One of the the many advantages of living in Chicago, which some call The Great American City, is its green spaces. There are walking trails and riverwalks running right through the middle of the city, as well as forest preserves and sand dunes no more than a two-hour drive away.
We’ve compiled a list of 26 hiking trails from downtown Chicago all the way down river to Starved Rock, each with its own level of difficulty and unique scenery. From bird-watching and spotting deer to appreciating spectacular city skylines, hiking in Chicagoland is whatever you want it to be.
This scenic walkway is located on the south bank of the Chicago River, running from Lake Shore Drive to Franklin Street. It’s already a great way to take in the skyline, and design plans to make it continuous are ongoing, with bridges allowing each section to have a unique identity, landscaping and recreational amenity.
Once a cemetery, Lincoln Park is Chicago’s largest public park and sees some 20 million visitors annually. Situated along the Lake Michigan, it is adjacent to a number of attractions, and within the park itself there are recreational facilities as well as popular biking, running and hiking trails that meander throughout its 7 miles.
Down in Woodlawn, part of the Chicago Lakefront Trail runs through Jackson Park. A mere stretch of the legs at a loop of about 1.5 miles, it’s a peaceful, beautiful setting you may want to plan a break in. Also, check out The Osaka Garden, a Japanese strolling garden.
This man-made island used to be an airport but now serves as a family camping ground and quiet refuge from the city. The nature area on the 91-acre peninsula has hiking paths where you can also enjoy some spectacular views of The Windy City’s skyline.
Some 50 miles from Chicago, Moraine Hills features trails that will require a pair of good walking shoes. It’s a dog-friendly forest preserve with Lake Defiance at its center and Leatherleaf Bog, a 120-acre area, as a perfect spot for birdwatching. Trails loop both the lake and bog; the Red Trail around the lake is slightly longer than the Blue, at 3.7 miles compared to 3.2 miles.
You’ve got 61 miles of trails to hike if you make your starting point Channahon State Park. Running along the old canal towpath, you’ll enjoy historic sites, bird life and abundant wildlife and wildflowers in spring.
The lakefront in Zion, just an hour’s drive from the city, has the rather longer official name of Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park. Whatever you call the 4,160-acre park with 6.5 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, it provides ample hiking opportunities. In the northern section of the park, the Camp Logan trail is a 1.8-mile loop, while in the southern portion there’s a total of 5 miles, including a figure-8 loop with graveled surface that’s approximately 2.2 miles long.
Travelling nearly 11 miles from the Joliet Iron Works Historic Site north through Lockport and Romeoville to the Cook County line, the 486-acre Centennial Trail/I&M Canal Trail is great for hiking, running or biking. It’s a linear trail divided into four segments that is paved in spots and lined with crushed limestone in other sections.
Just a half hour from Chicago is the 2,492-acre Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien. Eleven miles of mapped trails, much of it limestone and turf-covered, await the hiker. Note that unmarked footpaths not on the map may not connect with mapped trails.
Less than an hour from The Windy City, this 65-acre site sits at the big bend of the Fox River. There’s a 3-mile network of hiking trails through the preserve, with the Fox River Trail running along its eastern boundary where the Elgin-Aurora trolley line used to be. If you cross the river to the Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin, you can take a 2-mile ride on a renovated electric trolley.
This 1,800-acre forest preserve in Palatine is the oldest in Cook County and has extensive trails that attract joggers, hikers and cyclists. The looping trail system, which has both paved and unpaved segments, allows for extended hikes through the preserve’s diverse habitats.
This small forest preserve in Oak Brook encompasses just 226 acres, yet it offers a full 6 miles of trails. Restored in the 1970s, the forest and prairie have become a prime wildlife haven in an urban environment. Take in some birdwatching as you hike the Wildflower Trail, which starts near the visitor center.
At 19,000 acres, this former arsenal is deemed by the USDA Forest Service to the be “largest piece of contiguous open space in northeastern Illinois,” even though it’s also a “prairie under construction.” Hiking is just one of the activities to be enjoyed at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, with a full 22 miles of trails open to the public for non-motorized recreation.
