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Favorite Outdoors Activities Near Chicago?

Hi all! Having just gotten fully vaccinated and with things starting to open back up, I was wondering if people had any suggestions for fun spots to check out around Chicago? I love biking the lakefront trail, have made the trip to Portage Beach and the Indy Dunes, and have spent plenty of time running around the local parks (Wicker, Oz, Humboldt), but would love to find some spots for hiking, sunrises/sunsets, or picnics within a couple of hours. Thanks in advance! 

11 Replies

Here's a link to biking trails.

This is great, thanks!


Hi @seandunlop - Thanks for reaching out! 

It's great to hear you are gearing up to explore more around the city. We wanted to a tag a few additional community members from Chicago/Illinois to see if they have any spots to pass along.

@Dad_Aint_Hip@Bonfire@SILHiker - do y'all have any additional Chicago hiking or sunrise/sunset places to share? 

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.

Thanks @REI-CarterC - Indeed, I do!

For day hiking, my favorite trail for getting some good elevation changes, distance, and sheer fun, I love heading about 2 hours north into Wisconsin and hitting the John Muir Trail System (prefer the Blue Trail) in Kettle Moraine State Forest. It's a shared path with mountain bikers but there's only one short section (a couple hundred feet) where I wouldn't want to meet up with someone on a bike. But everywhere else it's easy enough to step aside and let them pass. Hikers must go in a counter-clockwise direction and cyclists go in a clockwise, so no one is going to sneak up behind you.

I think the most beautiful hike I've been on lately is in Lowden-Miller State Forest. Tall  pines and heavy forest just makes it beautiful. And the half mile or so along the river is really nice. Just take note of when hunting season is and wear orange. I went during bow season and although I met up with several parties, I never worried about my safety.

And for something closer, the Palos Heights trail system has anything from a mile or so up to a 10 mile path through some really fun environment (it's also a moraine - there are only two moraines in the midwest and these are the two).

For cycling, check out the DuPage Rive Trail - it's about 30+ miles. Or, of course, the Fox River trail from Batavia through to Elgin. And, as long as you're hitting Fox River, bring your kayak or canoe for some great paddling - just watch for the dams

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” (John Muir)

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one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

Hi Sean, glad to contribute with a few ideas for a fellow Chicagoan! Now, I tend to prefer places where I can go with my family (I have two kids that must spend their energy somewhere), but I think these are interesting places even if you're going on your own:

The "Urban Hiking" path: you probably know all these places, but the fun part is doing all of them in a row. You can start at W. Jackson Blvd and the South Branch of the Chicago River and follow initially the west riverside, following the path that edges the river across sidewalks, gardens, outdoor restaurants, etc. You can go north to the Kinzie St Bridge and then track back to cross the bridge at Lake St. to follow the Riverwalk all the way down to the lake; from there, you can either go north toward the Milton Lee Olive park (water purification plant), or south toward Monroe Harbor.

Boulder-skipping path: this is a very short path, but very nice. If you go to 31st St Beach, you can go toward the pier that protects the harbor and follow the wall all the way to the end, walking on top of the huge boulders there. Especially at sunset, it's a very nice place and you feel very far from the city and very much within the lake.

Warren Dunes: this is actually Michigan, right across the lake, 2 hrs. drive. Wonderful big beach, specially in summer, and some lovely dunes to climb and explore. Also, tacos (in summer)! There is also a campground about a mile from the beach, but is very popular.

Green River State Wildlife Management Area: this is a very unassuming place, a forest preserve 2 hrs west from Chicago. It's great for watching stars at night (many amateur astronomers go there, including myself), for is wonderfully dark. It's never crowded, though; there is drinking water, pit toilets, fire rings, and plenty of space to put a tent. I normally go there at sunset, get settled for the night, and spend a few hours looking at the sky with a telescope or binoculars. In the morning, you can walk north a mile or two to check out the rest of the preserve, which has a bit of prairie, forest, wetlands, and plenty of small animals. This is the closest place to the city which, to me, feels like completely far from the city.

Farther. Higher. Longer.

These look great, thanks David! The dunes are fantastic, and I definitely wouldn't have thought to visit the wildlife management area. 

Two photos of the Green River preserve. The nocturnal image includes the comet Neowise C/2020 F3 last year.

Green River State Wildlife Management AreaGreen River State Wildlife Management AreaComet Neowise C/2020 F3Comet Neowise C/2020 F3

Farther. Higher. Longer.

In WI, Richard Bong Recreational Area near Kenosha, Harrington Beach State Park in Sheboygan, or Lapham Peak State Park in Delafield are all within about 1-2 hours of Chicago.  I have also heard the lighthouse beach near the Metra stop in Gurnee/Waukegan is nice.

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

Lake County has lots of nice Forest Preserves as does Cook County if you are looking for easy hikes.  We love to drive into WI and visit Devil's Lake State Park.  The hiking there is awesome.  In the past year it has started to really draw the crowds however.  Mississippi Palisades is a nice launching point for kayaking on the Mississippi.  I'm not sure how far afield you want to go.  Shawnee National Forest is also another great option for hiking.  Illinois Beach State Park is also a nice option for Lake Michigan swimming or kayaking.  In Lake County there is the Des Plaines River Trail that is ~35 miles and the Millennium Trail, both of which are great bike rides.

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