The big list: 45 places to cross-country ski, snowshoe and sled in the Chicago area

The snow season may be short, so you’ll want to make the most of it.

Chicago sledding
Two girls sled down Cricket Hill in Chicago after a winter snowstorm in January 2022. Tyler LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago sledding
Two girls sled down Cricket Hill in Chicago after a winter snowstorm in January 2022. Tyler LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

The big list: 45 places to cross-country ski, snowshoe and sled in the Chicago area

The snow season may be short, so you’ll want to make the most of it.

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When the snow hits the ground again, be ready to strap on the cross-country skis or snowshoes, or grab the sled, and go. Recent history tells us that the snow season might not last long, said Mike Konrath at Sagawau Nordic in Lemont.

The good news is that there are plenty of places in parks and forest preserves around Chicago where cross-country skiers, snowshoers and sledders can go.

Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing

Cross-country ski
The view from Montrose Harbor at night on cross-country skis. Courtesy of Gary Kuzminski

In many preserves, skiers can follow existing trails that are used for hiking and biking. For those who don’t have their own skis, two of the easiest places to get started are at Sagawau and the Morton Arboretum.

At Sagawau, the trails are mechanically groomed, leaving two compacted grooves that “classic style” skiers can follow around the four trails and a smooth area for more ambitious “skate-skiing.” Equipment rentals are $15, $10 for seniors. Lessons are $30. Sagawau is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. The preserve uses a reservation system to ensure there is sufficient equipment; the signup opens up on Sunday morning. Weekends are busiest. Check the center’s Facebook page for updates on trail conditions (no snowshoers or hikers).

The Morton Arboretum offers skiing and snowshoeing rentals. There are about 2.5 miles of groomed trails, which open Jan. 7 with four inches of snow. A membership is required, and the rental cost is $20 per person for two hours. Rentals begin at 10 a.m. on weekdays, 9 a.m. weekends, with the last rental time at 4 p.m. Guests with their own gear are welcome.

Other ski rental locations include: The Heller Nature Center, in Highland Park, with 3 miles of ungroomed trails and the Arrowhead Golf Course, in Wheaton, which rents equipment to the public for its groomed trails; outfitting retailer REI rents ski equipment at its Vernon Hills store.

About 90 minutes from Chicago is the longest cross-country ski trail system in northern Illinois at Rock Cut State Park next to Rockford. Nearby Rocktown Adventures offers rentals and lessons and information on other trails.

While heavily used trails are the most accessible, some skiers prefer to blaze their own trail. Gary Kuzminski, 55, of South Holland, is one of those people. The snow, and his skis, promise a freedom to roam.

Cross-country ski
A cross-country ski campsite along the Little Calumet River. Courtesy of Gary Kuzminski
Each winter Kuzminski explores the strange and compelling landscape of the Calumet region industrial areas. With the heavily industrialized areas draped in a blanket of snow, some of the earth’s scars are temporarily bandaged, and the landscape is transformed, if only for a while. Slag heaps look like mountains, garbage dumps like rolling hills, and remediated Superfund waste sites like wide-open prairie.

“One sunset ski in those surroundings will leave an indelible impression,” Kuzminski said.

For people with Kuzminski’s spirit, there are many miles of groomed and ungroomed trails to explore in Cook and surrounding counties. For those who want adventure in Chicago proper, there’s Northerly Island and Lincoln Park. The Northwest Nordic Ski Club, a Chicago-area nonprofit, brings together ski enthusiasts.

In the suburbs, the Forest Preserve of DuPage County grooms trails and so does Lake County. These trails can be used by snowshoers, too, although the preserves ask visitors to avoid walking on the groomed trails.

Snowshoe
People wear snowshoes while walking along the lakefront near West Hollywood Avenue on the North Side in January 2022. Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County

There are 350 miles of ungroomed trails to ski or snowshoe. The county’s cross-country web page is here, and an interactive web map of trails can be found here.

DuPage County

Preserve employees groom 80 miles of its trails for skiing at: Blackwell, St. James Farm, Herrick Lake, Danada, Waterfall Glen, Fullersburg Woods, Greene Valley, Springbrook Prairie, Meacham Grove, James “Pate” Philip State Park, and Mallard Lake. Its Facebook page provides updates.

Lake County

The forest preserve district maintains a web page dedicated to skiing locations and status updates. Preserve trails are open 6:30 a.m. to sunset, daily. Extended hours are available during daylight savings time along solar lighted trails at Old School in Libertyville (groomed) and along a section of the Millennium Trail in Wauconda. The illuminated trails and adjacent parking lots remain open after sunset until 9 p.m., daily, early November to early March.

When conditions allow, skiers can use the dedicated equestrian trails at Lakewood (groomed) and Raven Glen, and most forest preserve hiking trails. The county also grooms a section of the Des Plaines River Trail between Old School and the Wright Woods Canoe Launch on Route 60. Trail grooming is typically done one to two days after a large snow.

McHenry County

When snow hits the required minimum of 4 inches for activity, outdoor enthusiasts can glide over 40 miles of cross-country ski trails at 16 different sites throughout the county. Glacial Park is a favorite, with its famous humpback hills. Check site closures and trail conditions here before heading out (click on “cross country ski status”).


Sledding

Chicago sledding
Nari Berthusen and Eita Tabion sled down Cricket Hill near Montrose Beach on the North Side after several inches of snowfall in February 2021. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

One of the most popular and largest sledding hills — at 220-feet long and 33-feet high — is near Soldier Field with views of Lake Michigan, located southeast of the Waldron parking deck. If past history holds, it is lighted and staffed, and open daily when conditions allow (the park district has augmented it with man-made snow when needed). Call 312-235-7000 for sledding hill status.

In Evanston, the epic Mt. Trashmore is built on top of a former landfill in James Park. It sports a variety of hill sizes, although the main hill is officially off limits.

The Northbrook Park District sponsors a 28-foot high sled hill at Techny Park and offers a warming house, stairs and lights for evening use.

Large sledding hills with lighting and forest preserve staff are also located at Dan Ryan Woods near the pavilion (one of the largest with a 200-foot slope and a separate snowboarding hill), Caldwell Woods (Grove No.1), Swallow Cliff Woods North and Westchester Woods. They are open Sunday-Thursday: 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday: 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m. daily when conditions allow.

In Cook County, sledding hills are open when the ground is frozen and covered with a minimum of 3 inches of snow. Always call ahead to make sure sledding hills and parking areas are open. You can find a full list of sledding locations for day use in Cook County here.

The Chicago Park District does not list specific locations for sledding. But one of the larger park district hills is at Palmisano Park, a reclaimed garbage dump that neighbors call “Mt. Bridgeport.”

Smaller park district hills can be found in the city at busy Horner Park, Gompers Park, Cricket Hill (in Montrose Harbor with 360-degree views of the city and lake), Warren Park (has stairs) and Lincoln Park near the North Pond. On the West Side, Riis Park in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood has a sledding hill. On the South Side, you’ll find hills at Big Marsh Park in South Deering and Marquette Park at 67th and Sacramento. Near Midway Airport sits the Summit Park sled hill.

Zachary Nauth is a freelance writer who lives in Oak Park.