There are several moderate trails, as well as one designated as easy and one rugged, at Indiana Dunes. The rugged trail isn’t long at 1.5 miles, but it goes over the tops of the three highest dunes. The longest hike, at 5.5 miles, is of moderate difficulty, and hikers go through stands of white pine and a “tree graveyard” in Big Blowout. The park’s 2,182 acres includes more than 3 miles of beach along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, with the 200-foot-high sand dunes located beyond the shoreline.
Part of the Lake County Forest Preserve, Fort Sheridan has approximately 4.5 miles of hiking trails set along bluffs and ravines on the shores of Lake Michigan. Home to several rare bird species not found elsewhere in the region, the trails connect to other systems, including the 20-mile McClory Trail and the 11-mile North Shore Path.
If you’re looking for a short hike, this 2-mile expanse of walkways filled with permanent sculpture exhibits is visually very different from the usual scenery you walk past. The path is part of the North Shore Channel Trail, which goes for a total of 6.7 miles from Greenbay Road to Ronan Park at W. Ainslie Street, so you can easily increase the length of your hike.
Watch for the resident elk herd when hiking the 8-mile paved trail loop at Busse Woods. Also known as the Ned Brown Preserve, the National Natural Landmark consists of 3,700 acres with Busse Lake at its center.
Greene Valley has nearly 10 miles of marked trails within its 1400 acres of woodlands, prairies and wetlands that are open to hikers. For tree huggers, try the one-mile, self-guided Tree Trek hike as a warmup. There are signs along the path that point out 11 different trees, giving descriptions of their bark, seeds and leaves.
This 985-acre oak and hickory woodland has more than 3.5 miles of trails running through its floodplain forest, ravines and pine plantations. The sometimes rugged terrain includes Thorn Creek and Owl Lake, and is a bird-watching paradise.
Part of the McHenry County Conservation District, Glacial Park attracts 64,000 guests annually who hike or ride horseback along its 8 miles of trails. The park covers a total of 3,400 acres, with 400 of those a dedicated nature preserve. You’ll be hiking through prairie, delta kames (which are glacial landforms) and oak savanna, with frequent glimpses of Nippersink Creek.
With 4 miles of crushed-gravel trails through open areas inside the Lake County Forest Preserve, you’ve got an easy hike to enjoy on a 408-acre island. You’ll be walking through a restored prairie, going to the side of the reservoir and crossing several creeks as you follow the trails.
There are 7 miles of hiking trails at Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area in Grundy County, which is about an hour southwest of Chicago. Trails are marked for where they take you, with names such as the Prairie View Trail and the Strip Mine Loop Trail. The Tall Grass Nature Trail, for instance, will lead you through “the largest stand of tall grass prairie remaining in Illinois.” The trails are detailed on this PDF document.
The 5.2-mile hike, part of it along the Kankakee River, is a moderate loop running through a variety of habitats including marshlands and a savanna. There’s great fishing if you’re interested, so bring your favorite rod along. Local outdoor enthusiast and author Ted Villaire has a great description of La Salle and a map of the loop from one of his books.
With its nature center, this is a great place for families, but you can also enjoy hiking the 3.3 mile loop trail. The 640-acre park near Joliet will have kids checking out streams and a creek as they hike, and you’ll likely have to allow for some time at the old well and greenhouse, too.
Hikers of every level can enjoy themselves at Starved Rock State Park. With 13 miles of well-marked trails, you can take it as easy or make it as challenging as you want. There are even guided hikes (some with lunch), perfect for those new to the park or to hiking. There are scenic waterfalls in 14 of the 18 canyons, and all are popular destinations. The website includes information on trail length and difficulty, making it easy for you to plan your next hike. If you don’t have anyone to hike with, try the weekly Walker’s Club.
Close to Starved Rock, Matthiessen has a moderately strenuous hike that comes in at just under 6 miles. It features a mile-long canyon and impressive bluff-top views, along with giant pools and waterfalls in the dells.