by Francesco Guerrieri
Illinois is flat. Chicago is flat. This vast landscape, however, holds many escapes into nature. Although there are no sweeping mountain ranges that overlook the plains, these hiking trails offer a distinct display of nature’s repertoire. A deep forest, quaint cluster of foothills, and other spots give us the best hiking trails Chicago has to offer.
Morton Grove Trails
Distance from Northwestern: 6.8 miles
Best for: a nearby escape from Evanston
Morton Grove prides itself on setting aside much of the natural area for recreation and enjoyment. With almost 20 percent of the land in Morton Grove managed by the Cook County Forest Preserve District, trails and parks have flourished in the area. The 16-acre Prairie View Park gives you over half a mile of nice walking trails. The largest of these trails, North Branch trail, has eight miles of unpaved trail that goes through forests and open trails.
When to go: throughout the year. While the parks and trails might be snowed out during the winter months, the Morton Grove Historical Museum and other museums in the area offer other types of enjoyment.
How to get there: Take the 201 bus line from Sheridan and Lincoln to Davis. Switch to the 208 bus line and take it to the Northwest Transportation Center, where you can then take the Metra to Morton Grove.
Chicago Lakefront Trail
Distance from Northwestern: 14.2 miles
Best for: a nice breath of fresh air during a trip to Chicago
While Chicago has the sweeping skyscrapers of a robust urban center, its placement alongside Lake Michigan gives the area a sense of balance. The noisy streets of the Windy City can barely be heard along this trail that hugs the shore of Lake Michigan. The bubbling of gentle waves acts as a serene backdrop for the attractions along this trail. It connects most of the Chicago beaches and the three skate parks on 31st Street, Grant Park and Wilson Avenue. The Lakefront Trail is also very accessible, being only ten minutes away from Millennium Park and the Bean.
When to go: April through September. Like the rest of Chicago, this trail is best enjoyed during the warm spring and summer months.
How to get there: Take the purple line of the L and get onto red line at the Howard stop. Get off at Jackson and it’ll be .7 miles away from that red line stop. Get the hiking started early!
Pro tip: Adler Planetarium, Soldier Field and Shedd Aquarium are along this trail. While there is plenty of fresh air and Lake Michigan to enjoy, if you are looking for other attractions, might as well go one step further.
Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve
Distance from Northwestern: 16.4 miles
Best for: balance of expansive forests and desolate beaches
After closing its bases at Fort Sheridan in 1993, the Army sold the land and surrounding forests to the Lake County Forest Preserves. The unused land has been allowed to recover and grow in a natural environment, with the Lake County Forest Preserves moving the progress along with restoration projects. The natural habitat this has created stuns both casual visitors and enthusiasts.
Several species of plants and animals live only in the Fort Sheridan area. Plant species like the Native Huckleberry and Canada Mayflower populate the area, while many species of birds follow Lake Michigan’s shoreline and fly through the area when they migrate. Out of the thick of the forest, various trails and the Lake Michigan beaches offer a lot to enjoy.
When to go: April through September. With the habitat ranging from beaches to forests, the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve offers relief from any of the warmth month’s inconveniences.
How to get there: Take the 201 bus line to the Metra stop on Central Street. That will take to directly to Fort Sheridan after 11 stops.
Pro tip: The forest preserves offers viewing exhibitions on birds as they follow the shore when they migrate. Learning “to bird” is a relatively easy.
Moraine Hills State Park
Distance from Northwestern: 38.7 miles
Best for: Nature enthusiasts wanting to explore a wide variety of habitats
Named for the accumulations of earth and stone that were carried and deposited by receding glaciers, Moraine Hills State Park offers geological enthusiasts an array of unique geological formations. The trails go through lakes, marshes and bogs formed by the Wisconsin glacier’s ice and melt water. While there are vigorous trails for experienced hikers, Moraine Hills State Park has a wide variety of trails for all hikers.
When to go: April through July. While the humidity and mugginess during the late summer months might be too much for some, the spring and early summer months give visitors some relief from this.
How to get there: Moraine Hills State Park is three hours away by public transporation, so your best bet is to get a friend’s car or an Uber. It is an hour west along the I-94.
Pro tip: With these geological formations, there are many activities and much fun to be had. Hiking, picnicking and hunting are just a few of the things hikers can do here.
Tekakwitha Woods Forest Preserve
Distance from Northwestern: 44.9 miles
Best for: a nice springtime walk for nature enthusiasts
Tekakwitha Woods took form around Fox River, which runs through the forest. Named in honor of the first Native American woman to become a saint, the area used to be inhabited by the Pattawatomies and other indigenous tribes before European-Americans displaced them. At the turn of the 20th century, Father Hugh McGuire bought the land as a getaway for spiritual recuperation. When he passed away, the land was given to the Sisters of Mercy, who converted it into a spiritual retreat center. The area eventually became Kane County’s first nature preserve.
The habitats of the woods include a hardwood forest, savanna, prairie and a floodplain forest. When migratory birds return during the spring, they light the area into a natural wonderland. Tekakwitha Woods teems with life and a sense of spiritual comfort.
When to go: April through June. The late summer months make the forest too hot and muggy, but the springtime offers a pleasurable snapshot of a hiking trail in the clutches of rebirth and growth.
How to get there: As with Moraine Hills State Park, this one is easier to get to by car or Uber than public transportation. It is an hour west on the I-90.
Pro tip: If you are an active biker, check out the Fox River Bike Trail connects with the John Duerr Forest Preserve across the river. This leads to miles of easy biking, running or hiking.