Hiking, Biking, Cross-country Skiing, Oh My!September 5, 2020
Getting out and exploring Northern Illinois will deepen your appreciation for the natural history that abounds our rolling prairies and waterways. Here’s a list of my top nature spots and hikes in and around Cook County, Lake County, Dupage County, McHenry and Kane County.
Equestrian Trail at Carl Hansen/ Poplar Creek Equestrian Trail
Don’t be fooled by “equestrian trail”. This is a hiking for people too! I have not run into poop piles here like other spots that share the trail with horses. You are so far out on the edge of the county that other hikers are sparse and it is QUIET. I long to return every single time I leave.
Hands down my favorite hikes of the summer this year. There is a main gravel trail to walk or ride and many unpaved trails that wind through oak groves. You will see Great Blue Herons, Egrets, and a host of other birds here. The native plants here are of very high quality and spending time here offers spectacular views of open sky, woods, prairie and more.
“Once part of a large glacial lake, Middlefork Savanna provides safe harbor for endangered plant and wildlife species, and several environmentally sensitive wetlands that feed into the North Branch of the Chicago River. Chicago Wilderness has identified Middlefork Savanna as one of the most important sites for biodiversity in northeastern Illinois. " – website
There is also a community garden, the Elwa Playground and a Wildlife Discovery Center that is perfect for kids that shares the parking lot.
Definitely worth the drive from Chicago. You can spend the whole afternoon here.
LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve
Off the beaten path watering hole! This is such a killer spot for a day picnicking and pond dipping. St. Charles offers an escape for city dwellers to feel like they got far away but didn’t go very far. Sunbath along Ferson Creek or sit in an innertube. either way it’s a perfect spot to leisurely spend an afternoon.
Illinois Beach State Park
Yes, it’s a beach. Yes, it’s a state park. It is not the most luxurious beach experience UNLESS you come with your own fun. Then it’s perfect with 6 miles of beach. But if you need a cabana and lounge chairs to rent, this is not for you. It looks as if the main buildings were abandoned decades ago. The bathrooms are pretty primitive. However, did you read the 6 miles of beach part?
If you have no desire to swim or camp this location has AWESOME hiking trails. I wouldn’t drive an hour out of the city for just any hiking. IT IS WORTH IT!!!
Grassy Ridge Meadow
Within the Paul Douglas Preserve in Hoffman Estates off of I90 is the Grassy Ridge Meadow. Ringed by a bike trail I prefer to walk the interior footpaths. Drive into the parking lot and park about half way down facing west. There is a huge lawn with a prairie on the periphery. Walk across it and once you get right up against the prairie the path will reveal itself.
From the website: “This peaceful oasis among the bustling suburbs offers 4 miles of scenic trails: a short loop for hikers, bicyclists and skiers that circles a pond, and a 3-mile loop for hikers, bicyclists, skiers and horses.” Dogs welcome on leash.
This area is a little cryptic. Do not go by the map on the forest preserve site. There are trails on the interior put together by the stewards of the site. Note the Map link above.
Very high quality site. Lots of spring ephemerals and rare native plants.
Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve
Just south of Fort Sheridan is another site called Openlands Lakeshore Preserve that can make for a more significant hiking day if you are looking to add mileage.
From the website: “Fort Sheridan is one of only a few places in Lake County that offer free public access to Lake Michigan and an awe-inspiring lake overlook perched on a 70-foot-high bluff. Known for its pristine natural areas and excellent birdwatching, Fort Sheridan is home to several rare species not found elsewhere in the region. The preserve’s savanna, ravines and lakefront location allow visitors to observe one of North America’s busiest flyways for migratory birds. At least 236 species of birds have been seen here.”
These sites along Lake Michigan are truly magnificent! Spend as little or as long a time as you’d like exploring the lakefront with these ideas.
Northerly Island Trail 1.3 mile in and out can be short and sweet or apart of a longer day. On foot or on bike it’s over in a flash but it’s a gorgeous rolling prairie on the lakefront home to bats, birds and butterflies. Begin at the old airport which has been converted to a Chicago Park District building and head south along the lake.
Once you complete Northerly Island Trail you can head south a little over 6 miles on the Chicago Lakefront Trail by bike to Promontory Point. Plan to picnic on this wooded peninsula jutting into the lake dotted with stone fire rings.
From Northerly Island north on the Chicago Lakefront Trail is 9 miles. The Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary has a fun hedge maze and amazingly dramatic scenes of prairie meeting the skyline. You can get far enough out on the point surrounded by prairie that you no longer hear traffic but rather just the waves crashing against the path wall.
Carl Hansen Woods
Northwestern Cook County
90 West to Route 59, south to Carl Hansen Woods entrance on the west side of Rt. 59 (Sutton Rd)
Natural features a kame which can be hiked and offers a clear view of the surrounding area. This trail can easily be extended by going south and linking up with Poplar Creek Trail System or linking up east to the paved Poplar Creek bike trail.
Chicago North Branch Trail ~ Foster Ave. to Chicago Botanic Garden
Any stretch of this of this on bike or foot is wonderful. Here are the 3 main points of entry to the nearly 20 mile bike/walking path:
-To access the northern trailhead, take Lake Cook Road to the Chicago Botanic Garden, located east of I-94/US 41 and 0.5 mile west of Green Bay Road. Park here. You can also start from the many forest preserves along the way as the trail heads south.
