We’ll admit, a Chicago winter can be tough. But, a dose of fresh air, unforgettable scenery and a chance to spy on animals in their natural habitat is a guaranteed day of wintry family fun. We scoured the city in search of the most popular hiking spots that’ll have you lacing up your boots, strapping an infant to your back and exploring. These are our top trails that range from under a mile to seemingly endless.
Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve
Hikers, bikers and stroller jockeys (even cross-country skiers) can take advantage of this 2,492-acre forest preserve created 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 that include overlooks and a man-made waterfall. Fishing is offered in several old quarries scattered throughout the preserve. Model-aircraft enthusiasts will be delighted by the large open field in the southwest section that attracts RC aircraft owners, which oftentimes means a free show.
Cass Ave. & Northgate Rd., Darien; Online: dupageforest.com
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 water wheel 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., Oak Brook; dupageforest.com
Little Red Schoolhouse 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 renovated nature center with year-round turtle pond and a children’s activity room and a 19th-century one-room schoolhouse with interactive displays are great places to rest tiny legs. Note: As of press time, the grounds are open but exhibit buildings remain closed.
9800 Willow Springs Rd., Willow Springs; Online: fpdcc.com
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., Downers Grove; dupageforest.com
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.
As a reward for braving the winter months, you'll get to see the eagles that have temporarily relocated from Canada.
1010-1048 E. State Rte. 71, Ottawa; starvedrockstatepark.org
Combine hiking with playtime for the kids at Morton Arboretum. Its 1,700 acres offer 16 miles of paved and wood-chipped walking paths that make for a great intro to hiking. While you're there, hunt for the unusual creatives of Troll Hunt that have emerged from the woods, meadows and vast open spaces. Each is made of reclaimed wood and measures 15- to 20-feet-tall. Enjoy these guardians of the forest, who are trying to make sense of the human world and make us think about our impacts on the planet.
4100 IL Rte 53, Lisle; Online: mortonarb.org
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 waterfowl and areas for picnicking and camping.
100 Preserve Rd., Shabbona; Online: shabbonalake.com
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 bullfrogs and cattails..
S91W39091 State Rd. 59, Eagle, WI; Online: dnr.wi.gov
Fermilab is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory best known for high-energy particle physics research. As traverse the 1,000 acres of restored tallgrass prairie that surrounds the tallest building, the uniquely shaped Wilson Hall, it's hard to believe that you're likely standing upon what was once the most powerful particle accelerator in the world.
Hike or bike the quarter-mile-long Margaret Pearson Interpretive Trail which connects to several miles of trails through woodland, restored oak savanna and tallgrass prairie. You'll likely encounter animal life along the way: the lab's grounds are home to eastern tiger salamanders, Baltimore orioles and great spangled fritillary, large orange butterflies with black markings. Pause at the Bison Pasture and Viewing area, which overlooks an 80-acre pasture populated by the lab's very own herd of buffalo.
Pine Street and Kirk Road, Batavia; Online: fnal.gov
Got a dino-lover in the home? Trek on over to Lemont, where the lush Sagawau Canyon, the only such landform in northeastern Illinois, will transport you to the days of the dinosaurs.
Located in the valley of the Des Plaines River, the exposed dolomite rock the gorge is carved through is likely the reason why biodiversity rules this smaller scale canyon. The ferns, hairy rockcress and ninebark thrive in this rock-rich environment and create a backdrop that appears more Jurassic Park and less suburban Chicago. Keep your eyes on the lookout for the many canyon residents which include blue-spotted salamanders, eastern tiger salamanders, mudpuppies, map turtles, soft-shell turtles, milk snakes, green snakes, flying squirrels, minks, long-tailed weasels, beavers, gray and red foxes.
12545 111th St., Lemont; Online: fpdcc.com
North Park Nature Village
North Park Nature Village, a 46-acre nature preserve, offers a big breath of fresh air in the middle of the city.
The best part of this trail is that it provides a beautiful snapshot of Illinois' diverse flora and fauna, carrying hikers through wetlands, tallgrass prairie land, forests and even oak savanna. Wood ducks, geese, garden snakes, painted turtles, deer, raccoons, foxes, bullfrogs, kingfishers, crayfish, and great blue herons all call this corner of the city home. Step atop the observational area, raised up from the Main Loop trail about halfway along the wetlands, where you'll have a better view of the stunning native landscape.
During non-COVID times, visit the Nature Center's Discovery room. You'll find a hands-on table of natural objects, and the other interactive exhibits.
5801 North Pulaski Rd., Chicago; Online: chicagoparkdistrict.com
— Amy Bizzarri & Maria Chambers
Featured photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash