Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is a 20,000-acre prairie that is the former site of an Army ammunition plant. The site offers 34 miles of trails, and about 22 of those are open to bikes and equestrians. Courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism

Let’s go hiking! 20 Midwest trails to conquer before winter sets in

All the trails are within a few hours’ drive of Chicago — and at the pinnacle of their beauty in fall.

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is a 20,000-acre prairie that is the former site of an Army ammunition plant. The site offers 34 miles of trails, and about 22 of those are open to bikes and equestrians. Courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is a 20,000-acre prairie that is the former site of an Army ammunition plant. The site offers 34 miles of trails, and about 22 of those are open to bikes and equestrians. Courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism

Let’s go hiking! 20 Midwest trails to conquer before winter sets in

All the trails are within a few hours’ drive of Chicago — and at the pinnacle of their beauty in fall.

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It’s not “purple mountains majesty” for hiking, Jason King knows, but Illinois, Indiana and southern Wisconsin, are not without charm — they’re free, they’re close, their trails are uncongested and they offer a solace and beauty all their own.

“I love Illinois, I’ve lived here all my life. If you like simplicity, if you like the feel of the wind blowing through the trees … there’s no place better,” King said.

One of King’s favorite solo hikes to “get the world behind me” is about 90 minutes away from Chicago near Gary, Indiana, in the little-used western part of Indiana Dunes National Park. The Paul H. Douglas center is currently closed but the namesake trail (1) winds through Miller Woods and across the Grand Calumet River. It was named after the Illinois senator who helped make the Dunes a national park. It’s a moderately challenging 3.5 miles out and back, partly through sand dunes — which make it a workout.

“It’s a truly unique trail,” said King, who teaches geography at Moraine Valley Community College. “I can’t think of another where, in a couple of miles, you’ll see a forest, you’ll see a marsh, you’ll see a unique biome called a black oak savannah, then the dunes, and finally you’re at the shore of Lake Michigan.”

West Beach trail
The less congested West Beach area of Indiana Dunes National Park is home to several trails with interesting scenery and elevation changes. Courtesy of Indiana Dunes Tourism

There are many such gems within three hours of Chicago that aren’t as urban as the North Branch River Trail in the city, or as crowded as Starved Rock in western Illinois. The joys of fall hiking include the turning of the leaves in late September and early October, dissipating mosquito and tick populations, and cooler weather. This list is not all-inclusive, and is based on a combination of in-person exploration over the past three years, online sources and conservation groups like Openlands.

Stay on trails and wear long pants to avoid poison ivy. Be sure to check the website for updated access information, hours and closures. And a reminder: Dogs are not allowed in any Illinois Nature Preserve.

South

King takes less ambitious hikers — namely his 6- and 8-year-old kids — to a trail that starts at the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in Willow Springs. Besides the indoor exhibits, there is a primitive outdoor playground and plenty of programs. Three separate natural surface trails of varying lengths — depending on the childrens’ attention spans — total 2.5 miles through black and white oak forests, and past a marshy slough full of aquatic life that have flourished from three decades of careful restoration. (On Sept. 22, it hosts an autumn equinox hike.)

It is one of several starting points for the extensive, much-loved and occasionally rugged 42-mile Palos Trail System (2) that is dear to all serious local hikers. The yellow trail connects near the schoolhouse. Many other trail access points are listed on the maps, which rate the four skill levels from easy to very difficult. Watch out for mountain bikers.

Palos Trail
The Palos Trail System is dear to hikers but also popular with mountain bikers. Jason Lindsey / Courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism

The trails contain a surprising amount of elevation for Illinois, which was famously bulldozed flat by mile-high glaciers during a series of ice ages that ended about 10,000 years ago. However, the glaciers left “moraines” and other features that the melting ice and water later cut through, creating valleys and gorges. Walking up and down as much as 200 feet on these trails, a visitor is traversing sand and rock debris carried and deposited by the glacier, then dug out by rushing ice and water. Some large chunks of ice broke off, sunk and created lakes and marsh.

