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.
Length: 3.4 miles
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
Length: 2.5 miles
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
Length: 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.
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.