Summer is calling you outdoors. You are already looking at the calendar to see when you can get away. If you don’t have a lot of time and you want to spend it out among forests and geographical points of interest, consider backpacking through state parks and forests wit in a few hours of Chicago. Just remember that if you haven’t been working our or hiking for a while, you need to build up strength to carry that backpack further than your car. Even a small tent plus sleeping bag food, water, change of clothes, flashlight, batteries, first aid kit and medicines, camera and compass add up to weight you don’t normally heft. You also ought to build up endurance with exercise and hikes. Look for good scenic trails close enough to Chicago such as those listed here so you won’t spend the day driving. Reserve your camping spot and head out this spring to one of these scenic spots near the city.
Kettle Moraine State Forest Southern Unit
W7796 Kettle Moraine Drive
Between Dousman and Whitewater, WI 53190
(262) 473-7501 and (888) 947-2757
Kettle Moraine State Forest, with a Southern Unit about 100 miles north of Chicago in Wisconsin, is all about glacial formations mixed with forests, lakes and prairies. Within its more than 20,000 acres are several trails and camping facilities. There is the 30 mile long (north-south) Ice Age National Scenic Trail and a couple of challenging trails in the Emma Carlin System which has the moderate to hard Orange Loop that includes a scenic overlook and its extension (Green Loop) that makes it hard. The John Muir Trail System has several loops ranging from moderate to hard to difficult. The southern unit is really popular in summer, so reserve an overnight spot as soon as possible using the 888 number. Click here for campgrounds.
Chain O’ Lakes State Park
8916 Wilmot Road
Spring Grove, IL 60081
The state park is 60 miles northwest of Chicago in a water recreation region. Four trails wind through Chain O’ Lakes State Park and, as the park’s name implies, the trails pass marshland and lakes. The state park borders Nippersink, Marie and Grass Lakes and the Fox River. The longest trail is eight miles and is also an equestrian path. Another trail of six miles is shared with bikes. There is also a 44-acre lake in the park. Chain O’Lakes State Park is a popular outdoor recreation destination with several campsites, so reservations are less likely to be a problem here.
Apple River Canyon State Park
8763 E. Canyon Road
Apple River, IL 61001
Spread from north to south across the central part of Jo Daviess County, Apple River Canyon State Park is a gorgeous retreat from city life a little over two hours northwest of Chicago. The Apple River head waters are in Wisconsin just north of Illinois, then the river carves impressive geographical formations as it flows south. You might see fossils that became exposed as the river cut through the stone. The park has five trails: Primrose, River, Pine Ridge, Sunset and Tower Rock. Unlike the other state parks mentioned, this is about roughing it. There are water stations, but just pit toilets and no showers. To reserve a campground site, click here
Related: Best Hiking Trails In Chicago
Starved Rock State Park
Illinois Highway 71 at County Highway 178
2668 E. 875th Road
Oglesby, IL 61348
Yes Starved Rock State Park, a National Historic Landmark about 90 minutes southwest of Chicago, drew about two millions of visitors in 2015, so you will find others on the trails. But the park is beautiful. On the south bank of the Illinois River, it has 13 miles of trails, 18 canyons and several waterfalls. You will find fewer visitors and a more challenging hike if you do the interior canyon paths of the LaSalle and Tonty Trails. Staying in the campground here is not roughing it; there are Class A facilities. Reservations are made though ReserveAmerica.com, the same as for Apple River Canyon. Best plan is to reserve a camp site as soon as you know your dates.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
Indiana Dunes Visitors Center
I215 Indiana Hwy 49
Porter, IN 46304
219-926-2255 and 219-395-1882
Enjoy Lake Michigan from another perspective about 30 miles south east on the other side of Gary Indiana at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The national park has several entrances, so start at the Indiana Dunes National Park’s visitor center to get trail maps and discuss where to camp and enter. The national park has more than 45 miles of trails that go through forests and prairies, along rivers and Lake Michigan and up dunes and by wetlands. With the exception of West Beach, entrances are free. Camping at this national park is on a first-come basis, not by reservation. So go early in the day to get a site. The national park is next to the Indiana Dunes State Park, which does charge fees. The visitors center also has information on the state park trails and camping sites. Campgrounds at the state park are reserved ahead of time through Reserve America.com.
Jodie Jacobs is a veteran journalist who loves writing about Chicago, art, theater, museums and travel. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.