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Maggie Schafer

APR 18, 2019

Many Chicagoans have a bad misconception: flat terrain and suburban sprawl kill any chance we have of getting a good hike in. Might as well save our REI gear for outdoorsy vacations, right?

Wrong. Whether you’re looking for an afternoon trek within the city, a day trip to a suburban nature preserve, or a weekend getaway to a hiker’s paradise, you’ll find plenty of great hikes in and around Chicago.

You may recognize this 500-acre South Side park from the Devil in the White City; it was the site of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. One of the only remnants you’ll find from the fair is the Osaka Garden, a Japanese stroll garden, but you’ll also find bird trails, beachside trails, and plenty of opportunities for an afternoon hike.

Oh yeah, urban greenspace! We know Lincoln Park for some epic eats, some killer workouts, and, yes, the zoo. But nothing is more wild than the North Pond Nature Sanctuary. Just steps out of the concrete jungle (you can still see the skyline perfectly), you’ll get to romp around in an area with little man-made structure, minimal signage, and untouched natural Chicago flora and fauna. Pop in for refreshing hike or some “you time” by the pond between meetings.

Call it a hidden gem, but this 155-acre escape is in walking (or should we say hiking) distance of the city. Calling North Park home, the North Park Village Nature Center allows us city-folk to interact with wildlife. Seriously, when’s the last time you walked in an open meadow? Quiet paths, boardwalks, and some undisturbed woodland make this a hike you can knock down in an hour or two.

Upping the ante of animal life near the suburb of Palatine, Chicagoland’s oldest nature preserve takes hikers through 1,800 acres of wetlands, prairies, ravines, and woods. You’ll find a ton of wildlife here, including migrating birds, amphibians, and—surprise, surprise—deer.

This 20-mile trail extends all the way from Chicago’s Edgebrook neighborhood to the Chicago Botanic Garden in the northern suburb of Glencoe. Winding along the North Branch of the Chicago River, the trail takes you past the Skokie Lagoons, which is also a hell of a place to kayak.

Running 25 miles along the Lake Michigan shore in Northwestern Indiana, this 1,500-acre national park includes gorgeous beach dunes, bogs, and wooded trails. Our favorite trail? Cowles Bog Trail, a 4.4-mile loop that challenges hikers with steep dunes. The trail takes you to Cowles Bog, an 8,000-year-old wetland filled with insects and birds (bring your bug spray!).

Okay, we’ll get this out of the way early: there’s no waterfall in Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. Instead, what you get is an incredible 9.5-mile crushed-limestone loop with natural woods, savannas, some hills, and bluffs overlooking the Des Plaines River. Plus, you’ve got the mystery at the heart of the woods — the Argonne National Laboratory (we’re not allowed to know what goes on there). And this is all just a jump away from the city in suburban Darien, by the way.

Nestling in to Central Wisconsin, this 9,217-acre park doesn’t look like it belongs in the Midwest. Rocky bluffs tower over a huge, glacial lake, and ancient rock formations are dispersed throughout. Hikes are breathtaking (both physically and metaphorically), and you’ll also find mountain climbing, swimming, kayaking, fishing, and camping.

If you’re a big tree-hugger, you can hug over 100,000 of them on this epic hike just 25 miles away in Lisle. You can get lost in over 200,000 types of living plants over 1,700 acres, but if you follow a map and the 16 miles of well-maintained trails, you’ll come out alive. Folks, it’s truly a stunning landscape, perfect for trek through the woods, vegetation, and wildlife. This Morton guy would be really proud of its modern-day magnificence, too — we mean, his family motto was “plant trees.”

Characterized by its many rock canyons, Illinois’ most popular state park is situated on the Illinois River. In addition to 13 miles of easy-to-challenging trails, you’ll find waterfalls, boating opportunities, and cozy cabins to stay in. It is so worth the trip.

Filled with paths and restored prairies, this 91-acre manmade peninsula seems like it’s miles away from the city… except when you get an up-close view of the stunning skyline. Just south of the city’s Museum Campus, it’s also home to the Huntingdon Bank Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater that can hold over 7,000 people. Luckily, the island is usually much quieter.

How could we forget about the Palos Trail System? (we didn’t, of course; we saved possibly the best for last). Just 30 minutes from downtown (depending on traffic), the Palos portion of the Cook County Forest Preserve is so clutch if you love three things: hills, trails (30 miles of ’em), and real-deal hiking. What’s great, though, is the access to bathrooms and water, so you don’t need to go into survival-mode if you spend the day there. Our favorite adventure is the hilly and challenging Orange West Trail. It’s a tough trek (6.8mi), to say the least, and connects to a section called “the Psycho Path”. So, yeah…

With hilly landscapes and vistas, this 2,600-acre nature preserve is the perfect antidote to life in a flat, urban area. Just over an hour and a half northwest of the city in McHenry County, Glacial Park is also great for fishing, biking, horseback riding, and cross country skiing. Plus, you can find camping in nearby Thomas Woods.

Accessible through the Palos Trail System, these woods include 20 miles of unpaved trails that take you as far away from roads as you can possibly go in Cook County. Scenic and hilly, hikers will find wetlands, oak woodlands, and grasslands. The best part? Chicago Swallow Cliffs — a 100-foot bluff with a staircase that just begs to be climbed.

Another natural area you can explore within the Palos Trail Systems is Wolf Road Woods. Splattered with scenic lakes, this forest looks more like a Northwoods getaway than a suburban nature preserve. Don’t worry — we’ve never seen a wolf here yet.