Trail Running in Chicago

Destination Dirt logoBeing one of the biggest cities in the world located in the characteristically flat Midwest, Chicago isn’t exactly what comes to mind when one thinks of a trail running hotspot. And based on some basic observations from some cool fall mornings it seems that most city dwellers and visitors decide on a run along the Lakefront Trail. But If you find yourself in the concrete jungle and craving soft singletrack, rolling hills, wooded lakes, and maybe some wildlife, do not fear. There are places for you.

As I mentioned above the most common training ground for Chicago runners is along the Lakefront Trail, and 18-mile paved trail with with plenty of grassy parks and the occasional stretch of sandy beach. Montrose Beach is one park along the Lakefront Trail that has fields and beaches on which you can do some running. There are numerous forest preserves and the long, continuous Des Plains River Trail along the Des Plaines River which is easily accessible from Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Another place to get in some sandy trail running is the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which is around an hour from Chicago.

The trail system that we’re focusing on is the Palos Region of the Cook County Forest Preserve. With the nearest parking lots located just thirty minutes from the Loop, which is the downtown area of Chicago. (This is assuming no traffic; give yourself plenty of time on both ends of a run just in case.) The Palos Region of Cook County offers a few thousand acres full of dirt singletrack and limestone paths. Don’t come out expecting the typical, flat Midwest, here you’ll find rolling hills and even some 90-foot bluffs great for getting in those hill workouts. Whitetail deer, numerous species of birds, and other woodland animals live here. Of historical interest is that you can find a historical marker where nuclear equipment from the Manhattan Project is buried.

Saganashkee Slough - Chicago Trail Running

Saganashkee Slough provides some of the best views in the area.

Here’s the official trail map from the forest preserve, and here’s a map created of the same trails by the Chicago Area Mountain Bikers.

Not that many of the trails are also open to an active mountain biking community and equestrians so stay aware of the other park users when out for a run. Pay attention when crossing roads in the preserve as cars fly by often not looking out for runners. Finally, the forest preserve is open from sunrise to sunset 365 days a year.

Getting Here

From the Loop, the best method of transit is car by taking I-55 South out of town to exit 279A, which puts you just north of the trail system. It is possible to get here by getting crafty with the Metra train system’s SouthWest Service or Heritage Corridor lines.

Easy Run

For an easy trail run I recommend the Orange West Trail loop which is predominantly singletrack with some limestone doubletrack for 6.3 miles. Park at the Wolf Road Woods and get on the trail there. This run will take you through thick forest and past scenic lakes.

Moderate Run

This is run starts at the Morrill Meadows parking area,  and the best parts of the route can be as short as you like or extended out to 12 miles. Drive all the way down the parking road and you’ll find a trail entering the woods on your right. Follow this trail until it forks and take the left trail. This trail will dump you onto the outskirts of a spacious prairie and then take you back into the woods following along the Cal-Sag Canal. For the rest of this run you know you are on the right track if the canal is within a stone’s throw away.

Trail running - Cal-Sag Channel - Chicago

Buffed out single track running along the Cal-Sag Channel.

After about two miles you will go through an underpass and will see Saganashkee Slough on your right. There are two options for the trail here. The first continues smoothly next to the canal. The other one shoots up into the mound where they dumped the excess dirt from the canal and offers some unique mountain-like terrain. I highly recommend taking this higher path if you’re looking for tougher terrain. Turning around where Saganashkee Slough ends will give you around an eight-mile run. This Canal Trail continues on for another four miles as well if you are looking to run further. Return the way you came.

trail running Chicago - Saganashkee Slough

Looking over Saganashkee Slough.

Advanced Run

This route links up some of the best trails in the Palos Region for approximately 19.5-mile run. The starting point for the route is at Wolf Road Woods. The route starts out counter-clockwise with the Yellow Trail loop. The Yellow Trail is pretty well signed except for when it comes to the intersection of Willow Springs Road and 95th Street where you will want to go west on 95th Street until the singletrack starts back up again on the left side of the road.

Right after this and around six miles into the route, turn onto the Purple N. Cemetery Hill loop which will take you for a fun two-mile lollipop and then bring you right back to the Yellow Trail. Continue on the Yellow Trail until hitting Wolf Road where you will go right onto one mile of hilly asphalt to a left into the Bullfrog Lake parking lot. There will be the Blue North Trail on your right which you will follow 1.2 miles until you come across the Green West Trail. Take the left option here which will take you to the Orange West Trail. Go right onto the Orange West Trail until arriving back at Wolf Road Woods.

Gear

Running gear can be found at one of the many Chicago running stores such as one of Fleet Feet’s locations or Universal Sole. More trail specific gear is available at the downtown REI or Erewhon Mountain Outfitter.

Food

Bring a picnic! There are covered pavilions and picnic tables at many of the parking lots in the preserve.

Alzain Grill at 8082 111th Street is a quick drive from the Palos Region parking lots and serves up some great Mediterranean cuisine. With friendly staff, fresh food, and low prices it’s definitely worth a visit.

