May 8, 2016
7 Great Chicago-Area Long Runs That Aren’t the Lakefront Path
The middle of the summer is here, and for many runners, that means the start of marathon training. Saturdays or Sundays from here out are marked on the training schedule with two familiar words: Long Run.
And for the fast majority of Chicagoans, that means the Lakefront Path. Which makes complete sense—the 18-mile treasure along Lake Michigan is the one of the best resources for runners in the country. It’s beautiful, flat, and has plenty of water along the way. You basically avoid traffic while enjoying postcard perfect views of the city. So it’s no surprise that the Lakefront is the place to go for long runs on the weekends, as anyone who has run it can attest.
But while it’s an incredible resource to have in our own backyard, the Lakefront Path is not the only Chicago-area option for runners. Running the same route all the time can get monotonous—why not take the time to explore some other options for that weekly long run? It’s tough to beat the ease of the Lakefront Path, but many trails in the Chicago area offer their own benefits. Here are 7 great options for a long run that will give you a break from the Lakefront Path.
1. Palos Trail System
The Palos Trail System is actually a group of forest preserves southwest of the city, and offers more than 25 miles of off-road trails for runners and cyclists which are as far removed for the usual as anything else in the Northern Illinois. You’ll find singletrack and multiuse roads, plenty of hills and a natural canopy of trees that provides welcome shade in the heat of the summer.
Near the junction of I-55 and I-294, the Palos Trail System has become the trail running mecca for the Chicago area. The yellow trail is the longest at 8.3 miles, and it offers a big loop in the middle of the preserve with about a 50/50 mix of singletrack and multiuse road. You can start at the mountain bike staging area at Grove 2 in Pulaski Woods. The mountain bike community has been instrumental in maintaining the trail system at Palos, and the Chicago Area Mountain Bikers (CAMBR) offer a great map of the preserve that can be very useful for trail runners.
The hills and off-road trails will challenge you—don’t expect a 14 mile run at Palos to feel like a 14 mile run at the Lakefront—but it certainly adds a welcome element to your training regimen. A weekend a month at Palos and the Chicago Marathon course will seem like a piece of cake.
2. Illinois Prairie Path
What the Lakefront Path is to the city, the Prairie Path is to the western suburbs. Created in 1963, the Prairie Path was the first successful rail-to-trail conversion in the United States, taking abandoned rail routes and turning them into multiuse recreational trails.
Today the route features 62 miles of mostly crushed limestone trails that connect more than a dozen municipalities west of the city. Mile zero is in downtown Wheaton, and the trail goes in three directions from there—east to Maywood, northwest to Elgin and southwest to Aurora. The best sections of the trail feature a canopy of trees that offer shade and cool in the summer, and since you’re running on abandoned railroad tracks, the grade is never too severe.
You have to deal with occasional road crossings, particularly on the east branch. There’s lots of canopy cover going north and south from Wheaton, until the both trails eventually open up and become more exposed. Starting a long run at mile zero in Wheaton isn’t a bad place to start, giving you the chance to take advantage of water and other downtown amenities.
3. Des Plaines River Trail
The Des Plaines River Trail encompasses a lot of space, serving as one of the longest trails in the Chicago area. There are some gaps in the system, but if you’re willing to take some surface roads, the trail will take you from River Grove in the near western suburbs all the way to the Wisconsin border.
The Des Plaines River Trail runs through both Cook County and Lake County, and is maintained by their respective forest preserves. For the most part, you’re going to find a crushed limestone, multi-use path through most of the system. But there are sections of off-road options, particularly in Cook County.
The easiest place for most Chicago runners to start the trail is at the southern end in River Grove. As the name suggests, the trail follows the path of the Des Plaines River, taking full advantage of the many forest preserves along the route.