Next door to Palos, and just south of the Calumet-Saganashkee Channel (dredged to help reverse the Chicago River) is the largest roadless area–and most remote place–in Cook County: Cap Sauer’s Holding, a forested, certified nature preserve within the Sag Valley Trail System (3). The 7-mile yellow loop winds through beautiful wooded bluffs and ravines, wetlands and prairie openings. Look for a very narrow, less traveled hikers-only loop that branches north to carry wanderers over a rare ice age feature known as an “esker.”

Southwest

McKinley Woods (4) in Channahon, Will County, hugs the Des Plaines River as it carries water from the Chicago River down to the Illinois River. Frederick’s Grove, a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp, offers two miles of dirt trails into a 500-acre grove of Chinquapin and other white oaks. The one-hour drive in fall offers a chance to see white pelicans feeding on the river and gathering for migration.

The adjacent limestone I&M Canal State Trail follows the 1840s waterway for 61 miles. To or from McKinley, travelers will pass near the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (5) in Wilmington, a former Army ammunition plant on 20,000 acres that is being slowly restored to native prairie with the help of volunteers and a bison herd (trails and visitor center).

Bison at Midewin Tallgrass Prairie
The Iron Bridge trailhead at Midewin Tallgrass Prairie offers an overlook where hikers can often spot bison. Courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism

Messenger Woods Nature Preserves (6), a 45-minute drive to Homer Glen in Will County, is a 400-acre protected nature preserve with a short 2-mile natural surface loop trail, good for children. Nearby in Park Forest is another nature preserve, Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve (7), managed by Will County, full of mature oak, hickory, basswood and sugar maple. There are two miles of natural surface trails, and a nature center on 1000 acres.

West

WBEZ fall guide 2022
A challenging climb takes hikers out of the Franklin Creek valley and into the woods. Zachary Nauth for WBEZ
A green heron stalks the far bank of Lee County’s Franklin Creek, where an old grist mill once turned. The heron’s orange legs sink into the mud, and its crest rises and falls. The water’s edge riffles as minnows shoot toward the middle of the creek, away from the searching yellow eyes and long, sharp beak of the heron. Upstream, two ruby-throated hummingbirds feed on a patch of tall, waving sunflowers.

The five miles of trails at the 882-acre Franklin Creek State Natural Area (8), near Dixon, Illinois, border the alluring stream and take hikers up and down the steep forested hills and gorges carved out of a moraine, exposing outcroppings of 500 million-year-old New Richmond Sandstone, the oldest exposed rock in Illinois.

Start at Mill Springs Day Use Area to access the exceptional two-mile Pioneer Pass trail where hikers will cross one of several bubbling clear springs emerging from the bedrock. The trail is a natural surface with steps and railings in places, in average condition, and is a workout for older knees.

Having made the roughly two-hour trip out west, it only makes sense to see the bison at Nachusa Grasslands (9), where the huge animals, the Nature Conservancy and its partners are restoring 4,000 acres of Illinois prairie in this nature preserve. There are a few miles of trails through the prairie, including one that begins at a new, beautifully-designed outdoor visitor’s center (off-trail hiking is encouraged).

Only a short distance further west is the Rock River, and the colorful sandstone cliffs of Castle Rock State Park (10). Nearby Lowden-Miller State Forest (11) contains 22 miles of hiking trails, and several short loop trails take visitors through White Pines State Park (12).

Near West

A ring of gray, denuded trees come into view, standing sentinel over a low-lying sedge meadow that has dried up in late summer. A red-bellied woodpecker hammers one, sending a hollow wooden echo across the bur oak savannah. Late day sunlight filters through the leaves, and lights up the goldenrod as intermittment clouds pass overhead. Six blue jays gather in treetop branches, making their “squeaky gate” calls as they bob up and down, doing comical deep-knee bends.

This urban refuge, the 245-acre Salt Creek Woods Nature Preserve (13), is a mere 10 miles west of Chicago, and sports a lightly used trail in the middle of La Grange Park. Piles of invasive buckthorn and fire-scarred trees are visible reminders that Cook County is partnering with the Shedd Aquarium and volunteers to restore the area.

Fall hiking guide
Fall is the pinnacle season for Midwest hiking with color-changing leafs and striking bluffs. Courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism

Hikers can start in several spots and walk the Salk Creek “yellow” trail for about two miles. The trail access points are located away from the main parking lots, perhaps intentionally. One access point is near a picnic shelter at Bemis Woods; another is off Mayfair Drive–park on Mayfair and cross 31st Street at the stoplight to find the “Bob Mann” sign.

