The Chicago area is filled with many miles of crushed limestone trails. And they’re great—easy on the legs while giving you a chance to explore some beautiful natural areas. But they’re not trail running like you see in the magazine ads. Hills, stones, downed trees, slippery surfaces, roots and creeks—that’s not what you get for the most part in the Chicago area.
Except at Palos.
Near the junction of I-55 and I-294 is the trail running Mecca for the Chicago area—The Palos Trail System. Technically it’s several forest preserves that are part of the Cook County Forest Preserve system, but to anyone who enjoys running off-road, you only need to know one word: Palos.
The trail system in the preserve features nine trails of varying degree of difficulty, with plenty of singletrack mixed in with some multitrack roads. This is the best place to truly take advantage of actual trail running just a 30-minute ride from downtown—at least when there’s no traffic early mornings on the weekends. Palos offers plenty of hills to test the mettle of those who do most of their training on the Lakefront.
What Makes It Great
Singletrack in Chicago. Plus the amenities a runner needs—bathrooms, water—to make it the perfect place for a challenging long run.
The yellow trail is the longest at 8.3 miles, and it offers a big loop in the middle of the preserve with about a 50/50 mix of singletrack and multiuse road. You can start at the mountain bike staging area at Grove 2 in Pulaski Woods. The mountain bike community has been instrumental in maintaining the trail system at Palos, and the Chicago Area Mountain Bikers (CAMBR) offer a great map of the preserve that can be very useful for trail runners. It’s much better than the one produced by the forest preserve. The more fun singletrack section includes the Bullwhip switchback and view of Maple Lake and Long John Slough. The 6.3 mile Orange West Trail is nearly all single track, with some excellent sections through Three Ravines and the Psycho Path, which gives you an idea of what to expect.
But that’s not to say that all of the trails are for experts. The Blue North (1.2 miles) and Blue South (2.9 miles) offer some great stretches that are more moderate. And there’s plenty of trails with no singletrack to get a taste of off-road running
If you’ve never run off-road before, this is the best place to do it in the Chicago area. Escape the city and enjoy the seclusion of the trails. It's also the place where you'll find most of the off-road running races in the area.
Who is Going to Love It
Runners looking for a challenge. You don’t get hills like this in very many places. But runners of all ability levels will find something to suit their needs in this impressively big preserve.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Parking at the Palos Forest Preserve is easy. Cook County Forest Preserve Hours are from sunrise to sunset. You can find trails all over the park, but the mountain bike staging area is in the center of the park. Take Archer Avenue to Pulaski Woods and look for signs to Grove 2.