You expect people to flock to an arboretum at the peak of the fall-color season. Spring blooms and summer greenery will certainly draw visitors. But winter? Let’s face it, with the leaves gone and the sky gray, you don’t expect to find people lining up.
Which is just one of the reasons why winter is a great time to explore the Morton Arboretum.
Don’t get us wrong, the 1,700-acre preserve in west-suburban Lisle is definitely worth a trip in the fall, spring, and summer. In the warm weather, chances are you will better enjoy the more than 4,000 species of trees and shrubs—or at least tell them apart a bit easier. But the Morton Arboretum offers several things that are difficult to find in the winter around Chicago: Hiking trails that remain usable in wet weather, snow-cleared roads for running and cycling, and excellent opportunities for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Plus you’ll find another Chicago-area rarity—plenty of hills.
Whether you’re training for a spring marathon or simply looking for a way to enjoy the outdoors, the Morton Arboretum offers an environment that’s hard to find in Chicago. You shouldn’t wait for the warm weather to take advantage of it. Whether or not there’s snow on the ground, you’ll find plenty to do.
On the Roads and Trails
The Morton Arboretum was created in 1922 by Joy Morton, who also founded the Morton Salt Company in Chicago in 1885. His father, J. Sterling Morton, was the Secretary of Agriculture under President Cleveland and the founder of Arbor Day. The mission of the arboretum, which continues to today, is to “collect and study trees, shrubs, and other plants from around the world.”
While the arboretum continues its work in both conservation and research, it has also become a cultural institution in the western suburbs, with dozens of events throughout the year, including concerts, festivals, theater, art, and culinary offerings.
For outdoor enthusiasts, the arboretum offers an incredibly scenic place to log plenty of miles, either hiking, biking, or running. In the winter, weather can make all three of these things difficult to do, which has made the arboretum a big draw for athletes to who want to avoid the treadmill and stationary bike.
The arboretum plows its paved roads (although ironically, it doesn’t salt them, as that’s bad for the trees), creating two large one-way loops with very little non-athlete traffic in the winter months.
The arboretum is divided into two sections. The bigger east side features a big loop that’s approximately four miles long, with two connecting roads that allow you to shorten the loop. You’ll run through groves of magnolias, buckeyes, oaks and maples, in addition to a section of trees from China and Japan. And that’s just to name a few.
The west side of the park features a smaller loop, this one about three miles, once again with a couple of connecting roads to make smaller loops if you like. On this side you’ll find groves of flowering trees, pines, spruce, hemlocks, birch and willows, once again, just touching on some of the biggies. The Thornhill Education Center is on the west side, which is used for classes as well as wedding on the weekends. There’s more water on the west side, with the east branch of the DuPage River snaking through, in addition to Sunfish Pond, Lake Marmo and Sterling Pond. Take the alternate route road on the east side for a really fun run through both oak and pine forests and great views of the lake.
When other roads or trails are covered in snow, you can find dozens of runners and cyclists taking advantage of the plowed roads every weekend morning. And the arboretum is open 365 days a year, meaning that you always have access to the roads.
For those who prefer going off-road, the arboretum has 16 miles of hiking trails, mostly covered in wood chips. Unfortunately they are just for hiking and walking—runners and cyclists must stick to the paved roads. This is really the best way to explore the trees on the property, and while you don’t have the quite the wow-factor in the winter, you might be surprised how often you’ll see something unique. There aren’t many places in Illinois to explore a grove of 80-foot tall spruces covered in snow. Make a point to check it out.
The woodchip paths offer great drainage, so the trails remain usable in all but the worst of conditions. Walking or hiking in a few inches of snow is not a problem. Of course, when the big stuff does hit…
Playing in the Snow
You could argue that the arboretum never looks better than when covered in a layer of fresh snow. The best way to see it is by cross-country skis or snowshoes. Visitors are welcome to bring their own equipment and explore the trails any time the park is open. Rentals are also available on a first-come/first-serve basis from December to March.
After you’re finished, relax at the Ginko Restaurant in the visitor’s center. The food is very good, and the dining room features floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook Meadow Lake.
In addition the sparse crowds, winter has one other advantage—you save $5 on admission. Adults are only $9 from December to March, with seniors $6 and kids $4. If you live in the area, consider a yearly membership, which starts at just $60/year for individuals. You won’t run out of places to explore—no matter the season.