Chicago boasts an abundance of cultural, musical and culinary attractions, so if you’re visiting, you probably came to eat, to step, to cruise, to enjoy the art scene or the jazz clubs. But if you are yearning for some nature walking, hiking and backpacking, where can you go? The crowded Lakefront Trail is certainly beautiful, but the cyclists are treacherous … and hurdling over skateboarders, roller bladers and dog walkers is not my idea of hiking!
But Chicago really is the city that has everything. There are some challenging, wooded trails less than an hour’s drive from the Loop, particularly Swallow Cliff Woods in Palos Park, which used to be sledding and toboggan run. Located at Route 83 and LaGrange Road, the Cliff is well-known for its strenuous stair-climbing workout – 125 uneven limestone stairs, used all year long by fitness buffs. But its wooded trails make the perfect day trip for a hiker who loves wildlife, solitude and spectacular sunrises. No pavement, no city lights, no skaters and no bathrooms. Portable johns are stationed at trailheads and parking lots.
The well-marked Yellow Trail winds through the 800-acre preserve in an 8-mile loop, passing wetlands, mighty old oak trees, and wildlife habitats. Shorter trails cut away from the main trail to other landscapes. The Black Trail will take you to Horsetail Lake, the perfect spot for a rest and a snack. The fishermen on the Lake will share their stories and sometimes their fish!
If I’m strapped for time and looking for a shorter hike, I use the White Trail connector from the top of the bluff to take me back to the stairs and the main parking lot. Or I use the Purple Trail switchback from the bottom of the bluff. Using these connectors shortens the hike from 8 miles to about 4.5 miles.
Feel like exploring? The “small trails” off the Yellow Trail meander deeper into the woods, where the deer will gaze at you nervously, but not run away. The small trails are unmarked, however, so make sure you keep track of your position.
A few tips if you go:
• Hiking shoes/low boots are better than sneakers for the stabilization on uneven terrain.
• If you’re hiking in summer or after rainfall, take bug spray. The trails are well-maintained, but abundant wildlife includes mosquitoes and ticks.
• Pack in enough water and snacks. There are no water fountains or vendors, although you can find a water pump at Teason’s Woods (water is clean and cool), and another at the trailhead near the bottom of the stairs. The Forest Preserve is currently making improvements that include a Visitor’s Center, bathrooms and vending machines.
• If you start the trail at the Swallow Cliff North entrance near the stairs, there are two steep hills as you hike around the loop. The Purple Trail switchback is one long incline; the Yellow Trail has a point that forces you to walk straight uphill for a few hundred feet. Hiking poles are helpful at these points, but not critical.
• There are stables nearby, and some people ride the trail on horseback. Be alert when you’re crossing streams and overpasses.
• Try the stairs! Die-hard climbers out there will amaze you, and the view from the top is unexpectedly beautiful.
Head over to Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen for a late lunch, about 20 minutes west on Route 83/Kingery Road, and reward yourself for getting a little nature in the middle of a big city vacation. You don’t need a reservation and casual attire is welcome. Head back to the city before 3 pm and you’ll arrive ahead of the rush hour traffic, calm and serene in the midst of big city madness.