winding mound. Indeed, some geologists maintain that this landform, created by a sub-glacial stream, is one of the most well-defined eskers in the state. Returning to the yellow trail, turn left for a short trip back to the parking area.

Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve

While the trails at Fullersburg Woods are not extensive, they make up for it with pristine surroundings. Nearly all the trails at Fullersburg accompany Salt Creek as it meanders alongside bluffs and winds around a couple of islands on its way through the park. If you’re looking for a place to bring the family, Fullersburg is one of the best options around. In addition to a visitor center with exhibits and activities for kids, there’s a nifty museum housed in an old gristmill along the creek. An exhibit in the basement offers details about the mill when it served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Start the hike on the trail north of the visitor center and stay to the right. While exploring the banks along Salt Creek, you’ll see tree stumps sculpted by beavers, oaks and maple trees hanging lazily over the water, and small wooded bluffs rising above the creek. Nearly two miles into the hike, keep going straight ahead as you pass the picturesque log bridge on the right that leads to the visitor center. From the bridge, the path heads toward the dam, which is flanked by the brick Graue Mill and its giant water wheel.

Fullersburg Woods is 1.2 miles north of the Hinsdale station on the BNSF Metra Line. The west end of the 11-mile-long Salt Creek Bicycle Trail is located one mile from Fullersburg Woods.

Veteran Acres Park/Sterne’s Woods

These two parks, Veteran Acres and Sterne’s Woods, are individually charming and each well worth a visit. But taken together, they offer an array of scenic landscapes and many miles of enjoyable rambling through quiet woodlands, rolling prairie, and wildflower-laden wetlands.

From the front door of the Veteran Acres nature center, look for the wood chip trail on the left heading into the woodland. Taking the second junction on the right brings you into the rolling grassy expanse of Wingate Prairie. Stay to the right as you pass along the outer edge of the prairie. Among the prairie remnants in the Chicago region, this one is unique for its rolling hills and stands of fragrant pine. Mixed in with the big bluestem grass, you’ll see plenty of goldenrod, compass plants and rattlesnake master.

Eventually, you’ll reach the Prairie Trail, a regional rail-trail. Follow this paved path through stands of pine, hickory and enormous black and white oak trees with gnarled limbs reaching out over the trail. After 0.9 miles, keep an eye peeled for a wide gravel trail that runs on the left parallel to the Prairie Trail. Take the gravel trail to the right and you’ll pass through a 40-acre wetland, home to a variety of wildflowers, including two types of orchids. Stay to the right and continue through the woods. Once you return to Wingate Prairie, you’ll zigzag along the trails back to the nature center.

The nature center is located one-half mile directly north of the Crystal Lake station on the Union Pacific/Northwest Metra Line. The Prairie Trail runs for 25.9 miles from Algonquin north to the Wisconsin border.


Learn more about hiking in the Chicago region by checking out 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago, recently available in a second edition. This article first appeared in the July 2008 issue of Silent Sports magazine.


New edition of “60 Hikes Chicago”

After much toil and sweat, the new edition of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago has been released. If you’re familiar with the first edition, you’ll see that a snazzy new cover adorns the new version of the book. Like the first edition, this one provides in-depth information on 60 hikes within the Chicago region, and another 10 or so hikes that are briefly described.

The new edition of the book also offers:

  • 5 new hikes covered in-depth.
  • Heaps of updates on factual details, including contact information, web resources, routes, and directions.
  • Loads of new information on getting to the hike via public transportation and bicycle. If there’s a Metra train that stops near the trailhead or a bicycle path running nearby, you’ll get the skinny.

Check out the newly updated book page.


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.