The best way to see the natural wonders of the area is on foot. Luckily, northern Illinois is home to hundreds of miles of trails for various abilities and interests. So grab your hiking boots and hit one of these top local trails.
1. Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia
With stretches of prairie, wetlands and woodlands, this ecologically complex park is considered a window into the origins of the region’s landscape. This has caused a rich diversity of flora and fauna to thrive within the park. The Nelson Lake Marsh on the east side of the preserve lies in a depression caused by glacial ice that existed on the site millenia ago. Explore all the area has to offer on the intertwining trail system. Nelson Lake Trail is an easy 2.57 miles of mowed trail that circles the marsh. Hikers will enjoy the site’s peaceful beauty, ever-changing surroundings, and opportunities to spot rare and endangered creatures.
2. Buffalo Rock State Park, Ottawa
This majestic park is perched on a bluff that was once an island in the Illinois River. Hikers exploring the 298-acre park can follow the River Bluff Trail. The trail runs high along the bluffs with two observation decks that offer sweeping views of the riverbed below. The 2.6 mile loop is a peaceful and well-maintained gravel path that’s appropriate for hikers of all ability levels. Observant visitors might even spot the buffalo that lives in the park.
3. Castle Rock State Park, Oregon
Nestled on the banks of Rock River, this rugged park features rock formations, ravines and sandstone bluffs. Six miles of marked hiking trails wind through the park, allowing visitors to enjoy the scenery and catch glimpses of local wildlife. One good route is the Castle Rock North Trail, a moderate 3.5 mile loop. Changes in elevation can make the route slightly rigourous for novice hikers. But your effort will be rewarded with views of beautiful wildflowers and open ranges.
4. Matthiessen State Park, Utica
Skip the crowds at Starved Rock and head to neighboring Matthiessen State Park. This underappreciated gem has all the natural hallmarks of the area, including canyons, streams prairies and forests. There are five miles of marked trails that range from a relaxing walk to a vigorous hike. To see a bit of everything, try the Dells Canyon and Bluff Trail. As the name suggests, the 2.2 mile loop will take you through high bluffs and low canyons. Hikers will also see waterfalls, a small lake and plenty of wildlife.
5. Waterfall Glen, Darien
With more than 2,503 acres, there’s plenty to see and do in Waterfall Glen. The park, known for its extensive trail network, waterfalls, and bluffs, is widely considered one of the most ecologically impressive open spaces in the region. The mix of prairie and woodland is home to 300 animal species and features 75 percent of all known native plants in the county. If you’re up for a bit of a challenge, try Waterfall Glen Trail. The 9.5 mile loop circles the entire park. Though long in distance, the trail is generally an easy hike with gentle, rolling hills.
6. Saw Wee Kee Park, Oswego
This extensive natural area comprises 134 scenic acres with a plethora of wildlife, including deer and bald eagles. The park’s compact trail system meanders through out the hilly terrain. One popular trail is the Saw Wee Kee Park Trail that skirts the Fox River for 5.8 miles. Though the trail is considered moderate, hikers should be ready for the rugged terrain. The curvy dirt trail has plenty of ups and downs, rocks and roots, making it popular with mountain bikers.
7. Illinois & Michigan Canal and Trail, Lockport
History buffs and nature lovers alike will enjoy a stroll along the I&M Canal Trail. The almost 80-mile trail follows the banks of the I&M canal, an old canal towpath that runs from Lasalle to Lemont. The LaSalle trailhead is located near a historic canal lock and hikers will find markers explaining the history of the canal at nearly every mile of the trail. You’ll also pass by several notable local sites, such as the Marseille’s railroad depot, Joliet Iron Works Historic Site, Lemont’s limestone quarries, the M. J. Hogan Grain Elevator, and several state parks. Visitors should note that there’s a gap in the trail near Joliet.
8. Moraine Hills State Park, McHenry
With an abundance of wildlife and rare plants, Moraine Hills State Park is a lush, ecological treasure situated by the Fox River. The park, named for the geological phenomena where an accumulation of boulders is left by a glacier, is intertwined with 10 miles of trails that separated into four unique routes. The 3.7-mile Lake Defiance Trail will take hikers on a scenic route around the 48-acre lake. One of the few glacial lakes in the state that’s still largely undeveloped, Lake Defiance is a pristine place to spot the wide array of creatures that live in the wetlands.
9. Wauponsee Glacial Trail, Joliet
Escape your urban surroundings on the 22-mile stretch of trail that will take you back in time. Named for a glacial lake that once encompassed the area thousands of years ago, today’s visitors can take in sweeping views of the open prairie and farmland. The route follows the path of two former railroad lines and passes through several historically significant local areas. Begin near the I-80 overpass in Joliet and quickly leave civilization behind as you stroll by vast fields of corn, a herd of bison, and across a trestle bridge from 1902.
10. Glacial Park, RIngwood
The most popular park in the county, this pristine open space is home to rolling prairie, oak savanna, a flowing creek teeming with wildlife, and 40 state endangered plant and animal species. The park also features more than eight miles of hiking trails, including a stretch of the Prairie Trail that hugs the park’s eastern border. If you want to explore the interior of the park, try the two-mile Interpretive Nature Trail along the Deerpath Trail loop. Stop by the Visitor’s Center to pick up a guide book; choose from Plant Communities, Wildlife, History of the Land, and Geology. Or download the Prairie State Hike App for an audio tour through the park.