Of course being in Chicago it would be a shame not to get some of the famous deep dish. I’m no expert on the downtown deep dish scene but I do know you can’t go wrong taking a visit to Lou Malnati’s or Giordano’s. Both restaurants have a couple locations in the Chicago-land.

Additional Resources

Two ultrarunning clubs in the Chicago area are the Chicago Ultrarunners (CHUG) and the New Leaf Ultra Runs group. Both clubs are free to join.

Lots of local trail races offer up a chance to play on area dirt, including the Paleozoic 25k and 50k, the Chicago Lakefront 50k, and the Des Plains River Half Marathon, Marathon, and 50-Mile.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Chicago-area trail fiends, let’s hear it! We’ve covered trail running in just one Chicago-land location, but we know there’s lots more out there. Leave us a comment to let us know where else one should play in your neck of the woods.
  • Have you run on the Palos Region trails? What’s your favorite trail or section of scenery there?
Ryan Lindemulder

is iRunFar’s Spring 2013 Intern. Born and raised south of Chicago, Illinois, he ran cross country and track for 11 years and is now directing his passion into trail and ultrarunning. An English major in his senior year at Trinity Christian College, he looks forward to cultivating his running and writing skills. While spending most of his time on the trails near Chicago, Ryan has spent summers working and exploring in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado.

There are 19 comments

  1. Chris

    Those are great trails! Of course the western 'burbs have the prarie path! You can run from the end of the Blue line in Maywood all the way to the Fox river almost 100% on crushed limestone trails. There are 62 miles of paths to explore, many of which lead through forest preserves that have single track. You won't find too many hills, but you will have lots of shade in the summer. http://www.ipp.org/

  2. Slow Aaron

    Shout out to the Izack Walton Preserve 3.6 mile loop (probably the best/only trail-running option in Homewood, IL). The din of I-80 and a huge train yard hardly ruins the authentic nature experience.

    I wonder if my 7.3 lap Izack Walton Marathon FKT still stands?

  3. Becky

    When I lived in the Chicago area I was a dedicated runner of the Salt Creek trail system in the southwest suburbs. At the time that I moved away in 2008 there were 7 miles of connected, paved trails along green spaces from Bemis woods (roughly between Oakbrook and La Grange) to Brookfield. And mile markers! I credit this trail with keeping me sane through my grad-student days. I trained for my first 5 half marathons on it and never got bored.

    http://fpdcc.com/preserves-and-trails/maps/

  4. Jarrett

    I love the palos and sag valley trails and have probably covered 25 miles of the trail system so far. It's worth mentioning that a lot of the trails are prone to being extremely muddy, even a lot of the low lying limestone trails. A lot of the single track is also closed when muddy to help protect the trails. The mountain bikers site has a guide to current trail closures. Some of the parking lots are closed when there is snow but the lot at bullfrog lake is always open on the northern palos side.

  5. Jurg

    Over the years I tried out all of the trail systems in Chicago and Palos is certainly the best, but a few things to consider:

    – Definitely use the CAMBR trail map mentioned above. It is excellent.

    – The trails can be a little confusing at first.

    – The runners that I saw seemed to stick to the Bullfrog Lake loop, which is a big mistake. The Orange, Black, and Purple are all much more fun than the Bullfrog lake. The singletrack portions of the Yellow and Brown trails are nice as well.

    – The singletrack trails get packed with mountain bikers on weekends and in the evening. They are usually quite friendly, but they expect you to get out of their way.

    – The trails get incredibly muddy for about half the year.

    – A drive from the city often takes an hour each way because of traffic on 55.

    – Your car will get ticketed after sundown. The best places to park are by Bullfrog Lake, Maple Lake, and Wolf Road. If you need to run through the night there is parking in a grocery store lot on W. 95th east of the park. You can head west down 95th and hit the Brown Trail. Watch out for the coyotes!

    – There is actual nuclear waste under the trails, not just equipment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Gate_Woods

  6. Brian

    We have compiled a list of the single track in the Chicago area in our New Leaf Ultra Runs group:

    Gander Mountain (IL/WI border) – About 4 miles of single track, which also includes 2 huge hills On Wilmot Rd. Just north of Rt173. There's is a pull off area where you can park on the shoulder. There is no lot.

    Lakewood Forest Preserve (Near HWY 12/176) – About 4 miles of single track, some is unmarked. Moderate elevation gain. Connects to horse trails on other side of Ivanhoe rd for about an 8 mile loop.

    Veteran Acres is best accessed at Sterne's Woods on Hillside. I've attached a link to find on Mapquest. Saturday morning runs, usually start at 8:00am from here. http://mapq.st/GMNhsM

    Bullfrog Lake is on Wolf Rd. accessed off of Archer Ave, East of 83 and west of Willow Springs Rd. Lot's of good single track in there. Early morning is best, due to mountain bikers that share the trails. It get's a bit busy as the day goes on. http://mapq.st/GLTje5

    Palos – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXL2ejnwlU8

    Hidden Lake Forest Preserve (Butterfield Rd and Rte 53) – Single track with a few moderate hills. This gets really overgrown in the summer. There is a nice crushed limestone loop around the lakes that is approximately 2 miles.

