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10 Fun Chicago Hiking Trails For Beginners

No matter how much you enjoy the hustle and bustle of the urban lifestyle, the ache for the stillness and serenity of being in nature lives in all of us. Escaping on a hiking endeavor is an experience accessible to Chicago city-dwellers and suburban residents alike.
Come explore these hiking trails for beginners that can be found in and around Chicago. 

Trails Inside Chicago’s City Limits

Chicago is known for more than deep-dish pizza. Within its city limits are some of the most beautiful hiking trails that both visitors and residents must add to their to-dos. These trails are perfect for a seeming break from city life without actually having to leave Chicago. 

#1: Chicago Lakefront Trail

This trail is perfect for beginners who enjoy the scenery that hiking trails offer without the high intensity that some require.
The Chicago Lakefront Trail is 18.5 miles total but is entirely paved and almost completely flat. This trail guides the walker or biker past much of what Chicago has to offer, including the Navy Pier, Monroe Harbor, the Museum District, and the city skyline.
Walking the Chicago Lakefront trail will bring views of the city as well as some of Lake Michigan’s stunning beach spots. The paved path makes this a trail that is easy to explore for hikers of all ability levels. 

#2: The 606

Similar to the Chicago Lakefront Trail, the 606 is also a paved trail within Chicago’s city limits. What sets this trail apart from others of its kind is that it is an elevated path that runs over retired railroad tracks. 
The 606 is a 2.7-mile trail with various outlets if hiking the entirety of the trail isn’t of interest to you. The trail begins at Walsh Park and ends at North Ridgeway Avenue. 

#3: Lincoln Park Trail

The Lincoln Park Trail is a 5.5-mile trail that takes you through residential neighborhoods as well as past the Chicago Zoo and Lincoln Park Conservatory. This trail is surrounded by 1,200 acres of green areas, giving you a change from those city views.
This scenic route is the perfect family trail. Stop at the zoo or any of the green spaces for a family picnic. 

#4: Millennium Park Trail

Maybe you're itching to explore Chicago’s hiking trails, but your schedule hasn’t afforded you hours to do this.
The Millenium Park Trail is great for those hoping to enjoy the character of Chicago’s trails even when on a time crunch. This trail is 0.7 miles in length and loops, so you can finish right where you started. 
On this trail, you’ll see some of Chicago’s most unique sights. If you begin on the northwest corner of the park, you’ll see the Millennium Park Monument. You will also pass the famous Cloud Gate sculpture, which many know as “The Bean.” (Grab your camera—This is an iconic spot for a social media snap.)

Trails Near Chicago

If choosing trails inside Chicago’s city limits doesn’t quite satisfy your craving for adventure, here are a few unique and beautiful hiking excursions right outside of Chicago.

#1: Ned Brown Forest Preserve

This preserve is typically referred to as Busse Woods. It is a mere 24 miles outside of Chicago in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. While the total length of this trail is about 13 miles long, it remains accessible to all hiking levels by offering paved paths throughout. 
With 3,558 acres to explore, this hike is all you will need for one day. Follow the paved path, and you will encounter elk pastures as well as forest and marsh areas. 

#2: Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area

A little further out from Chicago’s city center is Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area. This conservation area is 32 miles outside of Chicago, so plan for about an hour of travel time. You can choose to follow the 6.5 miles of hiking trails or explore the 561 acres by taking your own path. 
Here you’ll find breathtaking water views of the Des Plaines River as well as lush greenery as you venture through forests. This conservation area is also considered a Historic District so expect to see landmarks rich with history and culture. 

#3: Starved Rock State Park

Starved Rock State Park is a two-hour drive outside of Chicago, so plan to spend your day here. This park offers beautiful views of canyons and waterfalls with over 13 miles of hiking trails to explore. The tranquility of the falls offer a calming escape from the noise of city life. 

#4: Matthiessen State Park 

Matthiessen State Park can be found adjacent to Starved Rock State Park. If your morning at Starved Rock lit the flame of adventure and left you craving more, swing over to Matthiessen State Park.
This park is located in Utica, Illinois, and offers a 3.2-mile hiking trail. Explore 2,000 acres of camera-worthy moments alongside forests, rivers, waterfalls, and glacier-carved rock formations. This park has hiking trails for all levels. If you are a beginner, park experts recommend sticking to the trails in the upper area of the park. 

#5: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie 

You can find this Prairie just short of an hour’s drive outside of Chicago. If you’re a wildlife enthusiast or simply enjoy watching animals roam free, check out the Buffalo Viewing Trail. This is a 3.6-mile trail that is almost entirely flat, making it suitable for beginner-level hikers. 
Experience bison sightings as you venture along this trail. Just make sure you give them their space. Like, a lot of it.

