Chicago is blessed with many routes for running, hiking and mountain biking. The Lakefront Path is one of the most impressive running trails in the country. The Prairie Path, Fox River Trail and Des Plaines River Trail all offer runners and cyclists countless miles of uninterrupted bliss. But the vast majority of local trails are of the crushed limestone variety. They’re easy to access at most forest preserves in the area, and they get the job done.
But it’s fall—the temperatures are cooler, the bugs are gone, and you’ve hopefully spent the summer getting fit. If you’re ever going to make the effort to enjoy the limited amount if singletrack trails in the area, the time to do it is under a canopy of brilliant fall colors.
So take that bike off-road. Go for a hike that couldn’t more accurately be called a walk. And use those trail running shoes for their intended purpose. Here are 7 Chicago-area off-road destinations offering singletrack trails that will make you wish more forest preserves would forgo the crushed limestone and allow us to get a little dirtier.
1. Palos Trail System
Chances are, this is the one you know about. The Palos Trail System , a series of Cook County Forest Preserves southwest of the city, is the go-to spot for off-roading around Chicago. Near the junction of I-55 and I-294 the trail system in the preserves features nine trails of varying degrees of difficulty, with plenty of singletrack mixed in with some multi-track roads. Just a 30-minute ride from downtown, at least when there’s no traffic early mornings on the weekends, this is also as close as we get to the “mountain” in mountain biking. You’ll find trails appropriate for all levels of riders, and plenty of runners find that you can’t beat a weekend long run on the trails system. For the first time this year, camping is available as well, for those who want to make a weekend out of the off-road experience.
2. Deer Grove Forest Preserve
Deer Grove offers the best mountain biking and trail running in Chicago’s northern suburbs, with 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 those in the northern suburbs this is certainly the gem of the forest preserve system.
Located just north of Dundee road in Palatine, Ill., the 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, ride, or hike 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.
3. Knoch Knolls Park
It’s easy to miss what makes Knoch Knolls Park unique. Run by the Naperville Park District, 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.
You have to look for them, but Knoch Knolls also has honest to goodness packed-dirt singletrack, as well as miles of multitrack and grass paths mowed into the prairie. 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. But the Chicago Area Mountain bikers offer a nice map to help you find your way.
4. Kettle Moraine State Forest
Yes, it’s a bit of a drive from Chicago—about 80 miles from downtown—but you’ll find plenty of Chicago athletes who happily make the trip to southern Wisconsin for the best trail off-road trail system in the area. The Kettle Moraine State Forest contains more than 22,000 acres 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.
For mountain bikers, the two most established trail clusters are the John Muir Trails on the south side of the preserve and the Emma Carlin Trails in the central part of the forest. From either location, you’ll also be able to jump on the Ice Age Trail, a national scenic trail that covers more than 1,200 miles in the state of Wisconsin. The 30+ miles in the Kettle Moraine State Forest are among the best.
No matter what you enjoy on the trails, you’ll experience superb fall colors and plenty of hills to make your usual trip on the Lakefront Path seem like a breeze.
5. Rock Cut State Park
Located just northwest of Rockford, Ill., and bordering I-39, Rock Cut State Park is a welcome chance to take your mountain bike off-road, with more than 10 miles of singletrack and 24 total miles of trail available to cyclists, runners and hikers. 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.
Rock Cut is also unique in that it allows mountain bikers to use the trails at night—so grab your headlamps and plan a night outing on the trails. Camping is available in the park, with 270 sites, which can be reserved in advance. You’re also not far from the Espenscheid Forest Preserve, which is about three miles south of Rock Cut, and features another three miles of singletrack.
6. Matthiessen State Park
Located in LaSalle County just west of the Starved Rock State Park is Matthiessen State Park , perhaps less known than Starved Rock but equally impressive in its geographical features that seem out of place in central Illinois. You’ll find beautiful rock formations, tons of tree-covered trails, wildlife and plenty of amenities for runners, mountain bikers and hikers.
Most people going to Matthiessen for the first time will be surprised by the exposed sandstone formations that pop up all over the park. The main canyon was formed by water erosion and is more than a mile long, connecting Deer Park Lake to the Vermillion River. The sheer rock walls are home to cliff swallows and rock doves, while the moist canyon floor house salamanders, frogs and toads, in addition to an abundance of ferns and other moisture-loving plants.
Of course, to access most of this, you’ll have to leave the mountain bike behind. The Matthiessen Vermillion River Area is the only section that’s open to mountain biking. But that’s OK. Take a cool down from the running or cycling to stop and enjoy the surroundings that look nothing like the rest of Illinois.
7. Indiana Dunes
Just because summer is over doesn’t mean you should avoid the 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. 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 and draw big crowds in the summer. 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. Sorry, no mountain biking on the trails.
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.