Hikers can combine the Salt Creek trail with an astonishing walk through a very rare nature preserve at Wolf Road Prairie (14), a high-quality “remnant” of pre-settlement Illinois tallgrass prairie. Two hundred years ago, about the age of one of the bur oaks here, this was part of a single landscape of 22 million prairie acres dotted with small groves. Right before the Great Depression struck, this property in Westchester was slated to become a subdivision. Now only the concrete sidewalks remain among the acres of tall yellow saw-tooth sunflowers, and other native plants tended by dedicated volunteers. Less than 1% of Illinois prairie remains.

WBEZ fall hikes 2022
Seen on the trails: (left) Rock Creek trickles over a gravel bed on its way to the Kankakee River; (right) a narrow footpath takes hikers through Wolf Road Prairie, which hosts a profusion of native plants like the sawtooth sunflower that are favored by visiting monarch butterflies Zachary Nauth for WBEZ

It’s a 5-minute walk from Wolf Road Prairie at its 31st Street entrance (next to a Shell station) south to Salt Creek trail on Wolf Road. Explorers can cover a mile out and back on the restored prairie and add another two miles on Salt Creek’s footpath.

Or, visitors can park on Constitution Avenue, south of Cermak Road, near the historic Franzosenbusch schoolhouse and home built in 1852 by German immigrants (open Sundays 3 to 5 p.m.).

In DuPage County, just 45 minutes away from Chicago, hikers can enjoy a series of easy, crushed limestone trails layered throughout several well-managed preserves showcasing a variety of landscapes. Starting at the east end at Danada Forest Preserve (15), an estimated 19 miles of trails connect to, in order, Herrick Lake Forest Preserve, St. James Farm, Warrenville Grove, and the county’s crown jewel, Blackwell Forest Preserve. The 60-mile limestone Illinois Prairie Path also runs through at St. James Farm. Families enjoy a short loop at nearby Lyman Woods, another certified nature preserve.

Northwest

In the northwest corner of Illinois, and into Wisconsin, is the unglaciated “Driftless Area,” a stark and striking hilly landscape, cut with valleys large and small. One of the most gorgeous sites in the state is the 1900-acre Apple River Canyon State Park (16), about 2.5 hours from Chicago, with several miles of trails through limestone bluffs, deep ravines, springs and streams.

North

Further north in Wisconsin is Devil’s Lake State Park (17), about a 3-hour drive from Chicago, which features 30 miles of hiking trails, and 500-foot quartzite bluffs overlooking a 360-acre lake.

Glacial Park Conservation Area (18), about 90 minutes northwest of Chicago, is McHenry County’s most popular outdoor destination due to the incredible diversity of its 3,400 acres containing savannah, prairie, bog, kettle marsh and the prized Nippersink Creek. Several concentric loop trails, the longest three miles, total five miles. A 26-mile regional “Prairie Trail” cuts through the area going south, and north (unpaved) to the Wisconsin border.

WBEZ best fall hikes 2022
The Kettle Moraine is a geological formation created thousands of years ago by the movement of glaciers. Today visitors can hike a variety of trails and experience landscapes that range from prairie to wetlands to forests. Beth J. Harpaz / AP Photo

For another stop on the way to Glacial Park, the 2200-acre Moraine Hills State Park (19) is dominated by lakes and wetlands criss-crossed by 10 miles of trails, mostly crushed limestone. A longer trip into Wisconsin, about two hours driving time, will deliver adventurers to the southern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest (20) – a supersized Moraine Hills with ten times the acreage, 100 miles of various trails, and access to a much longer Ice Age National Scenic footpath of 1,000 miles.

Want more options? In addition to the fall hikes listed here, more information is available from the Openlands “Get Outside” map; county forest preserve websites; Facebook groups such as Outdoor Adventuring in Chicago and Camping, Hiking and Kayaking Near Chicagoland;. and the blog “Nature in Chicagoland” by Beverly native Andrew Morkes, who recently published a guidebook by the same name.

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