Hiking is one of the best ways to take in all the natural goodness the Chicago area has to offer. Here are some personal favorites for an eyeful of green, all within two hours of the Loop...assuming no traffic.
Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve Loop
Get there: A 20-minute drive, take 55 South to Cass Ave (S), follow the sign to Argonne Laboratory and you'll see the first trailhead. Note: If you're pressed for time and want the highlights, take the next exit off 55, Lemont Rd South.
Hard to believe, but true: There's a nine-plus-mile loop trail just 20 minutes from downtown. In truth, it's more of a nature walk than a hike, as the crushed-gravel path welcomes foot traffic, bicyclists and horses. The main trailhead loops around Argonne National Laboratory, passing through wetlands and forests. Ignore the words of Robert Frost and stay on the trail well traveled until you reach the Kettle Hotel side trail, as the Tear-Thumb side trail runs up against an unappealing barbed-wire fence. The varied terrain, which traverses Saw Mill Creek and includes wide expanses of prairie, is an awesome sampling of natural Illinois.
Sag Valley Trail System, Swallow Cliff Woods entrance
Get there: A 25-minute drive, take 55 South to Lagrange Road 45 South. After a river, channels, canals and a few small lakes, you'll get to the Swallow Cliff Woods parking lot. Follow the yellow trail.
A few miles from Waterfall Glen is the sprawling Palos Hills forest preserve system. Its southern preserves dish up some of the area's most distinctive terrain, with (get out your geography handbook) moraines, hills, lakes, ponds, kettles and sloughs. Known as one of the only (the only?) sledding destinations, the Sag Valley/Palos Hills district is revered for its mountain biking and fishing holes. An ideal hike for water lovers, the eight-mile loop main trail connects several of the park's areas, winding through dense forests and swamplands rife with waterfowl. The terrain varies but isn't too strenuous. Bicyclists and horses share the trail.
Starved Rock State Park
Get there: A 90-minute drive, take I-55 South to I-80 West; 45 miles to Rte. 178, Utica (exit #81); go South (left) for three miles to park entrance.
If you haven't been to legendary Starved Rock, you've probably heard of it. The distinctive bluffs looming over the Illinois River make this one of the State Park system's most popular destinations, and many of the shorter, steepest trails have undergone considerable work in recent years, from solid wood staircases to long hand rails. With more than 13 miles of trails, some skirting the bluffs, others descending into gulches, there is plenty of space to get away from the congestion. The trails, which can be ass-kickers by the river, offer plenty of switchbacks and intersections, letting you choose any number of loops depending on what you want to see.
Matthiessen State Park
Get there: A one hour, 40-minute drive, take I-55 South to I-80 West; 178 South past Starved Rock into the Dells area (make a right, take it into the woods to the park area).
The three main trails here run somewhat parallel to each other on different contours and have several off-shoots that all lead down, down, down, into the guts of the moraine. Gulches drain into the placid Vermillion River and offer some cool stone hiking, where you may encounter rappellers. Colors paint the rock faces as well, like in Giant's Bathtub, which envelops you in stout cliff walls. Five miles of trails are listed but it feels like a lot more at the end of the day. One trail stays high up in the trees, emerging onto meadows that look over the entire valley.
The Ice Age Trail
Get there: A one hour, 45-minute drive, take I-94 North to 50 West in Kenosha to Lake Geneva. Go North (right) on HWY 12.
No hiking article would be complete without a nod to our neighbors to the north. The Ice Age Trail, which zippers through Kettle Moraine State Park, will extend 1,000 miles through the state of Wisconsin once volunteers have established the second half of the trail, intended to be the Midwest's Appalachian Trail. Check the maps for parking areas then fashion your own loop from there — you can pass rolling fields spiked with cattail and sumac then dip into forests of birch and oak. The terrain is moderate (our group included a super pregnant friend who was hoping the hike would induce labor, to no avail). Though it's a little farther than the alternatives, it was refreshing to take in the Wisconsin landscape, replete with dairy cows, apple orchards and bucktooth hunters.
There are several local trails accessible by public transportation. The paved North Branch Bike Trail extends 20 miles into Lake County, ending at the Botanic Gardens. The lengthy Des Plaines River Trail is raw and unmaintained, ideal for both mountain bikers and hikers. And don't forget the lakefront path, which is especially pretty off Recreation Drive at the Bird Migration area.