The buzz

Want to elevate your walk to a hike? Check out these natural surface trails

A natural surface trail in a forest.
The natural surface trail at Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

What separates a hike from a walk? For some people it may be the rigor of the journey; for others it's the scenery. And still for others, it may not feel like a hike unless it's on dirt trails. 

The forest preserve's miles and miles of trails — 129 miles and counting — include paved and crushed limestone trails that may seem more suitable for biking and running than hiking, but tucked away in some of the most scenic preserves are natural surface trails that will turn any walk into a bona fide hike. 

These natural surface trails will take you through forests, prairies and savannas and along waterways of all types, so what are you waiting for? Get out and enjoy these natural surface trails that criss-cross the county.

Evans-Judge Preserve

In the southern part of the county, Evans-Judge Preserve is a good place for a hike winding through a variety of habitats, including forest, savanna and wetland. A portion of the trail also runs along the Kankakee River. The nature trail is 1.59 miles in all. You can walk it as a loop or extend your hike by using the cut-through path and then circling back. 

Evans-Judge was once an island, so it can be muddy after periods of heavy rainfall or a winter thaw. At times, it may be closed for safety.

Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve

One of our easternmost preserves, Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve, has one of our longest networks of natural surface trails, 2.27 miles in all. The natural surface trails include the 0.73-mile High Point Trail and the 0.78-mile Scout Trail, both of which loop through the mostly forested habitat. You can extend your trip on the Scout Trail by including the 0.38-mile Oak Ridge Trail that connects to it.

There's a lot more to explore at Goodenow Grove beyond these natural surface trails. A 3.15-mile segment of the crushed limestone Plum Creek Greenway Trail runs through the preserve and passes over what's commonly known as "the big bridge" spanning a deep ravine. You can also visit Plum Creek Nature Center to check out our interactive nature exhibits and meet the resident reptiles, and then head out back to walk the paved Snapper Pond Trail.

Hammel Woods

The DuPage River runs along the east side of Hammel Woods, and the river runs along much of the 1.6 miles of dirt trails at the preserve, offering sweeping views of the water and the surrounding forest. The preserve is mostly forested, making it a great place to hike in shade in the summer and take in the autumn color palette come fall.

Hammel Woods has three access points — Crumby Recreation Area, DuPage River Access and Route 59 Access — and the natural surface trails can accessed from all three. The paved DuPage River Trail also runs through the preserve, offering an easy way to extend your hike.

Hickory Creek Preserve

Hickory Creek Preserve's LaPorte Road Access has 1.25 miles of natural surface trails traversing both prairie and forest habitats. The LaPorte Road Nature Trail is 0.86 miles in all, split into several short loops that are all conjoined. The path is easily accessible from either parking area. A shorter grass trail traveling 0.39 miles connects to the Hickory Creek Bikeway on each end.

At Hickory Creek Junction, walkers can start on a natural surface trail near the parking lot that travels 0.55 miles before joining up with the paved Hickory Creek Bikeway. From there you can either extend your trip on the bikeway or return back to the parking lot via the bikeway for a shorter looped hike.

McKinley Woods — Frederick's Grove

The Forest Preserve's longest network of natural surface trails is at McKinley Woods — Frederick's Grove on the far western side of the county. The preserve has three trails in all: the 0.43-mile Heritage Trail, the 0.44-mile Upland Trail and the 1.15-mile Trail of the Old Oaks. The Trail of the Old Oaks and the Upland Trail connect via the road that cuts through the preserve for anyone looking to extend their hike. 

The trails at Frederick's Grove wind through the preserve's old forested habitat, and portions of the Heritage Trail and the Upland Trail both also run along the I&M Canal. Along some of the trails you may see the remnants of the land's past, serving as a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the 1930s and then as a German prisoner of war camp during World War II. 

Messenger Woods Nature Preserve

It seems fitting that the District's oldest preserve would be home to one of its most well-worn and well-used natural surface trails. The 1.87 miles of natural surface trails showcases the seasons, but spring is the real highlight because the dirt trail runs through a forest floor that springs to life with Virginia bluebells in late April or early May. If bluebells aren't your favorite, plenty of other spring ephemeral wildflowers can be found along the trail, plus the sounds of warblers and other birds create a sometimes loud spring soundtrack. 

The north loop of the trail travels 0.51 mile through an area designated a state nature preserve, so dogs, bikes, snowshoes and cross-country skies are prohibited. The longer south loop is 1.36 miles long; it it not in the state nature preserve, so it's an ideal place for a winter hike with snowshoes. 

Monee Reservoir

The nature trail at Monee Reservoir travels 1.66 miles in all, departing from three spots adjacent to the visitor center parking lot. To start, the trail runs along the reservoir before passing through grasslands and wetlands. At the end, it travels in a loop before sending hikers back on their way toward the visitor center.

If you worked up a sweat on your hike, stop by the visitor center for a cold drink, an ice-cream treat or a snack. You can also rent boats and fishing poles if you want to spend some time on or near the water before heading home. Visitor center hours vary by month.

Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve

The 1.94-mile Thorn Creek Nature Trail traverses mostly forested land, crossing Thorn Creek and circling a small pond as it does. The trail is mostly dirt but includes some footbridges and boardwalks in places where the trail crosses through wetland areas. 

If you only have the time or energy for a short hike, the front section of the trail include a small loop that will bring you right back to the parking lot after a quick jaunt. The preserve also includes a visitor center that is open from noon to 4 pm. Fridays to Sundays. Because the preserve is a state nature preserve, dogs, bikes, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are prohibited.


Shorter jaunts

While many of our preserves include natural surface trails of a mile or more, others have shorter paths that will take you on a brief journey through various habitat areas. Check out these short hikes on your next visit:

  • Braidwood Dunes and Savanna Nature Preserve: A short, 0.5-mile natural surface trail loops through the area near the parking lot here, showcasing the unique habitat and flora and fauna found in the southern part of the county.
  • Forked Creek Preserve — Forsythe Woods: Just off the parking lot at Forked Creek's Forsythe Woods is a natural surface trail of 0.55 mile that loops through the prairie habitat.
  • Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve: This preserve is a great place to look for wildlife, and the 0.43-mile trail here runs along a wetland area that is home to all sorts of creatures.
  • Raccoon Grove: The 0.27-mile trail here loops through the forest, so it's a great place to check out spring wildflowers or fall color.
  • Isle a la Cache: The natural surface trail here is short, just 0.12 mile, but it will take you out to the Des Plaines River, offering a scenic view of the waterway.
  • Sugar Creek Preserve: The Wauponsee Glacial Trail runs through this preserve, but a 0.57-mile natural surface trail also loops through the prairie habitat.

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