#6: Des Plaines River Trail

The Des Plaines River is a river flowing for 133 miles and stretching from Wisconsin to Illinois. The Des Plaines River Trail extends for 50 of those 133 miles. In just a short 20 minute drive outside Chicago, you can enjoy a paved path that weaves through 12 forest preserves. 
The best segment of this trail for beginner-level hikers is a 10.6-mile trail that begins in Fullerton Woods. The path is level, making for an enjoyable yet not-too-strenuous adventure. 

Necessary Hiking Gear

When hitting the trails, no matter how low-impact the excursion may seem, you must ensure that you are bringing hiking essentials. 

Water and Snacks

It is necessary that you are fueling your body as you venture deep into trails and nature preserves. Some recommend bringing about 16 ounces of water for every hour that you plan to hike. 
When choosing snacks for your adventure, make smart choices that will fuel your body, not just satisfy your momentary craving. Nuts are a great hiking snack because of their healthy fats. Other nutritious hiking snacks include fruits, peanut butter, granola bars, or beef jerky. 

Hiking Backpack

A hiking backpack is essential for your journey because it keeps all of your other hiking necessities nearby while still keeping your hands free. Invest in one that is large enough to carry a jacket if you plan to hike in the colder months as well. If you like to pack light, your everyday backpack can also serve you well.

Trekking Poles

Now that your hiking backpack has freed up your hands, you can reach for a trekking pole or two. These poles allow for greater stability and traction, especially for slippery terrain around waterfalls and lakes.
Many trekking poles come in collapsible versions, making them easy to slip inside a hiking backpack when they are not needed. 

Hiking Boots or Shoes

No matter the terrain you’ll be exploring, it is important to have shoes with great traction. Ensuring that you are wearing your hiking boots before hitting the trails is a great way to stay prepared for any changes in the trail. 

Weather-Appropriate Hiking Clothes

For men and women, opting for long pants is a great option to protect you from any unexpected growth along the trails. Long pants are ideal choices to protect against bugs or poison ivy that may be lurking. 
In the colder months, plan to layer because your body will inevitably heat up as you exert energy along the trail. This way, you can shed and add layers as your body temperature changes. Store your shed layers in your hiking backpack. 
Even in warmer months, it may be smart to pack a sleek jacket as temperatures can drop with higher elevations. 
Women, you will want to consider a medium support sports bra to keep you protected throughout your journey. Opting for regular undergarments can result in increased discomfort and sweat during your workout. 
For any hiking venture, remembering your hiking essentials will result in a more enjoyable experience. 

Happy Trails

Whether you hope to stay within Chicago’s city limits or are longing to break free from the urban landscapes, you can find the hiking trail that caters to your preferred experience. In and around Chicago are some of the most beautiful and unique hiking destinations that are just waiting to be explored. 

FAQ

Where To Go:

  • Can you find hiking trails in Chicago?
Chicago has many paved trails for beginners within its city limits. Some of these include the Chicago Lakefront Trail, the 606, the Lincoln Park Trail, and the Millennium Trail. Each trail provides a mix of urban landscapes and beautiful greenspace. 
  • Where can you find hiking trails near Chicago?
If you don’t mind the travel time, there are beautiful hiking escapes as close as 20 minutes outside of Chicago.
The Des Plaines River Trail is a 50-mile trail that can be accessed by a 20-minute drive. Longer excursions include Starved Rock State Park and Matthiessen State Park. These are both a two-hour drive outside of Chicago. 

Supplies You Will Need

  • Should I wear hiking boots when hiking Chicago’s trails?
Hiking boots protect from any unexpected terrain and are a wise investment. Bringing your hiking boots to any of the trails outside of Chicago will prepare you for anything you might encounter. However, when choosing the stay and hike inside Chicago’s city limits, hiking boots are not necessary because of the abundance of paved trails. 
  • What else should I bring to hike in or near Chicago?
For any hike (no matter when and where), you will want to pack water and snacks to fuel your body. You will also want to bring a hiking backpack to store your belongings while keeping your hands free.
Hiking backpacks allow storage for your camera, which you’re going to want to have to capture the beauty of these hikes, as well as extra layers and snacks. 
  • What should I wear when hiking?
Long pants are recommended for hiking during any season. Opt for leggings that will protect your legs from overgrowth on paths as well as mosquitos and ticks while still keeping your legs cool.
Additionally, long pants like joggers are great due to their lightweight fabric and full coverage. You should also pack layers to prepare for any changes in body temperature.
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