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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.

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