Perhaps we shouldn’t have gotten so excited about that big snowstorm before Thanksgiving? While the record November snow allowed from some of the earliest cross-country skiing ever in the area, it was the last snow we’ve seen—and it certainly didn’t last long. Rain and warm temperatures have made December resemble, well, not December in Chicago.
But fear not. This is indeed Chicago, which means that at some point, snow will arrive and you’ll be able to take out the skinny skis again. The nice thing about cross-country skiing is that you can do it just about anywhere. Almost any forest preserve touts cross-country skiing as one of the available activities. But in reality, there are very few dedicated cross-country destinations in the area designed specifically for the sport, with groomed trails, lessons, and rentals. So when the snow does come, where are the best places to take advantage of it? Here are five of our favorite places to ski in the Chicago area.
1. Arrowhead Golf Course
I may be a bit biased since I’m lucky enough to live nearby, but the Arrowhead Golf Course in Wheaton (known as the Arrowhead Nordic Center once the snow falls) is one of the area’s true gems. With rentals and lessons available, it’s one of the few places south of Wisconsin for beginning skiers to learn the sport. The groomed trails are great for both classic and skate skiers, and while the golf course is relatively exposed, you can easily access the Herrick Lake Forest Preserve next door, which offers some very nice tree-line trails that are also groomed for both classic and skating.
The trails on the golf course, though, are still very good. The 27-hole course offers plenty of room, with lots of ups and downs and several decent size hills to challenge you. Because of the groomed trails, you’ll find lots of skate skiers at Arrowhead. It may indeed be the top spot in the area for those who are training for the American Birkebeiner or other ski races in Wisconsin. If weather cooperates, it’s also the home of the one of the few ski races in Illinois, organized by the Northern Illinois Nordic Club. But don’t be intimidated. You’ll find just as many—if not more—beginners and families out on a nice winter day. There’s also an excellent bar and restaurant at the facility with giant picture windows, which is a great place to relax and warm-up after some time on the trail.
2. Camp Sagawau
Camp Sagawau , which is located in southwest suburban Lemont and close to the Palos Trail System, is the best place in the Chicago area to try the sport for the first time. For a city that has a long winter and lots of snow—at least some winters—it’s surprising that there aren’t more facilities like Camp Sagawau around. But when the snow is available, this is a great introduction to cross-country skiing. It’s also one of the few places to learn skate skiing, for those who are interested in trying the aerobic intensive sport. The facility offers rentals, lessons and groomed trails to help anyone get started with cross-country skiing. And for those more experienced skiers, the trail system includes a 1.3K trail that will offer a bit of a challenge.
But Camp Sagawau is really about getting started in the sport and having a place where anyone can rent equipment and enjoy some time on skis. The area has just less than 3 miles of groomed trails at the facility, which serves as a nature center in the snow-free months.
3. Lakewood Forest Preserve
The Lake County Forest Preserve system offers nearly 130 miles of cross-country ski trails in various preserves across the county. In fact, you can ski on any preserve hiking trail. But the Lakewood Forest Preserve’s Winter Sports Area is one of only two preserves in the system that offers groomed trails (the Old School Forest Preserve in Libertyville is the other).
The aptly named Winter Sports Area features 2,117 acres that offers not only cross-country skiing, but ice skating, sledding and ice fishing. It’s also the home of the Lake County Discovery Museum, a regional history museum that can be a nice place to hit on the trip as well.
The preserve also offers something unique in the area—night skiing. The 1.3-mile Millennium Trail in the park features small solar lights to illuminate your way. While the rest of the preserve closes at sunset, the lighted path is open until 9 p.m. during the winter. The sled hill at Lakewood is also illuminated for nighttime activity. The cross-country ski trails aren’t particularly long—you get just over three miles of groomed trails—but they are well maintained and scenic.
4. Rock Cut State Park
Located just northwest of Rockford, Ill., and bordering I-39, Rock Cut State Park is a good cross-country ski destination in north central Illinois. The 3,092-acre preserve features rolling plains, two large lakes and—as you may expect from a park called “Rock Cut” located near Rockford along the Rock River—several rocky outcroppings.
The park offers some very nice tree-lined trails and plenty of space to ski. If you’re coming from Chicago, it’s probably better to head north to Wisconsin than west to Rockford to get in your cross-country fix. You’ll find more extensive trail systems there about the same distance away. But if you’re west of the city and conditions are good, this isn't a bad option. If you’re interested in groomed trails, call ahead after a snow to see if they have indeed been groomed.
5. Kettle Moraine State Forest—Southern Unit
Yes, it’s a bit of a drive. But if you’re up for a road trip, the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest is one of the top cross-country skiing options in the Midwest. The state forest contains more than 22,000 acres in southern Wisconsin, about 37 miles southeast of Milwaukee and a two-hour drive from Chicago. For skiers, that means more than 130 miles of trails to explore—with lots of variety. You’ll find hardwood forests, pine plantations and prairie.
The term “kettle moraine” is actually a geological description that comes from how the area was created. A moraine is an accumulation of rock and soil that comes from a glacier, while a kettle is a shallow body of water formed by a retreating glacier. You don’t need a degree in geology to figure out that this means the area is filled with rolling hills, valleys and ridges. They provide some great views, but also some serious climbing. Keep in mind when planning your mileage that these trails can be tough.
While Kettle Moraine’s southern unit is full of trails, but you’ll probably want to start with groomed trails that are specifically designed for Nordic skiing, just south of the village of Palmyra on County Highway H. Here you’ll find trails groomed for both classic and skate skiing that feature a wide variety of topography. There are six different trails, ranging from the 9.9-mile blue trail to the .62-mile brown trail, with varying degrees of difficulty.
The trails are connected, so it’s easy to create your own loops that fit your needs. There is a warming shelter, water and bathrooms at the trailhead near the parking lot.