    Schiller Woods/Catherine Chevalier Woods (Chicago). Forest Preserves run east of Des Plaines river & west of Cumberland (8400 West), between Irving Park (4000 N) & I90. 6 or 7 miles of single track, plus several miles of wide paths. Pretty woods and lots of deer – surprisingly nice for such an urban location.

    Saw Wee Kee (Oswego). Former strip mine converted into a park. The spoil piles are now part of the trail system. Approximately 7 miles of narrow trails meander throughout the 130-acre park. Often used by mountain bikers. Located along the south shore of the Fox River on Sundown Lane, off Orchard Road, Oswego Township. http://www.oswegolandparkdistrict.org/Trails-Park

    Visit us at http://www.newleafultra.com

  7. LL

    Here's the places I've enjoyed trails around Chicago over the years:

    WalCamp in Kingston, IL

    Fuller Forest Preserve in Winnebago, IL

    Elburn Forest Preserve in Elburn, IL

    Russell Forest Preserve in Genoa, IL

  8. mtnrunner2

    Cool. I was on vacation talking to a Chicago friend yesterday about the great forest preserves around the city. I ran at Arthur L. Janura Preserve on a business trip and enjoyed it.

  9. Andrew

    I wanted to point out a trail running group in the Chicago area. A buddy of my (Art) started Muddy Monk this past year and is organizing a bunch of races. I'm sure he can help connect people to running groups in the area as well: http://www.muddymonk.com/

  10. Jay

    I lived in Chicago for many years. Ran XC for a suburban Chicago high school.

    Two more to add to the list:

    The north branch trail runs from Devon and Caldwell in the city all the way north to the Botanic Gardens. It is a paved bike path, but there is a bridal path and some decent trail along most of it, some official, some unofficial. If you look hard you can do pretty much the whole path on dirt (or at worst grass).

    http://fpdcc.com/downloads/maps/pdf/nbn_trailmap…. http://fpdcc.com/downloads/maps/pdf/nbs_trailmap….

    I once ran from Northfield, through down this path, then connected through Edgebrook, Forest Glen and LaBagh woods almost to Foster and Pulaski. Then on roads to Linclon Square. Not the greatest trail running ever, but cool to have some trail actually in the city. And it looks like they're going to make this connection official.

    http://www.indianwoods.org/north-branch-bike-trai

    The Old School Forest Preserve in Libertyville also has some nice trails. You can do a roughly 13 mile lollipop loop from the north end south and back. The Runner's Edge used to do a Trail Half Marathon there every Labor Day, but I think it's been discontinued.

    Thanks for the article!

  11. Antirabbit

    Ill add a few more up north:

    Skokie Vally Preserve-Lake Bluff/Lake Forest- flat, but stunning and no bikes. Almost exclusively single track/grass trail. Winds along the river and into some absolutely stunning pristine grasslands. Good anytime of year. 6-8 miles of trails.

    Independance Grove/Wilmot woods-Very rugged single track, no bikes, you have about 3 miles in the woods, then you can pop out and run on the DPRT as far as you want and then hit the woods on the way back. I have a sweet 14 mile loop that heads from the woods, then south to Old School forest preserve.

    Gander is by far the best. Its rugged, hilly, and no bikes. Kind of in the middle of nowhere..

  12. Brian

    Art, of MuddyMonk.com has a great Chicagoland trail race series. He's doing a great job getting our fellow Chicagoans more involved with the local trail running scene.

  13. Sean Clancy

    If you don't mind driving 45 minutes or so, check out Dunes State Park in Indiana.

    Soft dirt trails, some steep, loose sand climbing if you're interested. Great place to run long, and mostly shaded. This is a wooded park adjacent to the dunes and beach. Great post-run swimming spot. In high school cross country, my coaches Hal Higdon and John Ryder took us here frequently.

    Trails, Maps and info: http://www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/2980.htm

    Sean Clancy

    clancymultisport.blogspot.com
    http://www.dartadventure.com

  14. Matt

    I concur on the Dunes State Park, IN. Trails 8,9, 10 are so sweet.

    Also, Imagination Glen in Portage, IN is worth the drive. Be prepared to share the trail with mountain bikers.

  15. Gary

    The bike paths are nice. But, if you’re looking for trail running on singletrack, there are two pretty good locations.
    Palos Trail System, Palos IL
    http://fpdcc.com/downloads/maps/trails/english/FPCC-Palos-Trail-Map-10-15.pdf

    Veteran Acres/Sterne’s Woods, Crystal Lake, IL
    http://crystallakeparks.org/Parks-Facilities/Veteran-Acres.asp

    Palos hosts a few running races each and a mountain bike race. Veteran Acres/Sterne’s Woods hosts multiple races each year, up to 50k. Both are worth the trip.

  16. ILA

    Hi,
    The links provided for CHUG and New Leaf Ultra Runs are non-functioning sites. It would be nice if you add http://www.flultra.com/ Chicago Flatlanders, which is VERY active with a strong FB group and Strava presence as well. Free to join, from beginners to experienced runners.
    Thanks
    ILA

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