-To access the Forest Glen trailhead in Chicago, take Milwaukee Avenue to Devon Avenue. Head 0.2 mile east to the Caldwell Woods Preserve. Take the entrance road labeled Caldwell Woods Groves 1, 2 & 3.
-To access the southern trailhead, take SR 50 to W Foster Avenue. The Gompers Park entrance is east of Cicero, where there is parking and the Irene C. Hernandez Family Picnic Grove. The trail entrance is farther east on Foster Avenue, across from N. Kostner Avenue.
Swallow Cliff has a famous staircase that was once part of a toboggan hill. Now it features an LED building for meetings and a snack bar. 42 miles in total of trail that is connected to the Palos Trail System. Thick woods, babbling brooks, prairies, quiet and vast.
Part of the Sag Valley Trail System
Great for hiking and cycling!
Prairie Path ~ Main Branch to Aurora Branch or Elgin Branch
Well maintained multi-use trail. Both Aurora and Elgin branches lead to the Fox River Trail if you want to make a bike loop. The prairie path cuts through neighborhoods creating its own island of wildflowers and recreationalists. Easy riding.
Fox River Trail
This trail meanders along the river mostly with interesting old neighborhoods and quaint bustling town centers along the river. Nice either on foot or on a bike.
Des Plaines River Trail
Due to my location in the city it’s easiest for me to enter the Des Plaines River trail just south of Talcott on Dee. There is a parking lot here for the trail to ride or hike several miles north. Air traffic noise dies out after you go under the 94 underpass. From there the path in general quiets down and is wonderful in all seasons.
There’s a few wonky parts to the trail where you have to cross major intersections but all in all it’s forest and prairie along the river.
Marengo Ridge Conservation Area
Mostly wooded, hilly trails. Best in spring and autumn. Worth the drive.
From the website:
“Marengo Ridge Conservation Area is one of McHenry County’s most popular and treasured areas. It contains over 818 acres of oak and hickory woodlands interspersed with spruce, aspen, ash and sumac groves.
The Marengo Moraine was created about 24,000 years ago by the Wisconsin glacier. The ridge is made up of rocks, gravel, sand and finer sediments that were carried within or pushed ahead of the ice sheet as it advanced and left behind as it melted. Where the ice melted and advanced at an equal rate, the debris piled up at the glacier’s leading edge. The result is a deposit that is up to 280 feet deep, several miles wide and 40 miles long. At its highest point, the ridge stands 1,050 above sea level. In Marengo Ridge Conservation Area, the area around Shelter #2 offers excellent vantage points for surveying the geological history of the area.”
Palos Trail System
Southern Cook County
I highly recommend making your way south to hike in the lush woods and water shed. The Yellow Dash Trail East goes for over 9 miles and is pretty secluded. All of these trails within the Palos Trail System (and Sag Valley) are quiet, scenic and vast.
Forest floor blooms early spring. Preserved log cabins dot the Des Plaines River. Ryerson Woods has historical landmarks, a small working farm, visitor center, and miles of diverse hiking. Maple Syrup tapping occurs in February. There’s a historical building on the property that houses a crafting co-op open to the public. This trail is one I come back to every year a few times at least because of its beauty, quiet and diversity.
From the Department of Natural Resources:
“Volo Bog was dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve in 1970. Three years later, it was registered as a National Natural Landmark… More than 1,100 additional acres of land have been purchased to protect and enlarge the state preserve, which now includes marshes, prairie restoration areas, woodlands, two other bogs, and scenic trails.Originally opened in 1980, Volo Bog’s Visitor Center is housed in a dairy barn built in the early 1900s. The center includes a program room, the Tamarack Shop, offices and restrooms on the first floor. An elevator, housed in the silo, takes visitors to the second floor exhibits, hands-on discovery area and library.
Volo Bog is significant in that it exhibits all stages of bog succession. A floating mat of sphagnum moss, cattails and sedges surrounds an open pool of water in the center of the bog. As substrate material thickens, a shrub community dominated by poison sumac and leatherleaf invades the mat. This is eventually replaced by tamarack forest. Surrounding this forest is a second, more extensive shrub zone which abruptly ends and becomes a marsh/sedge meadow community."
Specific to Cycling Trails in Cook County Forest Preserves:
North Branch Trail for flat, paved cycling
Driftless Zone of the Mississippi River
Spring Lake Campground
BEST NATURE CENTERS FOR KIDS
1) Trailside Museum of Natural History
2) River Trail Nature Center
Northern Cook County
A spur of the Des Plaines River trail with beautiful woods to explore and a wonderful nature center, complete with animal exhibits. Plan on hiking the short trails on site and continue on north or south on the Des Plaines River trail for an extended, wooded hike.
3) Crabtree Nature Center
Far Northwest Cook County
4) Spring Valley Nature Center
Schaumburg Park District
Great for the whole family! Spring Valley Nature Center is nestled near Woodfield Mall and yet is a quiet refuge complete with a historic working German farm, trails in woodland and prairie, indoor nature center, and a newly renovated outdoor nature playscape. Perfect year round.