Okay, so we don’t have any national parks. We don’t have any mountains. We don’t even have any hills worth mentioning. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have some marvelous places to hike in the Chicago area. These five hikes are all within 50 miles of the Loop and — unlike some of those mountainous national park hikes — are all easy to moderate difficulty.
Chicago Lakeshore Path
Chicago Park District
541 N. Fairbanks
Chicago, IL 60601
We may not have actual mountains, but we have skyscrapers, and the Lakeshore Path is a great place to get some views of these man-made mountains. It’s also a great place for people watching, especially in the summer when it rivals LA’s Venice Beach boardwalk as the place where beautiful people go to be seen. The path stretches 10 miles along Lake Michigan from 31st Street to Montrose Harbor, though there is a break in the middle between Navy Pier and the intersection of Michigan Avenue and East Wacker. Parking is available at Montrose Harbor (this lot is often full on summer weekends) and the 31st Street Beach.
Moraine Hills State Park
1510 S. River Road
McHenry, IL 60051
Moraines are hills formed by the debris left by retreating glaciers, in this case, the Wisconsin Glacier, which covered northeast Illinois with a sheet of ice until about 10,000 years ago. Shortly after that, Native Americans moved into this area of small rolling hills and wetlands and it has been a popular place for hiking ever since. The Red Trail loops for 3.7 miles around Lake Defiance, the 48-acre lake in the center of the park that was formed when a big chunk of ice broke away from the glacier and melted. The Blue Trail is a 3.2-mile loop around the Leatherleaf Bog, a 120-acre area that’s great for bird watching. Coyotes, foxes, deer, opossums and raccoons are among the other creatures visitors might encounter.
Joliet Iron Works
Joliet, IL 60432
This short paved trail winds among the ruins of the Joliet Iron and Steel Works, at one time the second-largest steel mill in the United States. It was in operation from 1869 to the early 1980s. The Forest Preserve District of Will County acquired the 52-acre site in the 1990s and installed interpretive signs along the trail route that explain the purpose of the various buildings at the site, providing a fascinating look at the iron and steel production process. The Joliet Iron Works trail also provides access to the 11-mile I&M Canal Trail, which stretches from the iron works north to the Romeoville Prairie Nature Preserve.
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I-55 at the Cass Ave. Exit
Darien, IL 60561
This 9.5-mile trail encircles the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory facility, where some of the nation’s top scientists are engaged in cutting-edge research. Fortunately, you only need Einstein’s body, not his brain, to enjoy this DuPage County Forest Preserve near Darien. There is a small waterfall here, but the area actually is named after Seymour “Bud” Waterfall, an early president of the forest preserve district’s board of commissioners. Nevertheless, the waterfall is one of the preserve’s popular features. It’s accessible by the Rocky Glen trail, a 1/5 of a mile branch off the main trail.
35W076 Villa Maria Road
St. Charles, IL 60175
The fabulous Fox River provides the scenic backdrop for this three-mile hike through a forest of oak and maple trees. The Catholic Sisters of Mercy operated a spiritual retreat center here for eight decades and it’s still a wonderful place to commune with nature and, if you’re so inclined, ponder divine mysteries. The sisters sold the land to the Kane County Forest Preserve District in 1992 and asked that it be named in honor of Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk who lived in the 17th century and became a saint in 2012. Hikers can take the Fox River Trail bridge across the river to the Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin and enjoy a two-mile ride through the forest preserve and along the Fox River aboard a renovated electric trolley.
Dennis D. Jacobs is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in scores of newspapers and magazines and on multiple websites. For the past four years, he has been the Chicago International Travel Examiner for Examiner.com. He lives in west suburban Chicago.