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The Workout: Hitting the Trails

It's easy to overlook our local trails, but for walking or running, they offer an off-road change of pace.

When people talk about hitting the trails, I usually think of hiking in rugged places such as the Rocky Mountains, or at the very least, someplace farther afield, like Wisconsin. The local terrain seems to be too flat to have any decent trails.

However, “hitting the trail” has benefits beyond finding elevation gain. For one, it's nice to get away from the busy, stressful streets filled with car traffic. Another benefit: walking or running on crushed gravel is much more forgiving on the joints than pounding concrete sidewalks. In fact, if you run or walk regularly, you might want to consider spending at least one day a week off the pavement.

We are lucky to have some decent trails nearby. Granted, they don't offer the challenging hills and breathtaking vistas that you might get in the mountains. But if you're simply looking for a change of pace – and maybe some peace and quiet - check out some of our local scenic off-road routes.

Green Bay Trail

The most obvious local options are the and the North Branch Trail. These two paved paths run north/south and attract a lot of cyclists, runners, walkers and rollerbladers. The Green Bay Trail is straight and level, making for an easy stroll. However, since it runs adjacent to the Metra tracks, it isn't particularly peaceful. As with any trail, it can feel desolate in spots, so don't travel it alone.

North Branch Trail

The North Branch Trail offers a long stretch of pavement, reaching from the Botanic Garden all the way down to Chicago. The section north of Tower Road in Winnetka weaves around the Skokie Lagoons and then continues into the beautiful oasis of the Botanic Garden. This time of year, the Garden is in full force, and it makes for a lovely destination.

On the southern section of the North Branch Trail, there is both a paved trail and a parallel crushed-stone path for those who want to get away from the hardness of asphalt. Generally speaking, cyclists stick to the paved section, so walking or running on the crushed gravel gives you a little more breathing room.

Des Plaines River Trail

If you don't mind taking a drive, one of the most scenic – and longest – trails in our area is the Des Plaines River Trail. This crushed gravel path passes through lush wooded areas and beautiful open meadows. The route feels far away from civilization, offering bucolic views and lovely terrain. The southernmost section of the trail starts just north of Lake Cook Road, west of the Edens, so it takes a bit of effort to get there. But if you have the time, it's worth the trip. 

Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve

My favorite spot, however, is the 250-acre forest preserve at Fort Sheridan. The preserve offers a one-mile paved trail, as well as a two-mile unpaved, mowed grass path that passes through meadow and forest. The preserve also has a .75-mile long beach. The lake views are stunning, and it's never crowded. Again, it's always best to go with another person, but I doubt you'll have trouble convincing someone to come with you to explore this backyard jewel. Walkers, runners and dogs are sure to love it (no bikes are allowed on the unpaved trail).

Granted, we don't have scenery as dramatic as the Rocky Mountain states, but our local trails and preserves make the most of the natural beauty we have right here at home. Of course, part of the peacefulness comes from keeping the trail lightly traveled, so let's just keep these secrets to ourselves, okay?

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Willie Wilmette September 15, 2012 at 01:35 PM
Also see http://www.chicago-orienteering.org/ for on trail & off trail activities.
zhuzhu September 26, 2012 at 06:55 AM
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