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Hike the Preserves this Winter

Hikers at Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in winter.

This winter, hit the trails in the Forest Preserves of Cook County to enjoy a peaceful hike through serene landscapes. Looking for recommended hikes? Check out the list below for a featured hike in each of the Forest Preserves’ five zones.

To explore more hiking opportunities, check out the Forest Preserves’ interactive web map.

Northwest Zone: Deer Grove-West

Deer Grove-West
W Dundee Rd, east of Northwest Hwy
Cook County, IL 60010 (view web map of Deer Grove-West)
(near Barrington)

Running about 1.5 miles in Deer Grove from Grove #5 to Deer Grove-West’s parking lot, the Orange Trail will take hikers through the heart of the preserve. Here it is easiest to feel remote from roads and traffic and enjoy the peaceful quiet of falling snow. This trail allows hikers to get a taste of the diverse topography of the site while passing from upland oak woodland down into a forested valley full of maples where a tributary of Salt Creek flows. The wooded wetlands throughout this area are home to many animals, but are particularly enjoyed by wood ducks. 

North Zone: Harms Woods-North

Harms Woods-North
Harms Rd & Old Orchard Rd
Cook County, IL 60077 (view web map of Harms Woods-North)
(near Skokie)

Harms Woods, an oak woodland, straddles the North Branch of the Chicago River. On the east side, the paved bike trail winds along the river bluff, passing several picnic areas between Glenview Road and south to Golf Road. Across the river to the west, a gravel bridle trail will lead hikers south through the woods. The river is visible from many points along the trail and remains open through the winter.

Hundreds of species of native plants, shrubs, herbs and trees populate the landscape and are still evident in winter, speaking to the richness of the site. A stroll along the bridle trail is a lovely peaceful outing on a winter’s day. With luck, there may even be enough snow for skiing. 

Central Zone: Bemis Woods-South

Bemis Woods-North
Wolf Rd, south of 31st St
Cook County, IL 60523 (view web map of Bemis Woods-North)
(near Oak Brook)

The unpaved hiking trails at Bemis Woods South meander about 3 miles through the preserve in and out of various natural communities and rolling topography. Starting on the north end, the Black and Orange trails follow the south bank of Salt Creek.

Winter is an especially good time to look for the tracks of wildlife in the snow that may be traversing back and forth between the woodlands and the creek. Near the bridge going over Salt Creek the Orange Trail connects to the Green Trail, which meanders southwest through oak woodlands that have been diligently cared for by years of volunteer restoration efforts and maintained by prescribed fire. This trail continues through open fields and back into woodlands before connecting again with the orange trail at the south west end of the preserve. 

Southwest Zone: Sagawau Environmental Learning Center Trails

The trails near the Sagawau Environmental Learning Center wind up and down ancient deposits of dolomitic limestone created by a coral reef some 400 million years ago. The reef is overlaid with glacial deposits from the last great ice sheet, which covered northeastern Illinois about 14,000 years ago. As the ice melted away an outwash channel carved down some 90 feet, creating the Sag Valley.

These geologic events created a diverse ecosystem of dolomite prairie, marshes, graminoid fens, savannas and oak woodlands, giving the trails at Sagawau some of the most diverse ecosystems in the Forest Preserves. Mammals such as white-tailed deer and coyote can be seen, and more than 130 species of birds can be found amongst the various habitats. 

South Zone: Sand Ridge Nature Center Trails

Sand Ridge Nature Center
15891 Paxton Ave

Sand Ridge Nature Center is named for an ancient beach ridge remnant formed over 6,000 years ago by the receding waters of “Lake Chicago,” the post ice-age ancestor of Lake Michigan. Hikers can follow the 2-mile Lost Beach Trail to see the old beach ridge, now covered in towering oak trees. Snow will accentuate the topography of this unusual region of Cook County, revealing clues to its ancient past. If there is more than 6 inches of snow, hikers can try out snowshoes.

After winter wandering, visitors can warm up inside the nature center building while viewing exhibits with live animals representing the Calumet region and chatting with knowledgeable nature education staff.