1. What’s your favorite season to hike in the Chicago area?
While I enjoy hiking year-round, I find fall particularly beautiful. The final blooms in the prairies are a stunning reminder of the variety of flowers one may see. I love how subtle changes begin– yellowing of leaves, flowers going to seed, and fewer animal sightings. There is tension at the end of fall between the colorful last gasp and the austere dignity of bare branches and stately tree trunks.
2. What kind of wildlife might one encounter on one of these hikes?
There is a surprising amount of wildlife in the Chicago region—despite the fact that there is heavy urbanization. The birding is fantastic in many places, all you need is a good field guide and you are bound to identify many species. Deer are quite common, as are fox, coyote, and an occasional woodchuck. I particularly enjoy the waterfowl and wading birds such as wood ducks, common merganser, and the great blue heron. You will also see several different types of frogs, snakes, and turtles. I have encountered a rather large snapping turtle, seen many painted turtles, and an occasional Blanding’s turtle. Butterflies and moths are bountiful as well.
3. Which trails would you recommend for beginners?
Many trails are suitable for beginning hikers. For variety and excellent seasonal interpretive guides visit Volo Bog State Natural Area. There are a couple of different trails but the star is the boardwalk of the half-mile Volo Bog Interpretive Trail, which guides hikers through the stages of bog succession. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is a collection of trails along Lake Michigan. The Mount Baldy or Cowles Bog Trails are sure to appeal to everyone. If city hiking is more your style, check out the Chicago Riverwalk – the famous Chicago River, soaring architecture and historic bridge houses are an irresistible combination for anyone.
4. Which trail is your favorite?
My favorite trail is usually the one I am hiking at the moment! That said, a couple come to mind as standouts. The diversity of landscape at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie lets one explore forest, historic TNT bunkers, and an ambitious prairie restoration—one of the largest ever attempted. For solitude, ruggedness, and unique geology the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin is the perfect choice. Finally, for an amazing display of prairie wildflowers that lasts all summer I would visit Richard Bong State Recreation Area. It was on a hike there that I came upon a mixture of purple coneflower & rattlesnake master blooms that took my breath away.
5. What climate should visiting hikers expect and prepare for?
Most visitors will likely experience Chicago in the summertime. Two things happen in summer—heat and humidity. Prepare for temperatures exceeding 80F and humidity often above 75%. That means wear a light sun hat and sunglasses, lots of sunscreen, and drink lots of water. You may also want to avoid hiking during the heat of the day, or just slow it down a bit. The other sure thing is mosquitoes – lots of them. There is almost no way to avoid these pests, so prepare by wearing long sleeves and pants, use insect repellent with 30% deet minimum, and carry a head net for extreme conditions. You’ll be glad you did.
6. You’ve hiked in places ranging from Tanzania to the San Francisco Bay Area—what makes the Chicago area unique?
The surprising thing about hiking extensively in Chicagoland was how I grew to really enjoy the prairie. Chicagoland was once prairie land as far as one could see. In recent years, ambitious restoration and preservation projects have been gathering steam. The prairie is ever changing, and has a constant succession of varied and beautiful blooms from spring to fall. It’s home to a wonderful array of birdlife, which adds to the allure. I found myself visiting prairie trails over and over again as the season progressed, often with camera in hand to record the seasonal variations. I was also lucky enough to have some wonderful prairie wildflower and butterfly experts take me hiking, and really give me an in-depth look at this unique habitat.
7. Are there historical trails hikers should be aware of?
Many of the area trails have historic aspects to them, such as The Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in Cook County. The short interpretive trail at the Joliet Ironworks is a fascinating look at a bygone era. Walking along the Logger’s Trail in the Lowden-Miller State Forest is both informative and unique. It’s a great hike for anyone who wants to learn some forest history and get some fresh air. Finally, a visit to the trails of the Bailly Homestead and Chelberg Farm really offers hikers insight into the past.
8. What might surprise visitors about the landscape of the region?
I really expected less topographic and geologic diversity and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found on my hikes. The Chicago region has been sculpted by glacial activity over time. Glacial Park is lovely and includes unique features such as delta kames, savanna, and prairie. I had no idea that a dramatic limestone canyon was nestled in highly urban Cook County.
9. What do you always pack with you when headed out on a hike?
Since I hike a little more than most folks, I keep a selection of pre-packed items handy. I’ll grab a small daypack depending upon the season and length of my outing. In it I have a small bag with basic first aid stuff and mini-flashlight, space blanket, matches and candles, and a compass. If it’s a new location or remote area I carry a map. I always carry a camera, sometimes two. In summer I carry bug juice, ball cap, sunglasses and sunscreen, in winter extra hat and gloves. Of course, I also bring along snacks, lunch, and water or other beverage. I’ve eaten just about everything while on long hikes, and cold pizza is particularly good on the trail.