Being 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bring a picnic! There are covered pavilions and picnic tables at many of the parking lots in the preserve.
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.
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. [August 2017 Update] Flatlander Ultrarunners in Chicagoland is an ultrarunning group in and around the city.
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?