Chicago isn’t exactly synonymous with hiking, but there are more than 100 trails within a half-hour’s drive of downtown, and most of them are beautiful. Whether you’re looking for an outdoor workout, a wildlife encounter, or just something to wear out your kids, here are the area’s best day hikes.
Within City Limits
Just south of the Adler Planetarium, Northerly Island used to be an airport. These days, it’s a 91-acre park full of native plants, migratory birds, and a mile-long walking path with a great view of the skyline.
In Hyde Park, you can explore the grounds of the 1893 world’s fair (from The Devil in the White City) at Jackson Park, landscaped by the same guy who designed Central Park in New York. Don’t miss the Osaka Garden, guarded by a traditional Shinto torii.
And you won’t see much wildlife here, but the Chicago Riverwalk is a perfect urban hike for people-watching and architecture-gawking. You can extend it to two miles by crossing over the Lake Street Bridge and walking south to Union Station.
Want to see what Chicago looked like before Europeans arrived? The trails at Crabtree Nature Center traverse a restored tallgrass prairie with more than 260 species of birds.
Near Buffalo Grove, Ryerson Woods might be the most pristine forest in northern Illinois, thanks to hundreds of maple, hickory, ash, and oak trees.
Hiking with kids? Try the River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook, with brisk and easy trails along the Des Plaines River.
The weirdest hike in Chicagoland is definitely the Waterfall Glen loop in Darien, which wraps around the secretive Argonne National Laboratory, once home to the Manhattan Project.
Over in Lisle, the Morton Arboretum is like an outdoor tree museum with more than 4,000 species from all over the world, and its wood-chip trails are nice and soft.
A little further away near Orland Park, Messenger Woods has the region’s best display of wildflowers, making it one of the most photographed places in Illinois.
The big draw is Kankakee River State Park, thanks to its dramatic river gorge. Take the Rock Creek Trail for the best views, including a tumbling waterfall. Just don’t get in the river—several people have died here in the past decade alone.
If history is your thing, check out Channahon State Park in Will County, where you can visit an old locktender’s house along the Illinois & Michigan Canal Trail.
Want to see some deer? Head to McKinley Woods, a scenic bluff overlooking the Des Plaines River. They’ve got so many deer, the forest preserve has authorized controversial culling programs in the past.
If you only hike one trail in northeastern Illinois, do it at Starved Rock State Park, about an hour and a half west of downtown. The limestone canyons are so surreal, you’ll swear you’ve somehow left the Midwest entirely. Make sure to visit LaSalle Canyon, especially when the waterfall is flowing. From the top of Starved Rock itself, you might spot the bald eagles that nest on a nearby island.
About the same drive in the opposite direction, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is stunning. Chicago poet Carl Sandburg once said these tree-covered mountains of sand were “to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and the Yosemite to California.” If you’re looking for a challenge, try the Cowles Bog Trail, a 4.1 mile trek through wetlands, dune woodlands, and a beautiful beach.