For an area that features such strong running and cycling communities, Chicago offers a surprisingly limited number of opportunities for cross-country skiers. Well, let’s clarify that: You can cross-country ski just about anywhere when there’s snow—and the crushed limestone paths in nearby forest preserves actually make wonderful cross-country trails. If you’re a dedicated skier, you can find plenty of options once the white stuff comes down.
But if you’ve never tried the sport, it can be a little trickier getting started. While states including Wisconsin and Minnesota feature organized events, night skiing, kids' programs, and a promotional campaign, Illinois residents have limited options when it comes to learning the sport. Rentals, lessons, and the like aren't as readily available or advertised as they are in other Midwest states.
Of course, a lot of that has to do with the snow, or lack thereof in recent years. The sport developed a strong following in the 1970s when there was plenty of snow throughout the winter. For most of the last 25 years, winters have tended to be warmer, or at least had warm spells that made good ski days few and far between. Over the last five years, that trend has changed somewhat, with cold temperatures that have kept ski trails open for months.
So if you’re a runner or cyclist who's already tired of indoor workouts, how (and where) do you get started with cross-country skiing? Luckily, there are several suburban facilities that offer rentals, lessons, and groomed trails that can be the perfect introduction to the sport. Most skiers start learning the classical, parallel style, which is often done on groomed tracks. But you’ll also see lots of skiers using the skate technique—pushing off the edge of a ski like an ice skater—which is faster but more work. Either way, count on a major calorie burn.
So when the snow comes down this year, don’t complain—head to one of these trails and see why a small but dedicated group of Illinois skiers enjoy it so much.
Camp Sagawau, Lemont, Ill.
While you can cross-country ski in just about any forest preserve in Cook County, there’s only one place to learn the sport for the first time—Camp Sagawau, located in southwest suburban Lemont, close to the Palos Trail System.
With rentals, lessons, and about three miles of groomed trails, it's an ideal spot for beginners to the sport. Lessons are offered with a PSIA-certified ski instructor on weekends from January to March, weather permitting (no reservations necessary; $20/person). All skiers must obtain a trail pass, which is free, from the lodge before hitting the trails.
There's something for the more experienced skiers, too, namely, a 1.3-kilometer trail that will offer a bit of a challenge. Another option, the nearby Palos Trail System, is just east of the facility (which, in the snow-free months, serves as a nature center).
Arrowhead Golf Course, Wheaton, Ill.
Arrowhead Golf Course becomes the Arrowhead Nordic Center when conditions are right in the winter, and it’s one of the best places south of Wisconsin for beginning skiers. 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 excellent tree-lined trails that are also groomed for both classic and skating.
The trails on the golf course, though, are equally good. The 27-hole course offers plenty of open space, with lots of ups and downs and several decent-sized hills to challenge you.
Arrowhead's groomed trails attract their fair share of skate skiers. In addition, it's a top spot in the area for those training for the American Birkebeiner and 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 by the elites; you’ll find just as many—if not more—beginners and families out on a nice winter day.
The facility is owned and operated by the Wheaton Park District, and the relatively new building that serves as a clubhouse and rental shop is spectacular. After your excursion, grab some grub and a pint while watching other skiers continue the action.
Another bonus? No trail pass is needed for Arrowhead; just pop on your skis and go (rental packages start at $15 for adults). Lessons are usually available on the weekends, but check the website for more details.