The 25 best places for hiking near Chicago

The 25 best places for hiking near Chicago

  • Written by Zach Long & Grace PerryContributors Lindsay Eanet & Jeffy Mai
  • 03/23/23

Looking for an outdoorsy experience that's a little more adventurous than walking through your local Chicago park? Thankfully, you don't need to go far to trek through nature, because there's no shortage of great spots for hiking near Chicago. Cross state lines to visit the gorgeous Indiana Dunes along Lake Michigan, explore the ruins of a steel mill in Joliet or tackle the sprawling 30-mile Ice Age Trail at Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin. Plus, some of these paths double as great Chicago bike trails—you can even make a weekend of it and do a little camping. If you're ready for a temporary escape from the city, hit the trails at some of the best places for hiking near Chicago.

RECOMMENDED: Hit the road on more day trips from Chicago

 

Best hiking near Chicago

1. Starved Rock State Park

Located on the south bank of the Illinois River in LaSalle County, Starved Rock offers 13 miles of well established trails winding through 18 canyons, with views of gorgeous waterfalls and rock formations (including the 125-foot butte overlooking the river that gives the park its name). Guided hikes are available year-round, or you can set out exploring at your own pace.

Travel time: 90 min drive

Entry fee: Free

 
Chicago Lakefront Trail
Photograph: Shutterstock

2. Chicago Lakefront Trail

Spanning 18.5 miles, Chicago’s Lakefront Trail will take you all the way from one end of the city to the other. Along the way, you’ll enjoy unobstructed views of the skyline and pass by landmarks like Lincoln Park, the Museum Campus and Promontory Point. It’s one of the best ways to see some of Chicago’s best sights while working out.

Travel time: 5 min drive

Entry fee: Free

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3. Indiana Dunes State Park

Nestled on the northwest (and only) shore of Indiana, this National Natural Landmark offers spectacular views of Lake Michigan. The park encompasses over 2,000 acres of shoreline, comprised of hiking trails and, of course, sand dunes. Chicago native and poet Carl Sandburg called the Indiana Dunes “to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and Yosemite is to California.” Just a short drive or train ride from downtown Chicago, it’s an easy day trip from the city.

Travel time: 1 hr drive, 90 min on South Shore Line

Entry fee: $7 in-state vehicles, $12 out-of-state vehicles

4. Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve

West of the city in southern DuPage County, this nearly 2,500-acre preserve surrounding Argonne National Labs has 11 miles of mapped trails shared by hikers, cyclists, horseback riders and, when weather permits, cross-country skiers. The area itself is named after former Forest Preserve District president Seymour Waterfall (yes, that was his name), not the small, man-made cascade within it.

Travel time: 30 min drive

Entry fee: Free

Devil's Lake State Park
Photograph: Shutterstock

5. Devil's Lake State Park

If you’re able and willing to make the journey up north to Wisconsin, Devil’s Lake State Park is a great option for stunning views and paths suitable for all levels of hikers. You’ll marvel at rock formations that were carved by glaciers during the Ice Age while making your way through over 29 miles of trails. Traverse the East Bluff Trail or the Balanced Rock Trail to be rewarded with some truly spectacular sights.

Travel time: 3 hr 30 min drive

Entry fee: $8 in-state vehicles, $11 out-of-state vehicles

 

6. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

This 19,000-acre National Forest Service prairie south of Joliet attracted new attention in 2015 with the reintroduction of bison to the land, with visitor numbers rising for the chance to see the herd in its natural habitat. Midewin has about 22 miles of mixed-use trails shared by hikers, cyclists and horseback riders, and another 12 for hikers only. Keep an eye out for the decomissioned bunkers where the U.S. Army once stored ammunition.

Travel time: 1 hr drive

Entry fee: Free

7. Kankakee River State Park

The Kankakee River has been a treasured area for centuries, occupied by the Illini and Miami tribes in the 17th century. The park itself surrounds the river for about 11 miles, totaling to 4,000 acres of protected land. It’s popular spot for fishing, canoeing, hiking and mushroom hunting (yep), and includes campgrounds with cabins, electricity and more amenities available.

