While Chicago is a first-class running city, it is primarily that—a city. Road running and crushed limestone trails dominate both the racing and training scene in the area. And there’s nothing wrong with that—the Lakefront Path is certainly one of the great running resources in the country—sometimes it is nice to take on some terrain that’s a little more extreme. Or at least more fun.
And you can indeed find real trail runs around Chicago. Fall is the perfect time to expand your horizons a bit and enjoy the cooler weather, autumn colors and singletrack that make trail running so enjoyable. Here are five options within a manageable drive of the city that will definitely reward your effort to get there.
1. Palos Trail System
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.
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.
2. Deer Grove Forest Preserve
Offering the best trail running in Chicago’s northern suburbs, the Deer Grove Forest Preserve features nearly 10 miles of off-road trails in addition to several miles of paved routes that have made this a popular escape. Some have even referred to this as “Palos North,” in reference to the bigger trail system in the southwest suburbs. You don’t have the volume of trails here, but for north suburban runners this is certainly the gem of the forest preserve system.
Located just north of Dundee Road in Palatine, Ill., the Deer Grove Forest Preserve is bisected by Quentin Road, creating east and west sections of the park. The west side is slightly bigger, and has the longest trail, the yellow, which offers a 5.4-mile, uninterrupted loop. You can connect to black and orange trails on the west side and get in a good 10-mile run without too much repetition. On the east side, which is connected to the west via a paved trail, there’s a 2.6 mile brown loop as well as the 2.6 mile paved trail. See a full trail map here.
3. Indiana Dunes
As the name implies, the Indiana Dunes State Park is best known for its big sandy hills that line the Lake Michigan lakeshore about 30 miles from downtown Chicago. And yes, you have more than three miles of very nice beach among the 2,182 acres of the park, with a long-distance view of the Chicago skyline on a clear day. But the dunes next to the beach offer some of the most challenging hiking around and a very unique experience for trail runners looking for a different kind of destination run.
The state park features seven different trails—rated from easy to rugged—which tour the dunes and the adjacent nature preserve. That means that while you can certainly attempt to tackle the towering dunes, you also can explore trails that are more suitable for running. Find a trail map on the second page of the pamphlet here. The 5.5-mile trail No. 10 is the largest at the dunes, and it offers a big loop that goes out via the nature preserve and back along the dunes and the beach. Trail No. 9 is a 3.75-mile loop inside the preserve, with plenty of climbing.
4. Kettle Moraine State Forest, Southern Unit
Yes, this one is a bit of hike at 80 miles from downtown Chicago. But that doesn’t stop dedicated Chicago runners from making the trip to southern Wisconsin to experience the best trail running in the area. And the best mountain biking. And the best cross-country skiing. Basically, Kettle Moraine is the best place to get off-road for big distances and get as close to a western experience as we have in the Midwest.
The southern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest contains more than 22,000 acres in southern Wisconsin, about 37 miles southeast of Milwaukee. For runners, 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.
So you'll discover some great views, but also have to do some serious climbing. Keep in mind when planning your mileage that these trails can be tough.
You may be able to find other trails like this in northern Wisconsin or Michigan, but this is by far the best off-road experience you can find within a couple of hours of Chicago. Kettle Moraine’s southern unit is full of trails, but you’ll probably want to start with the two most established trail clusters: the John Muir Trails (see the trail map here) on the south side of the preserve and the Emma Carlin Trails (see the trail here) in the central part of the forest.
5. Knoch Knolls Park
I first discovered the off-road trails at Knoch Knolls Park in Naperville when watching a cross-country meet. I watched the runners leave the grassy fields and enter the woods and wondered where they are the going?
Turns out Knoch Knolls, which is operated by the Naperville Park District, has a small but very fun group of off-road trails. You just need to know about them.
The park occupies the land between the west branch and east branch of the DuPage River before they merge at the southern border of the park. The paved DuPage River Trail runs through the park and connects the trails that follow both the west and east branches of the river. Not much more than a mile of the trail runs through the park before it hits the DuPage River Sports complex, which contains baseball diamonds and tennis courts.
But don’t expect any trail signs or help when you arrive. This is more of an explore-on-your-own situation. There are some generic signs telling cyclists to yield on the shared paths, but you won’t find a general trail map at the park or on the Naperville Park District’s website. Thankfully, the Chicago Area Mountain Bikers offers a map to give you an overview. If you have to drive more than 30 minutes, they’re probably not worth your time (drive to Palos instead). But if you live in the Naperville area, they’re a great local treat.