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Indiana Dunes
Photograph: Courtesy Indiana Dunes TourismIndiana Dunes

The 17 best places for hiking near Chicago

Looking for gorgeous spots to go hiking near Chicago? Try these urban adventures, nearby state parks and more.

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Written by
Zach Long
&
Grace Perry
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Ready to embrace the great outdoors? Our city doesn't boast nearby mountains like Seattle or San Francisco, but what the Midwest lacks in elevation it makes up for in natural beauty. Head to the city's Northwest Side to go for a walk on the North Branch Trail, go west to trek through the suburbs on the Illinois Prairie Path Trail or cross state lines to visit the gorgeous Indiana Dunes along Lake Michigan, or tackle the sprawling 30-mile Ice Age Trail at Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin. If you're tired of dodging strollers on the 606 and doing laps around Chicago parks, it's time to step onto one of the best spots for hiking near Chicago.

RECOMMENDED: Hit the road on more day trips from Chicago

Best hiking near Chicago

Located on the south bank of the Illinois River in LaSalle County, Starved Rock offers 13 miles of well established trails winding through 18 canyons, with views of gorgeous waterfalls and rock formations (including the 125-foot butte overlooking the river that gives the park its name). Guided hikes are available year-round, or you can set out exploring at your own pace.

Travel time: 90 min drive

Entry fee: Free

Nestled on the northwest (and only) shore of Indiana, this National Natural Landmark offers spectacular views of Lake Michigan. The park encompasses over 2,000 acres of shoreline, comprised of hiking trails and, of course, sand dunes. Chicago native and poet Carl Sandburg called the Indiana Dunes “to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and Yosemite is to California.” Just a short drive or train ride from downtown Chicago, it’s an easy day trip from the city.

Travel time: 1 hr drive, 90 min on South Shore Line

Entry fee: $7 in-state vehicles, $12 out-of-state vehicles

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West of the city in southern DuPage County, this nearly 2,500-acre preserve surrounding Argonne National Labs has 11 miles of mapped trails shared by hikers, cyclists, horseback riders and, when weather permits, cross-country skiers. Hikers can also explore a handful of unmarked foot paths, and licensed fishers can try their luck in a number of old quarries scattered throughout the area.

Travel time: 30 min drive

Entry fee: Free

This 19,000-acre National Forest Service prairie south of Joliet attracted new attention in 2015 with the reintroduction of bison to the land, with visitor numbers rising for the chance to see the herd in its natural habitat. Midewin has about 22 miles of mixed-use trails shared by hikers, cyclists and horseback riders, and another 12 for hikers only.

Travel time: 1 hr drive

Entry fee: Free

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The Kankakee River has been a treasured area for centuries, occupied by the Illini and Miami tribes in the 17th century. The park itself surrounds the river for about 11 miles, totaling to 4,000 acres of protected land. It’s popular spot for fishing, canoeing, hiking and mushroom hunting (yep), and includes campgrounds with cabins, electricity and more amenities available.

Travel time: 1 hr drive

Entry fee: Free

With paths that wind around Lake Defiance and the surrounding woodland, Moraine Hills State Park offers more than 10 miles of trails that are fit for casual hikers. Named for the stones and boulders that were deposited throughout the area thousands of years ago when a glacier retreated, this McHenry Park is also a popular place for boating and fishing. Take the 3.7-mile Lake Defiance Trail to admire the sights, or opt for one of the shorter trails if you're pressed for time.

Travel time: 90 min drive

Entry fee: Free

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Get yourself to Gompers Park and you'll be minutes away from the North Branch Trail, which winds north through forests in Nile, Skokie, Morton Grove and Winnetka. It's a popular path for bikers (since it's paved), but hikers are welcome, too. You can trek 16 miles to the Skokie Lagoons or just as far as Morton Grove to get pizza at Burt's Place or Pequod's.

Travel time: 20 min drive

Entry fee: Free

Note: Advance, date-specific, timed-entry online member passes and visitor tickets are now required. 

