15 Underrated Hikes Near Chicago That We'll Be Taking This Summer

Time to dust off those old hiking boots.

The Midwest is definitely an underrated region for hiking, but that only means you won't have to battle the crowds while stretching your legs on our many gorgeous, under-the-radar trails. If you're tired of dodging bikes and strollers on the 606 and Lakefront paths, there's plenty of incredible hiking spots just outside Chicago—we're talking river- and glacier-sculpted canyons and bluffs, dense forests, prairies with tall grasses, rolling sand dunes, stunning waterfalls, and unique wildlife. And you won't have to trek too far to tackle these scenic day hikes and enjoy the fresh air this summer.

After the year (plus some) we've had, you're probably itching for some much-needed time out in nature, where escaping the grind and social distancing is the whole point. Be sure to check official park websites for local COVID-19 guidelines and any trail closures before departing, and don't forget your backpack with the essentials: map/phone, water, snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, hand sanitizer, and, of course, a trusty face mask.

Ned Brown Forest Preserve/Busse Woods

Rolling Meadows, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 24 miles; .5-hour drive
Hike distance: 12.9 miles
Popularly known as Busse Woods, the 3,558-acre Ned Brown Forest Preserve boasts nearly 13 miles of paved trails through forest and marsh areas plus an elk pasture and one of the largest fishing, boating, and kayaking waters in Cook County. Shorter trail segments fan out from the main paved loop circling the Busse Reservoir, where there's no shortage of wildlife sightings and places to hike and unwind in ancient upland forests with beautiful water views.

Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area

Riverwoods, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 32 miles; 1-hour drive
Hike distance: 6.5 miles
This conservation area, also known as Ryerson Woods, provides a truly quiet escape from the city. Designated as both an Illinois Nature Preserve and a Historic District by the National Register of Historic Places, a trek here is rich in natural and cultural history. Forge your own path through the preserve's 561 acres of land or follow over 6.5 miles of hiking trails and boardwalks snaking past historic buildings, alongside the banks of the Des Plaines River, and through dense woodlands, all the while blocking out the noise of traffic and making it feel surprisingly removed from urban life. You might even spot sheep, goats, and chickens at the small farm area as well as a few butterflies fluttering around the rain gardens.

Swallow Cliff Woods

Palos Park, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 23.6 miles; .5-hour drive
Hike distance: 8.1 miles
This 800-acre nature preserve operated by the Cook County Forest Preserve District is probably best known for its 100-foot bluff and demanding limestone stair workout, but it also features a wealth of natural territory to explore. For an intermediate voyage, hit the 8.1-mile Yellow Unpaved Loop, a mixed-use gravel and stone trail through Sag Valley that departs from the Swallow Cliff Woods-South parking lot. The picturesque path winds through the 1,520-acre Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve—one of the most remote spots in Cook County complete with undisturbed wooded bluffs and ravines, wetlands, and idyllic prairies. You'll also pass through Teason’s Woods, Swallow Cliff Woods-North (with the famous Swallow Cliff Stairs), Palos Park Woods, and Paddock Woods. The hill climb between McClaughrey Springs Woods and Forty Acre Woods acts as an added challenge before arriving back at the south parking lot.

Moraine Hills State Park

McHenry, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 50.5 miles; 1-hour drive
Hike distance: 3.7 miles
Named after the term for a geologic formation deposited by a retreating glacier, almost half of Moraine Hills State Park's 2,200 acres is composed of wetlands and lakes. Fortunately, more than 10 miles of trails are well-suited for casual hikers, showcasing the park's scenic kettle-moraine topography and offering plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities. Start with the leisurely 3.7-mile Lake Defiance Trail, a crushed limestone loop that curves around Lake Defiance and the surrounding woodland. The glistening 48-acre lake in the heart of the park is one of the few glacial lakes in Illinois that's maintained its stunning near-natural state. 

Chicago Outerbelt

Greater Metropolitan Chicago
Distance from Chicago: Mileage and drive times vary depending on access point
Hike distance: 210 miles
The Chicago Outerbelt merges existing forest preserves and park land into one contiguous loop surrounding the entire Chicago metro area, producing a gloriously uninterrupted 210-mile nature trail. This hike extends from Buckingham Fountain downtown to the south suburbs, west to the Des Plaines River Trail, and up north to Lake County before circling back south via the Chicago lakefront. Along the way, you'll traverse natural habitats curated by the Chicago Park District, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and the Forest Preserves of Lake County, passing by some of the city's most popular attractions and scenic areas on foot. And hikers with a penchant for sleeping under the stars can reserve a spot or two at one of the preserve’s many campgrounds and take their time exploring the trail's unique wilderness and urban experiences from start to finish.

Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve

Darien, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 23.3 miles; .5-hour drive
Hike distance: 9.7 miles
The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County offers the perfect daytime trek through nearly 2,500-acres of prairies, savannas, and woodlands. Hikers can explore some of the preserve's most scenic areas via 11 miles of marked limestone- and turf-covered trails. The multi-use, crushed limestone Waterfall Glen Trail encircles the entire park, pausing atop a lofty vista overlooking the Des Plaines River as well as near a gentle waterfall (dart off the main path via the .2-mile Rocky Glen trail to track it down). As an added bonus, look out for short unmarked trails branching off the main path—they’ll guide you through a mesmerizing landscape formed by glacial movement during the last ice age.

Glacial Park

Ringwood, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 62.1 miles; 1.5-hour drive
Hike distance: 2.1 miles
Traverse the gravel hills (or kames), cattail marshes, and leatherleaf bogs left behind by ice age glaciers that once dominated this 400-acre nature preserve stationed amid 3,000 untouched acres. Part of the McHenry County Conservation District and Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, the park is one of the top five areas to view migratory wetland birds in the region. The two-mile Interpretive Nature Trail follows the Deerpath Trail loop—stock up on paired guidebooks for deeper insight into the region's plants, wildlife, geology, and history as you go. Other activities include hiking or horseback riding along more than eight miles of designated park trails, fishing the shoreline of Nippersink Creek, or cycling a five-mile portion of the 26-mile Prairie Trail skirting the park's eastern boundary.

Rock River at Castle Rock State Park
Rock River at Castle Rock State Park | Danita Delimont/Shutterstock

Castle Rock State Park

Oregon, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 104.3 miles; 2-hour drive
Hike distance: 7 miles
Witness sunset-colored sandstone bluffs, red-bellied woodpeckers, and swallows diving for insects while kayaking along the Rock River or bask in the solitude and spy on woodland animals while tackling any portion of this escape’s seven marked hiking trails. The park's many short, quiet, and epically scenic trails reward adventurers with fantastic views of the river as well as characteric rock formations, ravines, woodlands, and rolling topography best witnessed from atop the bluff overlook.

Lake County Forest Preserves: Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway

Wadsworth, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 52.1 miles (to north end of trail); 1-hour drive
Hike distance: 31.4 miles
While the North Branch Trail between Caldwell and Devon Avenues and the Chicago Botanic Garden is deservedly revered, the Des Plaines River Trail winding along its namesake river is an exceptional Chicagoland feat for hikers and bikers alike. The 31-mile stretch passes through both the Forest Preserves of Cook County and the Lake County Forest Preserves. Spanning Lake County from Lake Cook Road to the Illinois-Wisconsin border, you'll wind through 12 forest preserves and can choose a portion to hike based on your scenic interests with plenty of path access points, parking, and additional connecting trails along the way. Bridges and underpasses along the gravel path help avoid busy roadways for uninterrupted trail time through woodlands, meadows, savannas, lakes, and wetlands.

Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes National Park | Matthew J Patenaude/Shutterstock

Indiana Dunes National Park

Chesterton, Indiana
Distance from Chicago: 46 miles; 1-hour drive
Hike distance: 3.4 miles (plus 0.9-mile Dunes Succession Hike)
Stroll the sandy Indiana Dunes National Park via the moderate three-loop West Beach Trails to experience what Carl Sandburg deemed the "Grand Canyon of the Midwest." Climb mountainous dunes, wind through secluded forests, skirt an ancient marsh, and end within a stone-skipping distance of Lake Michigan's majestic coastline, which showcases the Chicago skyline from across the way. Tack on the 0.9-mile Dunes Succession Hike for epic views of the lakeshore. The park is rife with additional easy-going and challenging trails like the Calumet Dunes Trail and Cowles Bog Trail, allowing trekkers ample opportunities to explore the shoreline dunescape, shaded hollows, and boggy wetlands.

