Finding the motivation to get outside in the Midwest winter can feel impossible when the choice is between staying warm and cozy indoors and facing the cold winter temperatures. However, even in the cold, getting outside is incredibly good for mental and physical health, and going outdoors for even a little bit each day can provide tremendous benefits to your health. Especially in the dark winter months when Season Affective Disorder (SAD) can take hold for many living in colder climates, getting outside provides Vitamin D from the sun and an immediate boost to mood. In fact, cold weather can provide its own health benefits, as getting active in the cold actually burns more calories than in warm weather.
The quiet, dormant state of nature in the winter has its own peaceful beauty, and just a few hours spent in a forest preserve or restored prairie can help you feel more connected to nature and the landscapes of our region. With the right clothes, getting out into nature in the winter can feel incredibly refreshing, and the more you get outside in cold weather, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes. As the Swedish say, there is no bad weather, only bad clothes!
The Chicago region contains hundreds of beautiful nature preserves. We have compiled a list of ten beautiful locations where you can get outside and hike this winter. For more ideas, check out our Get Outside Map!
Bobolink Meadow Land and Water Preserve
Since 2008, Openlands has managed restoration at Bobolink Meadow Land and Water Reserve, which is located at Tinley Creek Wetlands, all part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Together, they have become high-quality habitat for birds and a birding destination for the region. The two nearby sites are both in proximity to Orland Grassland Land and Water Reserve, another legacy project of Openlands, which has created a network of pristine grassland and wetland habitats in southern Cook County.
Once an agricultural area, Bobolink Meadow is now home to an increasing variety of native plant and bird species as restoration efforts open the landscape and encourage natural habitat. Located in Tinley Park, Bobolink is an excellent location for bird watchers, as it is regarded as one of the best birdwatching destinations in the region.
At 255 acres and part of the Forest Preserves of Dupage County, Churchill Woods Forest Preserve in Glen Ellyn is one of DuPage’s smaller forest preserves and is home to an impressive range of habitats. Churchill Woods features a one-mile trail for biking, hiking horseback riding and cross-country skiing in the winter. Trails at Churchill connect to the regional Great Western Trail.
Elizabeth Lake Nature Preserve
Located in Richmond, Illinois, and part of the McHenry County Conservation District, Elizabeth Lake Nature Preserve is a large, diverse wetland community composed of every different stage of high-quality wetland, including: graminoid fens, calcareous floating mats, graminoid bogs, marshes, low gradient creek, pond, lake, sedge meadow, wet prairie and dry Mesic savanna.
Several different kinds of wildlife can be spotted, including white-tailed deer, raccoon, rabbit, muskrat, woodchuck, beaver, marsh wren, sora rail, green frog, smooth green snake and other small animals. The diverse wetlands are important for amphibian breeding and provide a habitat for various waterfowl, migrating birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. A small woodland area exists on the southwestern portion of the preserve. Visitors to Elizabeth Lake will experience a landscape and lake formed over 10,000 years ago by glaciers moving across the region.
At the 57-acre Forty Acre Woods, visitors can access miles of looping and connecting unpaved trails through the Palos Forest Preserves. This location contains a variety of wide trails for hiking and trail running. Forty Acre Woods is also a destination for horseback riding.
At 15,000 acres, the Palos Preserves in southwest Cook County are the largest concentration of preserved land in the Forest Preserves. Thanks to more than three decades of habitat restoration, they also hold some of the highest-quality natural areas in the county. These trails join many popular sites, such as the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, Pulaski Woods, Saganashkee Slough and Maple Lake which is home to a mountain bike staging area that provides access to almost 40 miles of unpaved trails.
Located in Lake Zurich and part of the Lake County Forest Preserves, visitors can explore 2.3 miles of gravel trails for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing. Heron Creek is an excellent place to bring the whole family, as an innovative playground provides a colorful series of tunnels, slides, ladders, bridges, decks and swings for children to climb and explore. The playground has two separate areas, one for ages 2–5, and one ages 5–12. Much of the playground is ramped for handicapped accessibility. There is also a sand pit, and lookout stations with views into the woods.
Heron Creek Forest Preserve is home to more than 116 species of birds, including a resident population of waterfowl and herons. Six state endangered bird species, black tern, black-crowned night heron, yellow-crowned night heron, osprey, Forster’s tern, and three state threatened bird species, brown creeper, pied-billed grebe and red-shouldered hawk have been found in the area.
The preserve features a rolling landscape of scenic woodlands and open fields. The Indian Creek basin, which flows through the site, is an Advanced Identification Wetland (ADID), the highest wetland classification in Lake County. It offers exceptional wildlife habitat and plant communities including a sedge meadow.
John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve
This state-dedicated nature preserve protected by the Shirley Heinz Land Trust located in Portage, Indiana, features a complex of sand prairie, oak savanna, and wetlands. More than 400 species of plants have been identified, many of them state listed. John Merle has a short, well-maintained trail, along with forest, prairie, and dune landscapes.
More than 22,000 acres of glacial hills, kettles, lakes, prairie restoration sites, pine woods and hardwood forests protected by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources can be found in the Southern Unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest in Washington County, Wisconsin, making this a popular area for a wide variety of visitors.
Hikers can enjoy miles and miles of rolling hills through pine plantations, prairies and southern hardwood forests. Trail maps help to prepare visitors for the distances they will encounter and the natural areas that surround them. Hiking is available on the Scuppernong, Emma Carlin, John Muir and Nordic trails, as well as the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. There are also several shorter self-guided nature trails.
Lake in the Hills Fen Nature Preserve
At the Lake in the Hills Fen Nature Preserve protected by the McHenry County Conservation District in Hills, Illinois, you can see nearly 500 acres of unspoiled native Illinois landscape. Over a mile of maintained trails wind through three diverse habitats: dry hill prairies, sedge meadows, and rare and beautiful fens.
Opened in April of 2011, this area has 229 acres adjacent to the 27-acre Lake in the Hills Fen State Nature Preserve. Over 400 species of plants, 80 species of birds, 40 species of butterflies, and a myriad of other animals depend on this preserve for a place to live. There are only 26 acres of hanging fens in the nation and the Lake in the Hills Fen has approximately four of them.
The Ottawa Trails Woods in Lyons is a forest preserve with picnic groves and shelters that is part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County and the historic Chicago Portage waterway. Visitors can enjoy an accessible stretch of paved trails with an abundance of wildlife, and many have attested to seeing deer and a variety of birds, including hawks, while hiking.
One of the region’s best-known trails is the Salt Creek Greenway Trail, which spans two counties of forest preserves, offers access to the Salt Creek Water Trails, and provides excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. Spanning 25 miles from Busse Woods in Elk Grove Village to the Brookfield Zoo, the Salt Creek Greenway Trail connects 12 communities and over 300,000 residents overall. The Salt Creek Greenway includes both a paved land trail and the water trail.