Best Urban Hiking in Chicago

Jackson Park (Photo: Jonah Anderson/Shutterstock)

If you heard someone tell you to “take a hike” while you were in Chicago, you most likely would be a bit confused — after all, the city isn’t well known for its trails. That said, Chicago, being fairly flat, does have some stellar nature walks in and around the city, through parks, bluffs and dunes.

Chicago Lakefront Trail

Daniel Burnham, one of Chicago’s original architects, crafted the Chicago Plan, in which he wrote, “The Lakefront by right belongs to the people.” Today, you can enjoy 18 miles of paved pathways that stretch from the north at Hollywood Beach all the way down to 71st Street — and there are truly some clueless people who do, in fact, think they own the lakefront. It’s inevitable. Try to ignore them as you walk, bike, rollerblade or run.

Along the way, you’ll pass numerous parks, beaches, bird sanctuaries, volleyball nets and soccer fields and stroll by historic sites like Buckingham Fountain, Soldier Field and the South Shore Cultural Center and soak in the gleaming skyline. There are plenty of small cafes and eateries along the path as well as places to stop and have a drink and take a rest. You’re gonna need it.

Northerly Island

Tucked away back behind Soldier Field, the Shedd Aquarium and McCormick Place is one of the city’s hidden treasures. Northerly Island was originally built for the 1933 World’s Fair and once held Meigs Field, a city airport that was infamously bulldozed overnight by Mayor Richard M. Daley. Today, the 91-acre man-made peninsula is best known for summer concerts by the likes of Phish, Dave Matthews Band and Jimmy Buffett, but people might be surprised that most of the island is saved for nature with beautiful walking paths and a breathtaking backdrop of the city’s skyline. Work is underway to redevelop the southern 40 acres for better camping, stargazing and nature retreats.

Jackson Park

Soak in history at this South Side park in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood just off the University of Chicago. Once the site of the 1893 World’s Fair, the nearly 500-acre park has hidden treats like the Osaka Japanese Garden hidden on Wooded Island and the Golden Lady, a grand statue remaining from the World’s Fair. Spend a few hours strolling through the park, the woods, over lagoons and even pop down to the 63rd Street Beach and dip your toe in the water.

Indiana Dunes State Park and National Lakeshore

When you’re looking for a beach vacation, Indiana easily sits top of mind. No? Well, the 15,000 acres and 15 miles of sandy south Lake Michigan shoreline offer some of the best beaches, hikes, marshland and more in the area. Less than an hour’s drive southeast of the city sits a hilly enclave that stands in stark contrast to the gray, industrial steel mills in Gary, Ind., just a few miles away. The Dunes offer 70 miles of trails, including the 4-mile wooded Little Calumet River Trail and the inland Heron Rookery Trail, where you can spot mating heron and the endangered Karner blue butterflies. Bring your rain or hiking boots, as the trail can get muddy.