The trailhead is at North Avenue, just east of Route 171, in the Jerome Huppert Woods. From there you’ll go north through the Fullerton Woods, La Framboise Reserve, Schiller Woods South, Schiller Woods South and Catherine Chevalier Woods, which is east of the river (and I-294) of O’Hare Airport. At each of these forest preserves, you can hop off the main river trail for additional mileage. For a map of the southern section of the Cook County trails, click here.
4. Fox River Trail
The Fox River Trail offers a scenic long run in the far western suburbs. The multiuse path stretches all the way from Algonquin in the north to Oswego in the south, 43 miles in all. There are stretches that veer away from the river or use an occasional city street, but particularly in the northern part of the trail, you’re never very far from the Fox.
In some sections, the trail even goes on both sides of the river, connected by six pedestrian bridges along the way. Much of the path is rail-to-trail, which takes advantage of the defunct railroad lines out west. But particularly in the Fox River Valley between North Aurora and St. Charles, Ill., the trail is incorporated into riverside parks with beautiful tree-lined sections and some fairly challenging hills.
That section of the trail, which is part of the Fox River Marathon course, is probably the most scenic and offers the most amenities for a long run. If you’ve never visited the historic downtowns of Batavia, Geneva, and St. Charles, this gives you a good excuse to do so.
5. North Branch Trail
The North Branch Trail links together the many forest preserves and green spaces along the North Branch of the Chicago River, stretching from the northwest side of Chicago all the way to the Botanic Gardens in Glencoe. The trail starts in Chicago at Devon Avenue and Caldwell Avenue in the Caldwell Forest Preserve, where you can also find restrooms and water. Going north you’ll hit the Bunker Hill Forest Preserve, and eventually take an overpass to Miami Woods Forest Preserve.
At Dempster Street, the trail takes a brief turn along that road before heading north again into the Linn Woods Forest Preserve and going around the perimeter of the Chick Evans Golf Course. See the full map of the south side of the trail here.
Further north, the trail continues to follow the North Branch and parallel the Edens Expressway to just south of the Chicago Botanic Gardens at Dundee Road. Take the opportunity to explore the 26 gardens and four natural areas there—admission is free (although parking isn’t if you plan to start your run there.) View a map of the northern section of the trail here.
6. Deer Grove Forest Preserve
Deer Grove Forest Preserve is the closest thing to the Palos Trail System in the northern suburbs. It’s not as big as Palos, but you’ll still find some good off-road running. Deer Grove is the oldest forest preserve in Cook County, with the first 500 acres acquired in 1916. It’s divided into two sections, and east and west side, bisected by Quentin Road.
The west side is slightly larger, and has the longest trail (the yellow), which offers a 5.4-mile, uninterrupted loop. You can connect to black and orange trails on the west side and get in a good 10-mile run or hike without too much repetition. On the east side, which is connected to the west via a paved trail, there’s a 2.6 mile brown loop as well as the 2.6 mile paved trail. See a full trail map here.
7. DuPage River Trail
While this ambitious trail system isn’t quite complete, the DuPage River Trail is already strong enough to make it worth a trip out to Naperville. The mostly paved trail follows both the east and west branches of the DuPage River, forming a giant Y with Naperville’s Knoch Knolls Park at the junction where the two branches of the river meet. See the map here.
The trail that follows the west branch of the river starts as a spur off of the Illinois Prairie Path just east of Winfield Road and south of Butterfield Road in the Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve. From there, it follows the DuPage River south, underneath I-88 and into the McDowell Grove Forest Preserve. You’ll cross Fawell Dam just north of Ogden, and take the trail down the other side of the river as it continues south until hitting the Riverwalk in downtown Naperville. You’ll continue south to eventually hit Knoch Knolls Park, which actually offers some fun off-road options off the marked trail.
From Knoch Knolls, you can continue back north following the east branch of the river into DuPage River Park and around Whalon Lake. This section of the trail is more exposed, but still quite scenic with its prairie views. In the developed sections of the trail in Naperville, there is water and restrooms at the parks along the route.