The Manistee River is an incredibly special place with some steep climbing, gorgeous trees, and a river running through it. Credit: S. Nicole Lane

I promise I haven’t lost my club-girl persona and I promise I won’t wear hiking boots to the bar, but I can’t deny that my closet has a little (okay, a lot) more Northface than it did last year. I’ve totaled a lot of miles, and it all began at the beginning of the pandemic when my partner quit smoking and I started to lose my mind. We needed to get moving. And we needed to get moving fast. But with nowhere to really move, we decided to head outdoors.

Fast forward to the end of 2020, and we’ve invested thousands of dollars in hiking gear, backpacked through injuries, and learned to survive on trail food that goes straight to the dome (aka sugar, sugar, sugar).

I grew up hiking. I even started college as a wilderness major (also known as WLEE at my alternative hippie school located at the base of the Pisgah Forest). So I’ve always teetered on the edge of a fine line between camo pants and leopard patterned tight dresses. I’m a woman of many hats, a sort of backwoods Barbie. And while hiking in the midwest looks a lot different than what I’m used to, I compiled a list of trails and hikes that got me through this goddamn year.

* all of these trails have to be accessed with a car.

Palos Park Woods
Recommended: Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center to Palos Trail System
Length: 7.8 mile loop

I live in Back of the Yards, so Palos Woods is ideal for folks living on the southwest side of the city. It’s a straight shot to a massive landscape of hiking trails, mountain biking trails, and even the Swallow Cliff north stairs (a 100-foot bluff with 125 limestone stairs). The area has such a vast trail system that I spent most of the summer there early in the morning getting lost. The lakes and sloughs and lots of necessary quiet make the woods a special asset for the perimeter of the city. This park proves Chicago isn’t entirely flat.

Tip: Just north of the woods is Waterfall Glen, another incredible system of trails and scenic views for an otherwise flat landscape.

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Recommended: Route 53 Trail
Length: 1.2 miles

Okay, this isn’t going to be some euphoric, wonderful, beautiful trail. It’s a mostly gravel road along State Route 53. I know, I know, so why is it on the list? Well, if you’re down to drive to Wilmington, Illinois (about an hour from Chicago), you can see 27 bison. Yes, bison. Three calves were just born in May. The bison live in a pasture system so you may not see them up close and personally depending on where the herd decides to spend the day, but I got lucky when I went and saw them rolling around in the mud. The 1.2 mile-long trail can be a warm-up for the more than 12 miles of other trails that will take you through more wooded areas with bobolinks, homesteads, a cemetery, and even bunkers (2.5-mile trail on the Bailey Bridge Trail).

Starved Rock (but going the other way)
Recommended: Start from Council Overhang and head west
Length: 14 miles

Sure, we’ve all been once or twice or five times, but here’s my tip: Start at the reverse end instead of the beginning. Lovers leap really ain’t cute and the view of the dam and the concrete sidewalk is anything but naturesque.

I feel like most people haven’t even seen the beauty of Starved Rock because they start at the wrong side. Instead of starting at the Starved Rock Lodge (restaurants, people, strollers, chaos), start near the Ottowa Canyon parking lot (less cars, no people, more canyons). Now this, my friends, is where the beauty of Starved Rock lies. If you take the trail hiking back towards the lodge, you’ll see remote canyons with waterfalls and small secret swimming holes. Heading west, you’ll follow the brown and red trails, but make sure to take the offshoots to the canyons like Illinois Canyon and Lasalle Canyon.

Lake Michigan never looked so gorgeous as it does from the Nordhouse Dunes.
Lake Michigan never looked so gorgeous as it does from the Nordhouse Dunes.Credit: S. Nicole Lane

Some farther out-of-state options include:

Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin (three hours from Chicago)
Recommended: Devil’s Lake via West Bluff
Length: 4.7 miles

I didn’t feel like I was in the midwest when I hiked Devil’s Lake. I’m used to steep hills—like vertical—straight up, with lots of elevation. While Devil’s Lake didn’t check off all of these boxes, it did gift me with lots of steep climbing, incredible lake views, and boulders—tons of ‘em.

When we went, we added on trails to the West Bluff trail, making it upwards of 15 miles, but if you’re looking to get in some amazing views, with a moderate amount of hiking, take the loop trail.

In the winter, the rocks are a bit slick, so wear crampons or go the opposite direction—up East Bluff and down West Bluff—for easier walking.

Nordhouse Dunes, Michigan (four hours from Chicago)
Recommended: The Nordhouse Dune Backpacking Trail
Length: 14.1 miles

The first time I came here, I got lost. The second time, I came with friends. In the summer, the dunes will be filled with folks camping. In the winter, the sand is covered in a light snow. Lake Michigan never looked so gorgeous.

Tip: Don’t underestimate the difficulty of hiking in sand. In the winter, it’s a lot easier.

Manistee River, Michigan (four and a half hours from Chicago)
Recommended: The Manistee River Loop Trail
Length: 19.3 miles

This two-day backpacking trip was the highlight of an October weekend for me. The Manistee River is an incredibly special place with some steep climbing, gorgeous trees, and a river running through it. The hike was easy, euphoric even. We camped by the river and hiked the 19 miles over two days in the rain. Expect lots of overlooks and happy campers.

And for the more adventurous:

Chicago’s Outerbelt Loop

Starting at Buckingham Fountain, folks can walk 210 miles around the perimeter of the city through Chicago’s parks, lagoons, prairie lands, and surprisingly expansive trail systems.

In 2018, a group of Chicago hikers finished the entire hike through forest preserves and park land that surrounds the metro area. Of course, you don’t have to do it all in one push. Start hiking it in small sections as a way to explore the trails in and around the city.

In short, don’t let anyone tell you that there isn’t any hiking in our flat, precious, prairie-land that is Chicago. It’s not just a concrete jungle. The midwest doesn’t suck. If a girl from Appalachia can find nature in this city of parks, so can you.   v