Travel time: 1 hr drive

Entry fee: Free

8. Moraine Hills State Park

With paths that wind around Lake Defiance and the surrounding woodland, Moraine Hills State Park offers more than 10 miles of trails that are fit for casual hikers. Named for the stones and boulders that were deposited throughout the area thousands of years ago when a glacier retreated, this McHenry County park is also a popular place for boating and fishing. Take the 3.7-mile Lake Defiance Trail to admire the sights, or opt for one of the shorter trails if you're pressed for time.

Travel time: 1 hour

Entry fee: Free

9. North Branch Trail

Get yourself to Gompers Park and you'll be minutes away from the North Branch Trail, which winds north through forests in Nile, Skokie, Morton Grove, Winnetka and Glencoe. It's a popular path for bikers (since it's paved), but hikers are welcome, too. You can trek 16 miles to the Skokie Lagoons or just as far as Morton Grove to get pizza at Burt's Place or Pequod's.

Travel time: 20 min drive

Entry fee: Free

10. Morton Arboretum

Note: Advance, date-specific, timed-entry online member passes and visitor tickets are required. 

This nature preserve in west suburban Lisle boasts an incredibly complex landscape, with more than 4,000 catalogued species of trees and plants, and striking limited-time sculpture exhibitions. Explore them on 16 miles of paved and wood-chipped trails. In the summer and fall, Morton Arboretum is also a venue for Walking Plays, which offers ambulatory outdoor performances.

Travel time: 45 min drive, 90 min via Metra

Entry fee: $16 adults, $14 seniors, $11 ages 2–17

11. Joliet Iron Works Historic Site

Craving a bit of industrial history with your outdoor excursion? The former site of Joliet Iron and Steel Works (once one of the largest steelmills in the U.S.) is now home to a 1.5-mile trail that allows guests to walk through the ruins of foundations and blast furnaces. You can also access the 12.5-mile I&M Canal Trail, which follow its namesake waterway north through Lockport to Romeoville, IL—perfect for hiking, jogging or biking.

Travel time: 1 hr 15 min drive

Entry fee: Free

LaBagh Woods
Photograph: Shutterstock

12. LaBagh Woods

Located at the southern entrance of the North Branch Trail, this nature preserve offers hiking trails that will take you through wooded areas, wetlands, savannas and meadows. You’ll spot plenty of wildlife on your 5.7-mile loop, including excellent bird watching opportunities. If you need a breather after you’re done, pack some refreshments and relax in the picnic grove.

Travel time: 20 min drive

Entry fee: Free

13. Kettle Moraine State Forest South

There are two sections of Kettle Moraine State Forest, one to the north of Milwaukee and the other to the southwest. To keep the drive from Chicago to a minimum, we recommend the latter of the two options. The Southern Unit of the Wisconsin State Forest is packed with trails that run through pine forests and prairies. You'll find paths of varying lengths, including a short 1.25-mile jaunt on the John Muir Trail System or—if you're up for a challenge—a 30-mile section of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Travel time: 2 hr drive

Entry fee: $8 in-state vehicles, $11 out-of-state vehicles

14. Glacial Park Conservation Area

You can thank the glaciers for which this park was named for creating the pair of hills (a.k.a. kames) that hikers can scale, offering some great views of the surrounding area. The rest of the five-mile trail at Glacial Park isn't particularly challenging, but there are interesting sights along the way, including an oak savanna and bogs.

Travel time: 80 min drive

Entry fee: Free

15. Richard Bong State Recreation Area

Just over the Wisconsin border between Lake Geneva and Kenosha, this swath of green space was originally intended to be a jet fighter base. When those plans fell through, the area was opened for recreation, where anyone can enjoy the lakes, prairie landscape and campsites. Hikers can tackle a 16-mile network of trails, including an 8.3-mile jaunt that passes through hills and wetlands.

Travel time: 90 min drive

Entry fee: $8 in-state vehicles, $11 out-of-state vehicles

16. Lakewood Forest Preserve

Set on more than 2,000 acres in nearby Wauconda, IL, the sprawling Lakewood Forest Preserve is home to several bogs and marshes, as well as a colony of bats that keep the mosquito population in check. Hikers can access the 28-mile Millennium Trail (which winds north through a variety of parks, woods and preserves) as well as a segment of the six-mile Fort Hill Trail that connects the Lakewood and Ray Lake forest preserves.

