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Best Chicagoland Nature Trails

September 6, 2011 3:00 PM

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Chicago Botanic

(credit: chicagobotanic.org)

The arrival of fall means the days of lounging at the beach are just about over. There’s more to the outdoors than sand and waves, however, and the changing leaves mean it’s just about time to head out among the forests, rivers and native wildlife. Along with more colorful scenery, the cooler temps also mean less sweat, so skip the gym and get some free exercise on one of Chicagoland’s many nature trails. Here’s a rundown of some of the best of the area’s walkable outdoors.

Busse Woods

(credit: bussewoods.net)

Busse Woods Trail System

E. Higgins Rd. & Arlington Heights Rd.
Elk Grove Village, IL
bussewoods.net

Busse Woods, aka the Ned Brown Preserve, is 3,700 acres large and surrounds Busse Lake. The main trail loop is eight miles long, with a total of over 11 miles of paved trails throughout. Weekends can be crowded, but there’s plenty to see off the beaten path. Not the least of which is the resident elk herd (they don’t call it Elk Grove for nothing).

Chicago Botanic

(credit: chicagobotanic.org)

Chicago Botanic Garden

1000 Lake Cook Rd.
Glencoe, IL
847.835.5440
chicagobotanic.org

For those who prefer quality of scenery over mileage, a stroll around the multifaceted Botanic Garden will not disappoint. For visuals, take your pick. There’s the Bonsai Walk, Sculpture Walk, the Crescent Garden, the Shoreline Walk, the October Fall-Color Tree Walk, and more. Visitors may sign up for a field walk, or wander blissfully on their own.

Grant Park

(credit: explorechicago.org)

Grant Park

Randolph St. & Columbus Dr.
Chicago, IL
312.742.7648
explorechicago.org

Even those who work in the Loop often forget that there’s a big park with lots to see and do just blocks away. For those who only visit Grant Park during special events, it’s certainly worth the occasional visit on a random nice day. After a particularly stressful workday, take an hour to walk it off among the gardens and greenery for a therapeutic time out before heading home.

Greene Valley

(credit: dupageforest.com)

Greene Valley County Forest Preserve

Greene Road & 79th
Naperville, IL
630.933.7248
dupageforest.com

Greene Valley consists of over 1400 acres and 11 miles of trails winding through woodlands, savannas and wetlands. A hike to the top of the Greene Valley hill (yes, a former garbage heap) reveals a stellar view of the Chicago skyline and the surrounding landscape. Binoculars are recommended for watching birds and other wildlife.

North Branch Trail

6300 W. Devon
Chicago, IL
fpdcc.com

To avoid the busy lakefront and see a lot more autumn leaves, the North Branch Trail is the way to go. Instead of the lake, you’ll have the north branch of the Chicago River at your side, and you can stick to the trail all the way to the Botanical Gardens in Glencoe.

Sag Valley

(credit: fpdcc.com)

Sag Valley Trail System

Kean Ave. & Route 83
Palos Park, IL
708.366.9420
fpdcc.com

Runner’s World magazine recently named the Palos/Sag Valley trails one of the 25 best jogging trails in America. City dwellers should find it worth the 45 minute drive from downtown to spend most of a day exploring Sag Valley, but make sure it hasn’t rained in the past day or so, as the trails can be muddy.

Thorn Creek

(credit: villageofparkforest.com)

Thorn Creek Nature Center & Preserve

247 Monee Rd.
Park Forest, IL
708.747.6320
villageofparkforest.com

You’ll see plenty of egrets, blue heron, frogs and deer over the 3.5 miles of trails winding through the nearly 1,000 acres of woodlands, white oak forest and pine plantations that surround Thorn Creek and Owl Lake. The terrain can be rugged and, due to the sensitive natural resources, dogs are not allowed in the preserve.

Waterfall Glen

(credit: dupageforest.com)

Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve

Cass & Northgate Rd.
Darien, IL
630.933.7200
dupageforest.com

The total acreage of Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve is an impressive 2,472, and the main trail loops around the park for a distance of nearly 10 miles. The hiking paths branch out into a variety of routes, allowing for choice in scenery. Signage is minimal and water fountains are relatively scarce, so arrive prepared and remain well-oriented when exploring. The wetlands here mean lots of cool frogs for the kids to check out.

Greg Wahl is a Chicagoan, a freelancer, a grad student, and a seeker of all things awesome & interesting throughout the city and beyond.

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