4 great places to hike with kids in the Chicago area

It was wonderful—and nothing like the way I used to hike before kids.

I love to hike and I want my kids to love hiking, but I’ve learned over the years that hiking with kids is a lot more than logging a few miles on a trail.

It’s about the journey.

The key is to start with short distances and go at their pace, says Pete Olsen, vice president for programs at the American Hiking Society.

“For kids, it’s not about the hike, it’s about the experience. Let them explore things along the trail,” Olsen says.

Make hiking an adventure and kids will think it’s fun, says Susan Dombro, assistant director at Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington Hills. Bring along snacks, water, bug spray, and maybe some binoculars or a magnifying glass. Playing games along the way like “I Spy” will keep kids engaged, Dombro says.

And there are plenty of short, flat, easy hikes for kids in and around Chicago.

Adam Morgan, a writer who lived in Chicago for five years, wrote the book “Best Hikes Near Chicago.” A lot of the hikes in the book are geared to adults, but most of the places mentioned also offer shorter, more kid-friendly hikes.

“I was surprised how much there was and how diverse the landscapes were. There are dunes and canyons and white water and a lot of wildlife,” Morgan says.

Crabtree Nature Center

  • 3 Stover Road, Barrington Hills
  • (847) 381-6592
  • Distance: One-quarter mile

This was Morgan’s top pick for spots to hike with kids. The savannah, woodlands and wetlands are often filled with butterflies, birds and deer, Morgan wrote.

One of the best trails at Crabtree for kids is the ¼-mile Giant’s Hollow trail, says Dombro.

“It goes by trees that are over 300 years old and there are frog ponds. It’s perfect for little guys,” Dombro says.

The trails also lead to the nature play area where kids are encouraged to explore by climbing spider webs, building forts or watering flowers along the trail.

“The journey is the destination. Kids really offer a neat perspective,” Dombro says.

Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area

  • 21950 N. Riverwoods Road, Riverwoods
  • (847) 968-3320
  • Distance: The entire trail system is five to six miles, but there are interconnecting loops, so you can choose your distance.

Here you really feel like you’re hiking in the woods—even though the trails are short. No crushed limestone or paved dirt trails.

Morgan had a lot to say about Ryerson. “Nothing short of the most pristine forest in Illinois, Ryerson Woods should be at the top of any Chicagoan’s to-hike list, especially since its hidden gem status keeps the crowds away,” Morgan wrote.

We checked out one of the trails. The kids were a tad freaked out by the bat boxes we found at the beginning of the trail, but they were enthralled by everything else they found—from different colored leaves to flowers and even bugs. At the welcome center, kids can borrow explorer packs filled with hiking essentials and activities.

“The Ryerson trails in particular are great for kids because they take you into the woods,” says Jen Berlinghof, environmental educator for Ryerson. “You can access a variety of habitats. You can walk down by a river or walk through a prairie area.”

Lincoln Park Zoo Nature Boardwalk

  • Parking lot entrance is at Fullerton Parkway and Cannon Drive
  • (312) 742-2000
  • Distance: One-half mile loop

Technically this isn’t hiking in the woods, but the nature boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo can’t be omitted from the list. From the boardwalk you can glimpse arguably the most spectacular view of the city skyline, and also experience nature.

Kids will love meandering along the boardwalk encircling the 14-acre pond. Along the way, spot turtles, ducks, coyotes, raccoons, hawks or herons.

“The nature boardwalk has all that wildlife that’s living right here or traveling through Chicago. You’ll have a chance to see animals in the wild,” says Sharon Dewar, director of public relations for Lincoln Park Zoo. “We track and monitor all the types of wildlife that visit the boardwalk. There’s a lot of native wildlife.”

Morton Arboretum

  • 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle
  • (630) 986-0074
  • Distance: Morton offers hikes of varying lengths, but the .6-mile loop around Meadow Lake is perfect for kids.

“With really little kids, the hike around Meadow Lake is nice because it’s paved and they can see the destination. With little kids, that’s key,” says Hannah Rennard, manager of curriculum and instruction at Morton Arboretum.

We visited Morton on a warm October morning. My parents were visiting from Maryland and I wanted to take them somewhere new. Morton often offers themed activities throughout the year. And no families can pass up the children’s garden where kids can climb, explore and play.

“Hidden in the western suburbs, these lush forested hills serve as an outdoor museum for the public,” Morgan wrote in his book.

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