Travel time: 90 min drive

Entry fee: Free

17. Des Plaines River Trail

A plan that began in 1980 was finally completed in 2015, when the last leg of this trail was opened to make a continuous 31.5-mile dirt and gravel path traversing Lake County from north to south along the namesake river. The northern half of the trail offers a little more visual interest, crossing through a series of forest preserves. You can jump on the trail in various places, but the southernmost point to begin your trek is the Sunset Bridge Meadow Trailhead in River Grove, IL.

Travel time: 30 min drive

Entry fee: Free

18. Castle Rock State Park

Not to be confused with the fictional Maine town where Stephen King novels are sometimes set, Castle Rock State Park is named for a sandstone butte near the Rock River. It's a bit of a drive from Chicago, but the landscape is a welcome break from a flat urban expanse. A series of interconnected loop trails provide about six miles of hiking, with several overlooks that give you sweeping views of your surroundings along the way.

Travel time: 2 hr drive

Entry fee: Free

19. Matthiessen State Park

Nestled just south of Starved Rock, this 1,700-acre tract boasts forest, prairie, canyons and other rock formations. It’s centered on the Vermillion River and features five miles of hiking trails plus nine miles of biking and equestrian trails. Originally known as Deer Park, this reserve remains home to a large population of white-tailed deer thanks to its mineral springs that create salt licks for the fauna.

Travel time: 90 min drive

Entry fee: Free

20. Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area

A home to several threatened and endangered species, the Ryerson Conservation Area is perhaps best known for its annual maple syrup- and Halloween-themed hikes. With 6.5-miles of paths that wind through the forest (a well as some historic cabins built by early settlers near the Des Plaines River), this wooded area is especially popular in the fall, when leaf peepers come to gawk at the colorful foliage.

Travel time: 40 minute drive

Entry fee: Free

21. Illinois Prairie Path

The first rails-to-trails project in the United States, this network of trails runs through many of Chicago's west suburbs. Enter the path in Maywood (just west of Forest Park where the CTA Blue Line ends) and head 16 miles west to Wheaton, where the path splits into branches that go to Elgin, Aurora, Batavia and Geneva. If you don't feel like hiking all the way home, it's pretty easy to catch the Metra back to the Loop.

Travel time: 20 min drive

Entry fee: Free

22. Deer Grove

Acquired in 1916, the Cook County Forest Preserve District's oldest property includes wetlands and prairies in the eastern half and denser woodlands in the west. The parcel in northwest suburban Palatine has four miles of paved trails and 10 more unpaved, the latter popular with both hikers and mountain bikers.

Travel time: 1 hr drive

Entry fee: Free

23. Ned Brown Forest Preserve

Better known as Busse Woods to residents of Elk Grove Village and Schaumburg, the trails that wind through this forest preserve offer views of the gigantic Busse Lake (a popular spot for licensed fishing). An eight-mile paved trail loops around the park, taking visitors along the lakeshore and into the woods. Head to the east end of the preserve to see if you can spot a herd of elk, which inhabit an enclosed pasture.

Travel time: 1 hr drive

Entry fee: Free

24. Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park

A perfect summer day trip, this state park is home to the only remaining beach ridge shoreline in Illinois and a host of natural phenomena, including marshes, oak forests and dunes. Five miles of easy-going hiking trails serve as the perfect vantage point for birds, wildflowers and even prickly pear cactus in the park's drier areas. When you're done with your hike, cool off with a dip in Lake Michigan along 6.5 miles of shoreline. 

Travel time: 1 hr

Entry fee: Free

25. Rock Cut State Park

Located near Rockford, Rock Cut State Park may be best known for its nearly 200 acres of lakes where visitors love to fish, swim and boat, but it's also a gem for hikers. The park sports 40 miles of hiking trails as well as options for bikers and horseback riders, and the trails are packed with interesting flora and fauna—you might catch a glimpse of a deer, fox, beaver or muskrat. Of course, you can always just bask in the vivid glory of more than 100 species of wildflowers.

Travel time: 90 min drive

Entry fee: Free

 

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