With its sprawling cityscape, massive population, and metropolitan charms, Chicago isn't necessarily the first place that comes to mind when picking great destinations for hikers. But, as it turns out, Chi Town actually sits close to some fantastic trails, many of which give urban dwellers a chance to escape the hustle and bustle of life in the Windy City on a regular basis. In fact, there are more than a hundred trails of varying lengths and difficulties within easy driving distance of downtown, often making it difficult to choose which one to actually explore.
With that in mind, we've combed through many of those options and have come up with five of our favorites, each of which has something unique and special to offer. So, the next time you're in Chicago and looking for an excuse to stretch your legs, why not give one of these hiking trails a go. Chances are, you'll be pleasantly surprised at just how good they actually are.
Lakefront Trail: Greater Chicago Urban Area
Whether you live in Chicago already or are just there for a visit, don't overlook the Lakefront Trail. Located within city limits, this surprisingly scenic walking route has a lot to offer, even for those who think they already know it well.
At 18 miles in length, the Lakefront Trail is surprisingly long and diverse. Wandering along the shores of Lake Michigan and through lovely urban parks throughout its length, the route make for a nice escape from traditional urban life. Despite the fact that the towering cityscape makes for a dramatic backdrop, although at times it is easy to forget you're still in the city at all.
The route is paved and very easy to follow, which makes it highly accessible for hikers of all ages and experience levels. This is a mixed-use trail however, which means you'll share it with runners and cyclists too. While the trail isn't as secluded as some of the others on this list, it is easy to reach, offers a variety of landscapes to walk through, and is a great way to explore the metropolitan area on foot.
Illinois Canyon Trail: Starved Rock State Park
Located about an hour and half outside of the city, Illinois's Starved Rock State Park is a destination that is well worth the drive. With over 13 miles of hiking trails to explore, visitors will find themselves wandering in and out of 18 jaw-dropping canyons, many of which include spectacular waterfalls that add to the level of enchantment. The landscapes found within the park are completely unexpected in a Midwest setting, and it is a magnificent spot for travelers looking for a bit of outdoor adventure.
For a true hiking challenge, head to the 9.4 mile Illinois Canyon Trail. The route achieves its length by connecting some of the park's shorter routes, with the result being a grand tour of the entire area. But be warned, this path doesn't include any manmade walkways or stairs to help you navigate the landscape so you'll have to be somewhat adept at backcountry route-finding. Having a reasonable level of physical conditioning doesn't hurt either.
The Cowles Bog Trail: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is located just an hour away from Chicago, covering more than 15 miles of protected and undeveloped shoreline along Lake Michigan. The park features a 4.7-mile hiking route known as the Cowles Bog Trail, which wanders past lakes, through black oak savannas, around marshes, and down the beach, giving visitors a chance to witness some of the local fauna and flora as they go. It is these diverse landscapes that make this such an interesting place to go for a trek, with plenty of scenery to take in while en route.
Other sections of Indiana Dunes feature hiking routes as well, with more than 50 miles of trail to explore in total. That should be enough to keep visitors busy for awhile, allowing them to return regularly to find new things to uncover.
Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve Trail System
The Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, located in nearby DuPage County, features 11 miles of mapped and well-marked hiking trails, with many more miles of unmarked routes to explore as well. Those trails pass through lush forests and open prairies with limestone outcroppings dotting the landscape. Rolling hills and ridges formed by glacial movement from the last ice age provide unique topography to wander through, creating a setting that will leave thoughts of Chicago's urban sprawl far behind.
The park is home to more than 300 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and other creatures, making it a popular place for those who enjoy spotting wildlife. There is even an onsite orienteering course for brushing up on your navigational skills or learning how to use a map and compass.
Kankakee River State Park Trail System
The trail system found inside Kankakee River State Park offers plenty of options for hikers (not to mention bikers, trail runners, cross country skiers, and more). The trails stretch for miles along both sides of the Kankakee River and border a wildlife management area throughout most of their length. This gives hikers ample opportunity to spot deer, raccoon, wild turkeys, and a variety of other creatures while exploring the landscape.
One of the highlights of the hike is passing through towering limestone canyons and spotting multiple waterfalls along the way. The walk isn't particularly strenuous, but its proximity to the river and the rolling landscape makes it a lovely place to escape from the city for awhile. And since it is only about an hour away, Kankakee is surprisingly accessible, even for urban dwellers.