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12 Places to hike, bike, and camp near Chicago

There's an abundance of outdoor adventure in and around the Windy City.

By: Erica Zazo + Save to a List

Chicago might not be the first place that comes to mind when planning an outdoor adventure. Think again!

Seemingly endless Lake Michigan shoreline, 156 miles of Chicago River, 70,000 acres of forest preserves, and 100+ biking trails are just a few of the reasons Chicago is an awesome city for urban adventure. 

From campgrounds within a 30-mile radius from The Bean to hiking trails that make you feel like you’re in the remote backcountry, Chicago has an abundance of nature, green space, and wild places to explore.

Here are the best places to ride your bike, take a hike, or set up a tent in and around Chicago – along with some local tips to make your adventure that much better.

Black Oak Trail at Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center
Photo by Michael

Hike

Take a walk on the wild side at a local nature center, forest preserve, or single-track trail near the city.

1. North Park Village Nature Center 1-mile loop trail

    A 46-acre nature preserve right in the heart of the city? Yes, please. Here you’ll find trails packed with interpretive signs, native plants, and family and youth programming throughout the year. The preserve shows off some of Illinois’ core ecosystems including wetlands, woods, prairie, and savanna – all in one park area.

    2. West Ridge Nature Park – 1-mile loop trail

      At the northwest edge of Rosehill Cemetery, you’ll find a hidden gem just north of the city. The 21-acre park tucked in between some of Chicago’s most popular north neighborhoods and a stone’s throw from Wrigley Field is full of native plants, stretches of boardwalks, and a 4.5-acre fishing pond.

      3. Cuba Marsh Forest Preserve – 3 miles of mixed trails

        This Lake County Forest Preserve trail makes for the perfect day-hike. Walk, run, jog, or bike through native marsh and prairie mixed with woodland and savanna. Cuba Marsh is arguably one of the best places to see all four of these Illinois ecosystems in one forest preserve.

        4. Palos Hills Trail System – 25+ miles of trails

          Challenge yourself with some of the hilliest hiking you’ll find near the city at Palos Hills. The over 25-mile mixed-use trail system is known for its mountain biking, day hiking, and other close-by outdoor recreation (like fishing, kayaking, and camping).

          Lakeside Gardens at Chicago Botanic Garden
          Photo by the Chicago Botanic Garden


          Bike

          Over 5,000 miles of bike trails wind their way around Chicago and into towns outside of the city. The question is: Which will you take?

          5. North Shore Channel Trail – 13-mile paved path

            Take this trail from the Lincoln Square/North Center neighborhoods to Evanston. Along the way, you’ll ride through sculpture gardens, alongside the North Branch of the Chicago River, and through small pockets of urban hustle and bustle before reaching downtown Evanston.

            6. Green Bay Trail – 19.5-mile paved trail

              Follow the Metra Union Pacific North line (Chicago’s commuter train) from the southern trailhead in Wilmette to the northern trailhead in Highland Park. With ample places to stop along the shoreline for a swim at a public beach, this lakeside trail is a popular route for cyclists looking to town-hop in the northern suburbs.

              7. North Branch Trail – 20-mile paved trail

                Connect the dots through a long strand of interconnected Cook County forest preserves – like LaBagh Woods, Forest Glen Woods, Caldwell Woods, and Bunker Hill – as you ride from Chicago to the Botanic Gardens in Glencoe. While you’re up in Glencoe, make sure you also check out the Skokie Lagoons.

                8. Big Marsh Bike Park – 7 miles of mixed trails

                  Whether you’re into paved trail riding, crushed limestone paths, single-track mountain biking, or extreme BMX pump-track rides – Big Marsh has it all. The 297-acre natural area and bike park is located on the Southeast side of Chicago and is a haven for bikers, bird watchers, and nature lovers.

                  Manistee River Trail
                  Photo by Chris Young

                  Camp

                  Have your pick of the perfect site at one of the region’s best forest preserves, state parks, or wilderness area campgrounds. Be sure to check for permits ahead of time - many require reservations to get a tent spot.

                  9. Forest Preserves of Cook County Campgrounds Chicagoland

                    Did you know Chicago has its very own campgrounds? Whether you’re an RV, tent, or cabin camper, check out the Forest Preserves of Cook County sites – each of which makes the perfect escape without a long-haul journey.

                    10. Richard Bong State Park – Wisconsin

                      Just an hour north on the border of Wisconsin and Illinois, this spot is a great place to get away for a weekend of state park camping. Richard Bong has 217 individual campsites and six group campsites to choose from. It's a short drive to downtown Kenosha and a huge public beach on Lake Michigan.

                      11. Shades State Park – Indiana

                        A little over three hours south of the city, you can find yourself in a rocky, gorge-filled paradise full of hiking trails and outdoor adventure. The trails are filled with adventure, including wooden ladders to take you to the tops of sandstone outcroppings and trickling waterfalls during rainy spring weather.

                        12. Manistee River Trail – Michigan

                          Want to try backpacking? The 23-mile Manistee River Trail is the perfect beginner backpacking spot to check out from Chicago. Connecting the North Country Trail to the Manistee River Trail, you’ll hike through the heart of the Manistee National Forest with ample campsites, cliff-side views of the Manistee River, and remote wilderness just 5 hours from the city.

                          Feature photo by Max Bender.

                          We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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