You could hang out in the urban jungle all summer and never run out of family fun. But how about adding fresh air, unforgettable scenery and a chance to spy on animals in their natural habitat? We scoured the city in search of the most popular hiking spots that’ll have you lacing up your boots, grabbing your kids (even strapping an infant to your back!) and exploring. These are our top trails that range from under a mile to seemingly endless.
photo: Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve courtesy of Eva Cristescu via flickr
Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve
Hikers, bikers, and stroller jockeys (even cross-country skiers after those first snowflakes fall) can take advantage of this 2,492-acre forest preserve created long ago by meltaways from the Wisconsin Glacier. Adventure seekers can trek as many as 11 miles of limestone and turf-covered routes via four mapped trails through Waterfall Glen’s most scenic areas which includes overlooks and a man-made waterfall. Fishing is offered in several old quarries scattered throughout the preserve and a large open field in the southwest section is a popular destination for local model-aircraft enthusiasts, so be sure the munchkins pack their RC aircraft – or take in a free show from others who did.
Cass Ave. & Northgate Rd.
What was once a Civilian Conservation Corps Camp is now an urban wildlife haven that plays host to a variety of animals with the original visitor center and several of the shelters still standing. Fullersburg maintains two trails manageable for families to hike or bike. A 1.3-mile interpretive trail follows Salt Creek through lowland woods and restored prairies and includes information on DuPage’s natural history. Along a half-mile trail, you’ll find Graue Mill Museum where you can show the kiddos the only working waterwheel grist mill in the Chicago area and see milling, spinning and weaving demonstrations. York Tavern is accessible from the paths and makes for a fun refueling detour.
3609 Spring Rd.
photo: Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center via Brent W. on Yelp
Little Red School House Nature Center
Trails once traveled by students making their way to school are now traversed by hikers looking to enjoy the three miles of woodland, prairie and wetland trails. A newly renovated nature center with year-round turtle pond and a children’s activity room and a 19th century one-room schoolhouse with historical and interactive displays are great places to rest tiny legs and keep the attention of toddlers.
9800 Willow Springs Rd.
Maple Grove is the largest remaining remnant of the vast maple forest that became present day Downers Grove and is both a rare historic forest and a valuable natural area. Categorized as a globally endangered ecosystem, this preserve has multipurpose and interpretative trails where hikers can appreciate wildflowers and hundreds of plant species, some of which are threatened or endangered. If the spectacular flora color show isn’t enough to maintain the attention of little hikers, the variety of birds and the great-horned owl will draw them into this migratory bird stopover. Visitors are welcome to bring their own grills to expand the hike into a fun family picnic.
Lee Ave. & Gilbert Ave.
Starved Rock State Park
No matter the age or abilities of your hiking buddies, Starved Rock is a uniquely beautiful destination that offers oodles of family fun. With just over 13 miles of well-marked trails to explore, fishing in the Illinois River and waterfalls in 14 of the 18 canyons, there’s enough to keep the family entertained for hours – or an entire weekend if you choose to bunk at Starved Rock Lodge. The best time to experience the waterfalls is in the spring when the snow and ice melt or after a heavy rainfall. However, Starved Rock is a place that can and should be seen during all four seasons because it takes on a completely different, but equally stunning, look in fall and winter than in spring and summer.
1010-1048 E. State Rte. 71
Shabbona State Park
Just under 70 miles west of Chicago, urban sprawl gives way to 1,550 acres of rolling prairie that provides a natural haven from the daily hustle and bustle. In addition to just over eight easily-navigated miles of scenic hiking and cross-country skiing trails that weave through wooded areas, Shabbona features a 318-acre man-made fishing lake, 15-acre seasonal nesting area for migratory water fowl and areas for picnicking and camping.
100 Preserve Rd.
Combine hiking with lots of opportunity for playtime at Morton Arboretum. Their 1,700 acres offer 16 miles of paved and wood-chipped walking paths that make for a great intro to hiking for the babes. A stop into the Children’s Garden to visit the secret streams, maze and wooden playground structure will leave the kids begging to come back for more. This summer, the walks are made even more special with Morton’s Trolls exhibit, which features sweet creatures made of reclaimed wood and measuring 15- to 20-feet-tall. Plan your hike to coincide with Thursday Family Nights, June 14- August 16 (5 p.m.-8 p.m.), where live live music, kid-friendly fare and entertainment make for the perfect nightcap to a family date.
4100 IL Rte 53
Kettle Moraine State Forest
Thanks to the Wisconsin Glacier over 10,000 years ago, this beautiful playground for outdoor adventurers exists. Kettle Moraine consists of 6 units that display a variety of ecosystems with everything from lakes to bogs and rivers to swamps and activities that range from bird watching that can be done from the comfort of a stroller to mountain biking. There are several fire towers that can be climbed to get expansive views of the area and beaches for swimming, fishing and exploring. While the number of trails is expansive, there are quite a few half-mile trails that are home to bull frogs and cattails which are perfect for little ones just lacing up their first pair of hiking boots.
S91W39091 State Rd. 59
What is YOUR favorite place to hike with the tykes? Let us know in the Comments!
— Maria Chambers