While Chicago has some of the nation’s best parks, running paths, and even the 606, an urban green space masterpiece – it doesn’t have as many nearby hiking spots as many other major cities. The Midwest is generally not known for its mountains or hiking opportunities, but just because there aren’t any tall peaks doesn’t mean you can’t get creative and find some excellent places to spend an afternoon in nature. Great hiking is just about getting outside, taking a breath of fresh air, and enjoying the wilderness in front of us. Here are three of the best places to go hiking near Chicago.
Located just an hour and a half from Chicago, this first trail was rated the #1 attraction in the state of Illinois. The best thing about it is that it can be as long or as short as you want, and it’ll still be a fantastic hike. The main trail takes you through parkland that is chocked full of striking canyons, cascading waterfalls, and beautiful views of the Illinois River. There are eighteen canyons in total, some of which are on side trails. If you want to see all of them, it’s a 13-mile trek one-way, so you’ll definitely need to bring a friend with a second vehicle if you intend to make it through the whole park. Otherwise, take a look at the trail map and decide how many canyons you want to get through. The most impressive waterfalls can be found in St. Louis, Wildcat, Tonty, Ottawa, and Kaskaskia canyons. The entirety of the trail is suitable for hikers of all fitness and skill levels, though there are a few sections that can get slippery when wet.
The Indiana Dunes are one of the most popular places for Chicagoans to take their summer vacations. It’s only about an hour drive from the city, but it feels as far as can be from the urban jungle of Chi-town. You can even get there on the train in and hour and a half from Millennium Station if you don’t feel like driving.
One of the best routes through the Dunes is the 3.5-mile West Beach Loop, which is actually comprised of three loops through different areas of the park. You’ll follow the sides of each loop, and if you decide you don’t want to do the next section, it’s really easy to turn around and go back on the other side of the loop. First, the trail takes you from the West Beach Bathhouse, along a boardwalk adjacent to Lake Michigan, and then up a set of 250 stairs. This is the point in the hike with the best views of Lake Michigan. The trail then proceeds through a stand of pine trees before reaching the second loop. In this section, you’ll be walking on loose sand through some oak trees. The last loop of the hike follows Long Lake before entering a series of dunes can that be a bit a challenging as you go up and down them.
Afterwards, reward yourself with a swim in Lake Michigan – this is the park’s only beach area staffed by lifeguards. Bonus: you’ll get some excellent views of the Chicago skyline, 30 miles across the lake.
Just an hour drive from the city is a 19,000-acre piece of parkland, formerly occupied by the Joliet Arsenal, which was set aside by the federal government in the 1990s. The park has a number of trails, but one of the better ones only open to hikers is the Blodgett Marsh Trail. It starts at the River Road Trailhead and continues on a 4.5-mile loop through fields of tall grass and across two creeks. There are excellent bird watching opportunities throughout, and it’s an educational experience to see the different kinds of native grasses growing there.
When most people are planning a hiking trip, prairies are probably the last landscape on their mind. But back in 2014, wildlife biologists formulated a plan to reintroduce the North American Bison to Midewin Prairie – this is farthest east that you’ll see these majestic animals, and being able to experience the splendor of bison is reason enough to check this place out.
The hiking options around Chicago are probably some of the most underrated in the country. A lack of tall mountains makes many people believe that the area is flat and uninteresting, with no trails to speak of. Nothing could be further from the truth, as it makes up for its lack of elevation with stunning canyons, waterfalls, and windswept beaches. While there are certainly some amazing places to spend time outdoors within the city limits, that’s no reason not to take an hour or two to visit some of the incredible wilderness outside of town.