There’s a picture on my dresser of a nondescript dirt path, leading to an unidentifiable footbridge, which crosses a thin, nameless stream, then continues on toward a rising set of foothills and beyond. I don’t remember where the picture was taken, but that hasn’t mattered for a very long time. The snapshot’s there simply to remind me of a search that can only occur outdoors. The goal, when there is something that finite, is often as simple as physical exertion or discovering where certain paths lead. I also know people who believe that things such as sandstone outcroppings, tall prairie cordgrass and stands of eastern red cedar trees represent our most intense connection to a spiritual life, and that nature gives off a rejuvenating energy; so they hike back into the wilderness or tramp through the dunes to recharge and become whole.
Chicago may be an unrelenting urban mass, but within a 120-mile radius in nearly every direction there are easily accessible wilderness paths stretching out like welcoming arms. Perfect path to enlightenment, or just the path to physical contentment? Here’s a few of both, so take your pick.
Indiana Dunes State Park
It was the dead of winter and we were drowning in schoolwork when a group of friends and I were introduced to one of the best reasons I can think of to cross the Indiana state line. The 45-minute trip almost didn’t come off; when it started (not so unexpectedly) snowing just a few miles from our destination, there was a split vote as to whether we should bail out to the nearest Motel 6 or keep going and hope that we wouldn’t have to set up camp on frozen ground. Happily, some subtly articulated threats by the diehards propelled us across the trip’s final leg, although I ended up reading aloud for a good part of the night to those of us who couldn’t get our sleeping bags above 30 degrees.
When the sun came up, though, the world that was revealed seemed worth waiting for: a patchwork of trails that led us first through a surprisingly dense forest of hickory, ash and maple and then back along a pebble-lined beach. The sand dunes, which are actually living things that change, recede and grow, act as a natural barrier creating these two very different worlds and you can choose to explore both, or to pick one and make that your world. I’d tramped through sand along the coast back home, so I knew how strenuous it could be, but nothing prepared me for a race up to the top of a nearly 200-foot dune. Our reward: flopping in an exhausted heap on the sand for the afternoon, sending us back to school re-energized and with enviable tans. (219.926.4520)
Kettle Moraine State Forest
Once referred to as the Smokey Mountains, then the Bluffs and still later as Potash Kettle Range, Kettle Moraine in southern Wisconsin (about 2 1/2 hours from Chicago and 20 minutes north of West Bend) was originally set aside because its pockmarked landscape—created by melting glaciers—provided a natural sop for flooding that occurred in the area. The parks southern and northern sections add up to about 45,000 acres and depending on how vigorous of a workout you want, you can head north toward flatter, grassier terrain, or south, toward the more rugged dichotomy of kettles (rounded, often quite deep, pits) and kames (cone-shape hills formed when debris fell through shafts in glacial ice). You’ll find everything here from camping, hiking, biking, swimming, and skiing, to archery and shooting ranges; the park has even paved a half-mile of trail to make it wheelchair accessible. For the very ambitious, Kettle Moraine is just one stop on the much larger 1,000-mile Ice Age Trail that presents an interesting way to wind your way through the region. (414.533.8322)
Starved Rock State Park
My writer’s curiosity about the rather gruesome murder of three Chicago-area socialites that took place here in the late 1950s was what originally attracted me to Starved Rock—so named because of an Illiniwek Indian tribe that supposedly starved on top of a 125-foot sandstone butte when they were held in siege by Potawatomies. Despite the bad press, the park is extremely safe, and I’ve found myself lured back repeatedly because of the spectacular view of the Illinois River that one leg of the park’s 15-mile trail affords. There are bluffs that jut out just far enough over the water that you can lay down on your stomach, lean out over the edge and feel like you’re flying. The trail also cuts back into some amazing canyons, where waterfalls streaming off of high-up ledges often freeze during the winter, creating a spectacular curtain of ice. 120 miles southwest of Chicago, near Utica. (815.667.4726)
I’m not sure that I would have ever ventured out to Volo Bog, just four miles east of McHenry, if it hadn’t been for a couple of biologists. They’d been studying frogs, which are dying in some parts of the country, and they told me about an area where some large populations of the amphibians still thrive. Bogs are messy affairs—they’re the flattened basins left by receding glaciers that are generally mucky, grassy and wet—and at first glance look like nothing more than the wet fields your mother forbid you to cross in clean shoes. Volo, however, has been outfitted with a boardwalk trail that keeps visitors from sinking in knee-deep, but also gets you far enough out into the wetland area to discover the amazing hidden world that can thrive amidst thousands of blades of grass. You probably won’t lose any weight on the trip, but it’s the perfect place for mulling weighty thoughts. Volo is roughly 50 miles northwest of the city in McHenry County. (815.344.1294)