10 Best Winter Hikes In Chicago To Do With Kids

Northerly Island Snow Trek hike near Chicago. Photo courtesy of Chicago Parks and Recreation
Northerly Island Snow Trek hike near Chicago. Photo courtesy of Chicago Parks and Recreation

Looking for kid-friendly hikes in Chicago? Here are our favorite winter hikes near Chicago to do with kids.

Chicago's 2023 winter season has been mild enough to get kids outside to burn off energy. Our favorite winter hikes in Chicago are fun even in freezing temperatures, plus they're free entertainment. And the great thing about living in the City in a Garden is that you don't have to drive several hours to get to a natural area. 

We've rounded up 10 great places to take your kids for a winter hike near Chicago, no matter what the weather. With easy hikes of a mile or less, your kids can find animals (or their tracks), view amazing natural landscapes, see works of art, or learn more about the natural environment in the Midwest. We recommend wearing boots with good traction (or renting snowshoes if your kids are big enough and the snow is over three inches) and overestimating the time it will take to walk each path. Hiking with kids is more fun if you take it slow and easy. Bring your camera so you can remember your amazing journey.

Check out our Winter Fun Guide for more seasonal fun for Chicago kids. And if you lost a mitten and need to head indoors instead, check out our 21 Free Things To Do in Chicago On Cold and Rainy Days.

Starved Rock State Park near Chicago 
Starved Rock photo by Maureen Wilkey

Top 10 Winter Hikes In Chicago For Kids and Families

1. Starved Rock State Park

With plenty of gorgeous waterfalls and views of the Illinois River, Starved Rock State Park is one of the crown jewels of hiking in Illinois. Don't let the trail map of 13 miles deter you—there are several major attractions within a one-mile walk of the lodge. We visited for spring break in 2022 (which felt more like winter break) and were able to see Starved Rock itself, the waterfall in French Canyon, Lover's Leap, Eagle Cliff, and Wildcat Canyon within about two and a half hours from starting at the parking lot. We also took a trolley tour to see several other sites—it's worth the price to have the guide explain the history of different sites, like the Council Overhang and Ottawa Canyon. And the waterfalls look amazing when they're frozen!

2. Northerly Island

You don't actually have to leave the city to go on a fun winter hike! Northerly Island isn't so much an island as a manmade peninsula originally built to view the stunning city skyline. It has served as the site for the 1933 World's Fair and as an airfield (remember Meigs Field?) before returning to the original vision over the past several decades. Now, visitors can hike through wild prairie grasses and enjoy natural play areas and lagoons while viewing the skyline. Look for public art throughout the island, or check out events like snowtrekking to break up your winter. 

Morton Arboretum in Chicago 
Morton Arboretum photo by Maureen Wilkey

3. Morton Arboretum

Come for the hiking, stay for the Children's Garden at this west suburban locale that's a crowd pleaser for all ages. The Morton Arboretum has more than 10 miles of hiking trails all arranged in loops between half a mile and 1.6 miles to appeal to hikers of various levels of experience and ability. In addition to seeing and learning about a variety of plants and animals along the trail, families can enjoy the Human + Nature exhibit currently adorning the trails with human faces and forms made from trees. A new exhibit, Of The Earth, will take over in May 2023. We recommend hiking one or two of the shorter trails (Meadow Lake or Conifer Walk) to start. If your kids aren't ready for a bigger hike, like Main Loop 1, you can always return to the Children's Garden or the new Gerard T. Donnelly Grand Garden before getting a snack or hot drink in the Visitors Center.

4. Sand Ridge Nature Center

This south suburban forest preserve has four miles of trail that wind through woodlands, prairie, and wetlands. The Nature Center itself has indoor exhibits for when little hands get too cold, and naturalists are on hand during its opening hours to answer questions about local flora and fauna. Take a look around Green Lake to see what water looks like in winter, or explore the gardens or historic log cabin on the Nature Center's grounds. The Nature Center also hosts several events each month for kids and families.

5. Red Oak Nature Center and Lippold Park

Explore caves, dolomite, and the Fox River along several short and scenic trails at this North Aurora park and nature center. Big kids (8 and older) can rent snowshoes when the powder is at least three inches thick, and families can enjoy special events like Frosty Fest at the Red Oak Nature Center. When you get cold, step indoors for a look at live animals and seasonal exhibits.

Snowshoe in Indiana State Parks 
Snowshoe rental photo courtesy of Indiana State Parks

6. Indiana Dunes State Park

Cross the state line to the southeast to enjoy a different kind of beach during the winter months. Indiana Dunes State Park has ten trails ranging from .75 miles to 5.5 miles, ranked from easy to rugged. See everything from beach to black oak forest as you traverse the sometimes-sandy areas of the park. The three highest dunes might be tough for kids, but there's plenty of fun to be had on the easy and moderate trails, as well as at the Nature Center. There are also lots of events and hikes for families—check out Feed the Birds BINGO event on January 29 or the Superb-owl hike (get it?) on February 12. 

7. Blackwell Forest Preserve

This huge forest preserve in western DuPage County was shaped by the Wisconsin Glacier thousands of years ago. Today, families can enjoy its many miles of hiking trails near ponds, marshes and forests where kids can look for wild turkeys, deer, bald eagles, great blue herons, coyotes, red foxes, and muskrats. Navigate the trails on a self-guided compass course to find some scenic overlooks above the Warrenville area. But the highlight may be Mount Hoy, where kids can rent snowshoes for hiking or tubes for tubing when the snow is more than three inches deep.

Rocky Glen waterfall near Chicago 
Rocky Glen waterfall at Waterfall Glen photo taken by Dan Jones, courtesy of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

8. Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve 

This hike contains almost 11 miles of trail loop around Argonne National Laboratory in Darien, providing a variety of scenic views from prairie to marsh to forest to a man-made waterfall. I first frequented this trail while marathon training in the pre-kids days, and it definitely has plenty of rolling hills. If you have little kids that might not make it to the top, stick to the trail that leads to and from the waterfall. Bigger kids may enjoy the views from the top of the bluff. If you're quiet, you're likely to see deer in the woods along the trail. Families can also try out the orienteering course throughout the preserve.

9. Moraine Hills State Park

This 2,200 acre state park in McHenry County is home to Lake Defiance, a 48-acre glacial lake that is in near-natural condition. It boasts 11 miles of trails around marshes, bogs, prairies, and woods, including the namesake moraine (a hill made of rocks and boulders deposited by the glacier). The preserve is a favorite of birders, who look for mallards, teal, wood ducks, and Canada geese throughout the seasons. The paved 1.7 mile River Road Trail is probably best for beginning hikers.

An owl in Glacial Park near Chicago 
Owl Walks at Glacial Park photo courtesy of McHenry County Conservation

10. Glacial Park

Another gem in McHenry County, Glacial Park has eight miles of trails through kames (natural hills created by glaciers), prairies, wetlands, and savannas. Stop by Lost Valley Visitor Center to pick up a self-guided family exploration pack, or hike a two-mile interpretative trail to learn more about the surroundings in Glacial Park. The park is also home to a variety of wildlife, including more than 40 endangered species of plants and animals. 

 

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