This nature preserve in west suburban Lisle boasts an incredibly complex landscape, with more than 4,000 catalogued species of trees and plants. Explore them on 16 miles of paved and wood-chipped trails. In the summer and fall, Morton Arboretum is also a frequent venue for Theatre-Hikes, which offers ambulatory outdoor performances.

Travel time: 45 min drive, 90 mins via Metra

Entry fee: $14 adults, $12 seniors, $9 ages 2–17

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There are two sections of Kettle Moraine State Forest, one to the north of Milwaukee and the other to the southwest. To keep the drive from Chicago to a minimum, we recommend the latter of the two options. The Southern Unit of the Wisconsin State Forest is packed with trails that run through pine forests and prairies. You'll find paths of varying lengths, including a short 1.25-mile jaunt on the John Muir Trail System or—if you're up for a challenge—a 30-mile section of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Travel time: 2 hr drive

Entry fee: $8–$15 daily vehicle admission sticker required

You can thank the glaciers for which this park was named for creating the pair of hills (a.k.a. kames) that hikers can scale, offering some great views of the surrounding area. The rest of the five-mile trail at Glacial Park isn't particularly challenging, but there are interesting sights along the way, including an oak savanna and bogs.

Travel time: 80 min drive

Entry fee: Free

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Just over the Wisconsin border between Lake Geneva and Kenosha, this swath of greenspace was originally intended to be a jet fighter base. When those plans fell through, the area was opened for recreation, where anyone can enjoy the lakes, prairie landscape and campsites. Hikers can tackle a 16-mile network of trails, including an 8.3-mile jaunt that passes through hills and wetlands.

Travel time: 90 min drive

Entry fee: A vehicle admission sticker ($8–$38) is required to enter the park.

Not to be confused with the fictional Maine town where Stephen King novels are sometime set, Castle Rock State Park is named for a sandstone butte near the Rock River. It's a bit of a drive from Chicago, but the landscape is a welcome break from a flat urban expanse. A series of interconnected loop trails provide about six miles of hiking, with several overlooks that give you sweeping views of your surroundings along the way.

Travel time: 2 hr drive

Entry fee: Free

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Nestled just south of Starved Rock, this 1,700-acre tract boasts forest, prairie, canyons and other rock formations. It’s centered on the Vermillion River and features five miles of hiking trails plus nine miles of biking and equestrian trails. Originally known as Deer Park, this reserve remains home to a large population of white-tailed deer thanks to its mineral springs that create salt licks for the fauna.

Travel time: 90 min drive

Entry fee: Free

The first rails-to-trails project in the United States, this network of trails runs through many of Chicago's west suburbs. Enter the path in Maywood (just west of Forest Park where the CTA Blue Line ends) and head 16 miles west to Wheaton, where the path splits into branches that go to Elgin, Aurora, Batavia and Geneva. If you don't feel like hiking all the way home, it's pretty easy to catch the Metra back to the Loop.

Travel time: 20 min drive

Entry fee: Free

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Acquired in 1916, the Cook County Forest Preserve District's oldest property includes wetlands and prairies in the eastern half and denser woodlands in the west. The parcel in northwest suburban Palatine has four miles of paved trails and 10 more unpaved, the latter popular with both hikers and mountain bikers.

Travel time: 1 hr drive

Entry fee: Free

A plan that began in 1980 was finally completed in 2015, when the last leg of this trail was opened to make a continuous 31.5-mile dirt and gravel path, traversing Lake County from north to south along the namesake river. The northern half of the trail offers a little more visual interest, crossing through a series of forest preserves.

Travel time: 30 min drive

Entry fee: Free

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Better known as Busse Woods to residents of Elk Grove Village and Schaumburg, the trails that wind through this forest preserve offer views of the gigantic Busse Lake (a popular spot for licensed fishing). An eight-mile paved trail loops around the park, taking visitors along the lakeshore and into the woods. Head to the east end of the preserve to see if you can spot a herd of elk, which inhabit an enclosed pasture.

Travel time: 1 hr drive

Entry fee: Free

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