Best Winter Hikes Near Chicago

December 19, 2015 2:00 PM

Winter hiking has its advantages: biting insects aren’t a bother, screaming toddlers in strollers are a less likely occurrence, and there won’t be waves of inconsiderate chatterboxes on their cell phones. In fact, it’s probably the best time of the year to experience that wonderful soft silence of nature that can get you out of your head and into the moment. Serenity, and a nice little workout, is just a drive away.

(Photo Credit: Illinois Department of Natural Resources)

(Photo Credit: Illinois Department of Natural Resources)

Matthiessen State Park
North Utica, IL 61373
(815) 667-4868

Travel just a couple more miles from Illinois’ popular Starved Rock State Park and you’ll find Matthiessen State Park, which can resemble an other-worldly region in the winter. Canyons, icy streams, oddly shaped  rock formations, cool anticlines and frozen waterfalls are bright and clear and even a little creepy without any vegetation to mar the view. In-the-know winter hikers adore the solitude here that begs for a thermos of hot tea or coffee as your only companion. The five miles of well-marked hiking trails offers routes appropriate for beginning and experienced hikers.

Moraine Hills State Park
1510 S. River Road
McHenry, IL
(815) 385-1624

The hills, ridges and kettle glacially carved into this northwest suburban state park not only lend interesting visuals in the summer, but the undulating geography helps to block those pesky winter winds when hiking. The 1,700- acre park offers a visitors center, boardwalk and more than 10 miles of well maintained trails among the kettle-moraine topography:  the two-mile Fox River Trail is relatively flat and offers a observation area to eye birds and the winter skeletons of cattails; the 3.2-mile Leatherleaf Bog Trail that snakes around a natural bog and offers gradual hills; and the 3.7-mile Lake Defiance Trail winding around its namesake lake with just a bit of elevation.

(Photo Credit:

(Photo Credit:

Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve
Cass and Northgate Roads
Darien, IL 60561
(630) 933-7200

Southern DuPage County’s Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien has 11 miles of trails ranging from flat a a pancake to moderate and difficult level trails with features like ravines and ridges. Those with seriously strong quadriceps and hamstrings will want to tackle a few of the tough hills. Trails are well mapped along the way and orienteering points can make it more of an adventure. You’ll be hiking around the perimeter of Argonne National Laboratory — imagine that!

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Glacial Park Conservation Area
6313 Harts Road
Ringwood, IL 60072
(815) 338-6223

The pristine  3,400-acre tract, part of the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, offers miles of hiking over frozen creeks and delta kames — cone-shaped hills created by glacial streams some 12,000 or so years ago. Break out the thermos and recording device at the high point as you spy the naked rolling Illinois prairie unfolded before you. The Visitors Center serves as a warming respite, and you might consider bringing gear for cross-country ski trails, snowmobile trails or the sledding hill.

Morton Arboretum
4100 Illinois Route 53
Lisle, IL 60532
(630) 968-0074 

A speedy 25 miles from the center of Chicago, Morton Arboretum is all about trees (obviously), and that can still be glorious in the winter. The 1,700-acre site is open every single day and offers nature-related activities year-round for all ages. But why not just take a hike among the 16 miles of trails around Meadow Lake, through the thickly forested Heritage Trail or completely off trail to see what’s around nature’s corner. The Visitor’s Center or Ginkgo Cafe provide a place to warm up after your ambulatory adventure. 

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Jacky Runice has been a columnist with the Daily Herald Chicago since grunge music and flannel was the new black. Her fingers and gray matter have been busy as travel editor of Reunions Magazine; penning a column that was syndicated around the nation via Tribune Media Services. Her work can be found at