Lasalle Falls at Starved Rock State Park
Lasalle Falls at Starved Rock State Park | Jason Patrick Ross/Shutterstock

Starved Rock State Park

Oglesby, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 93 miles; 2-hour drive
Hike distance: 4.7 miles
This state park's 18 beautiful canyons, many of which feature enchanting waterfalls, and more than 13 miles of trails definitely warrant a visit. You'll want to budget plenty of time to explore the dramatic cliffs and rock formations (like the park's namesake 125-foot butte overlooking the river) and moss-covered stone walls formed by glacial meltwater, which slice through sandstone bluffs. The Illinois Canyon Trail (9.4 miles out and back) is one of the only untouched trails in the park (no man-made walkways or stairs here). And after a heavy rain, you'll not only discover a waterfall at the trail's end, but also up to five other smaller waterfalls along the way.

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie | Ken Schulze/Shutterstock

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Wilmington, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 50.6 miles; 1-hour drive
Hike distance: 3.5 miles
This nationally protected tallgrass prairie area (pronounced "mi-DAY-win")—which became the country’s first designated National Tallgrass Prairie in 1996 and remains under the watchful eye of the U.S. Forest Service—is an ever-popular spot for biking, hiking, and bison-watching. In 2015, bison were reintroduced to the prairie, so many visit to see the herd grazing in their restored natural habitat alongside a menagerie of wildflowers, insects, and birds. The grassland offers 22 miles of multi-use trails shared by hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders, plus another 12 for hikers only (and the flat terrain makes it especially appealing to beginners). Follow the breezy 3.5-mile Group 63 loop through the serene expanses of the prairie for a chance to see the bison roaming up close (pro tip: bring binoculars) and even scope out retired army bunkers used to store ammunition during WWII.

Joliet Iron Works Historic Site

Joliet, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 40.1 miles; 1-hour drive
Hike distance: .59 miles of paved historic site trail; also provides access to the 7.57-mile, crushed limestone/paved I&M Canal Trail
This short paved trail weaving through the ruins of the Joliet Iron and Steel Works—once the second-largest steel mill in the U.S.—provides a fascinating perspective on the iron and steel production process from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. After taking over the 52-acre site in the 1990s, the Forest Preserve District of Will County installed signage along the route, so hikers can take a self-guided interpretive tour of structures from the dismantled factory. Visitors can opt to lengthen their stay by hopping onto the nearby Illinois and Michigan Canal Trail, which stretches 7.57 miles from the iron works north through Lockport to Romeoville, where it connects to the Centennial Trail.

Matthiessen State Park
Matthiessen State Park | Nicola Patterson/Shutterstock

Matthiessen State Park

Utica, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 95.9 miles; 2-hour drive
Hike distance: 3.2 miles
Next door to the popular Starved Rock State Park, you'll find similar glacier-carved geological wonders and lush forests minus all the crowds at this nearly 2,000-acre state park. Five miles of well-marked trails—the upper area and bluff tops are categorized as easy while the interior trails of the two dells are designated as more challenging—wind through the unexpected Midwest landscape and lead to big payoffs like scenic views of the Vermilion River and cascading waterfalls with impressive drops. Hike the upper and lower dells via the Dells Canyon and Bluff Trails and make your way along steep drop-offs and through deep, jaw-dropping canyons before cooling off in the creek and under the Cascade Falls.

Kankakee River at Kankakee River State Park
Kankakee River at Kankakee River State Park | Mark Baldwin/Shutterstock

Kankakee River State Park

Bourbonnais, Illinois
Distance from Chicago: 60 miles; 1-hour drive
Hike distance: 3 miles
Outdoor enthusiasts find this park's abundant wildlife and naturally channeled river unsurpassed and it's long been a popular destination for fishing, canoeing, hiking, and camping. The 4,000-acre park and trail system run along both sides of an 11-mile stretch of the Kankakee River. Hiking, biking, and cross-country ski trails skirt the river's north side while those to the south are tailor made for horseback riders and snowmobilers. The three-mile, partly paved Rock Creek Trail follows the eponymous creek through wooded bluffs and limestone canyons on the way to a frothy waterfall. Trail-goers looking for more of a challenge can also embark on a moderate 10.6-mile path along the mostly tree-covered banks of the river with hill climbs on the west end of the trail.

Nicole Bruce is a contributing writer for Thrillist. She's explored trails in all landscapes from Yosemite National Park to Mt. Kilimanjaro and still appreciates breaking in her boots on hiking paths in the Midwest. Follow her on the Twitter trail at @nicoleabruce.
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