While Illinois is certainly known for its Abraham Lincoln roots, Chicago hot dogs and a certain fictitious teenager who had a pretty great “day off,” the state also holds a claim to fame for its 1,000+ miles of picturesque rail-trails. With a varied mix of multiuse trails that run the gamut from urban areas to charming hamlets to countryside brimming with scenery, it’s clear that Illinois has something for everyone when it comes to their trails. Several paths feature restaurants and boutiques that sidle right up to the trail’s edge. From experienced bikers to novices, hiking families to couples, Illinois is a diverse outdoor destination. Here are just 10 of our favorite trails in the Prairie State.
Counties: Cook, DuPage, Kane
Creating a three-pronged fork shape throughout Chicago’s western suburbs, the 61-mile Illinois Prairie Path has special significance when it comes to rail-trails as one of the first successful rail-trail conversions in the United States. It should come as no surprise that this exemplary trail has an honored place in the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. Since the mid-1960s, the path has been a respite for Chicago’s urban dwellers, providing views of idyllic parks and native prairie restorations, such as Elmhurst’s Great Western Prairie, a thousand-year-old natural area that serves to beautify the trail with its flora and fauna.
Although you may be used to a ground-level ride or hike, Chicago’s nearly 3-mile Bloomingdale Trail, also known as The 606, is a more elevated experience—literally. Located near Wicker Park and running parallel with West North Avenue, the elevated trail provides views of urban buildings punctuated with native plantings. Serving as a handy transportation corridor meets nature trail, be sure to stop at the Exelon Observatory at the western trailhead, where astronomers lead educational events. Or stop at Damen Arts Plaza next to Churchill Field Park and discover a striking modern sculpture garden.
Counties: Carroll, Rock Island, Whiteside
The 62-mile Great River Trail, its name a nod to its Mississippi River locale, is part of the Great American Rail-TrailTM, an in-progress trail system that will span 3,700 miles and traverse 12 states coast to coast. Providing gorgeous sightings of the Mississippi River banks, this Quad Cities-based trail runs through riverfront communities like Moline and Thomson, both known for their delightful downtowns. A fun attraction is Fulton’s Windmill Cultural Center with its collection of 22 real-deal European windmills.
Counties: Johnson, Pulaski, Saline, Williamson
At the southern tip of Illinois you’ll find the Tunnel Hill State Trail, an incredibly scenic 55-mile route. Though it starts in Harrisburg at a flat grade, it eventually transforms into a trail marked by inclines and not-for-the-faint-of-heart dark tunnels once frequented by trains. You’ll cross into the beautiful Shawnee National Forest, which takes up a sizeable portion of the path since it comes in at a whopping 289,000 acres. It’s followed by a diverse offering of bluffs, wetlands and prairies. During your trip, you’ll see 23 trestles that harken to the trail’s railroad past.
Counties: Cook, Will
Located east of Joliet, the Old Plank Road Trail has it all. Its 21 miles will provide a hefty dose of nature, punctuated with flourishing prairie plants and wildlife-filled wetlands. It also goes through towns, like Frankfort and New Lenox, that offer shopping and restaurants. During your travels, soak up even more of the outdoors with a stop at the Old Plank Road Prairie Nature Preserve or Hunters Woods County Forest Preserve. Mid-trail, Frankfort, with its plethora of restaurants, offers a great spot to refuel.
Starting at the Wisconsin–Illinois border and ending in Freeport, the Jane Addams Trail, named after a local social worker who won the Nobel Peace Prize, follows the route of the former Galena & Chicago Union Railroad. Today, there are several points of interest along the trail’s 19 miles, like the connection to the Badger State Trail, a 40-mile pathway that leads to Madison, Wisconsin; you’ll find that connection 17 miles from the Tutty’s Crossing Trailhead in Freeport. Other places to explore as you go include the Freeport Art Museum, the Cedarville Historical Museum and, in Freeport, the very square where Lincoln and Douglas had their famous debate.
Counties: Peoria, Stark
With a trailhead in Peoria, and winding 38 miles through small Illinois communities like Wyoming, Princeville and Alta, the Rock Island Trail is a tribute to the state’s rural beauty. Along the way, catch glimpses of Peoria Lake and sights from simpler times, such as the wildflower-dotted tall-grass prairie found on the Peoria/Stark county line and the trestle bridge that crosses the Spoon River. For more nature in all its glory, couple your trip on the trail with a stop at the Kickapoo State Recreation Area, located north of Alta and brimming with opportunities to kayak, fish or hit the mountain bike trails.
Situated not far from St. Louis, the Madison County Transit (MCT) Nickel Plate Trail can be found next to the Great River Road, the famed 3,000-mile scenic byway that follows the course of the Mississippi River. At 28 miles, the trail goes from downtown New Douglas to Pontoon Beach, spotlighting woods, parks and noteworthy historic districts in Edwardsville and Glen Carbon. With a flat, comfortable grade, it’s a trail that’s particularly geared toward families, especially since the Edwardsville Children’s Museum, filled with fun and educational exhibits like an art studio, outdoor garden and pretend animal hospital, is near the trail.
Spanning a relatively easy 22 miles, the Wauponsee Glacial Trail, just southeast of Joliet, is named for the lake that covered the area 13,000 years ago. On the journey, travelers will pass through rural towns like Manhattan, Symerton and Ballou. Along the southern segment of the trail, going from Sugar Creek Preserve to the Kanakee River, you’ll be able to view bison grazing in the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. To see even more animals, visit Manhattan’s Round Barn Farm, covering 94 acres just off the path with a petting zoo and pumpkin patch the kiddos will love.
South of Chicago and running along the Calumet Sag Channel, the appropriately named Cal-Sag Trail includes an extensive nature corridor in the Palos Forest Preserve system. The trail’s 15 miles will bring you to other natural areas, like Sagawau Canyon, lying not far off the trail in Lemont Township and packed with rocky streams, verdant ferns and ravine forests. Another nearby destination that pays homage to the outdoors is the Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens. Found in Palos Heights, it’s complete with a stunning manmade waterfall, wooded gardens and kayaking spots.