Take a train to walk

Planning a trip to the Indiana Dunes to hike with a friend, I debated whether to rent a car. The South Shore railway parallels the national park, but one trail close to train stops is shared with bicycles and another with horses. Neither seemed a good prospect for the peaceful experience we hoped for. We chose a path that begins almost two miles from the nearest train stop. To conserve our energy for the trail, we rented a car. 

On our return to Chicago, all lanes of the inbound Dan Ryan were closed, and the GPS rerouted us on secondary roads through Gary, Hammond, and the South Side of Chicago. Spending three hours behind the wheel after a strenuous hike, I was drained. Calmness from the walk had evaporated.

The next day, I wanted to look into future hikes that can be reached without a car. Googling “Chicago-area hiking trails accessible by public transportation” yielded helpful articles and information about a 2020 book describing 30 trails accessible by Metra or CTA. Chicago Transit Hikes was written by Lindsay Welbers, an advocate for sustainable transportation and “transit-adjacent hiking.” 

Welbers’s 30 hikes begin varying distances from train stations, from across the street to three miles away. She counts as part of the hike the walk between her doorstep and the train and between the train station and the trailhead. “Instead of your hike beginning the moment you get to the trailhead, think that it starts the moment you walk out the front door,” she writes. 

Probably less robust than Welbers, I am usually spent at trail’s end and would bemoan more walking to get back to the train, so I made note of her suggestions of trails starting within a quarter-mile of a train stop. Once back at a Metra station, I can take a bus to within a block of home.

If you’re willing to walk farther to and from a trailhead, you can find other suggestions in Welbers’s book and from Curbed Chicago and the Chicago Tribune. Google the trail to find out what you’ll see on it. 

Thanks to Welbers for providing the information to compile the following list of trails close to train stations.

Des Plaines River Trail via Metra Union Pacific Northwest (¼ mile from Des Plaines Metra station): Head southeast out of the station and turn left at Pearson Street. Take a right onto Miner Street, cross the river, descend the staircase, and find the trail. (Wilbers lists other places to access the 30-mile trail if you don’t mind longer walks from the train station.) 

• LaBagh Woods and North Branch Trail via Metra Milwaukee District North (¼ mile from Forest Glen Metra station): Head north out of the station. Take a right at North Forest Glen Avenue. Walk straight ahead at the entrance to Forest Glen Woods and in half a block cross to the other side of Forest Glen Avenue to enter LaBagh Woods, which links with the 20-mile North Branch Trail. 

* Fort Sheridan Nature Preserve via Metra Union Pacific North (¼ mile from Fort Sheridan Metra station): From the station head northwest on Western Avenue and turn right onto Old Elm Road. Take another right onto Sheridan Road and find the park entrance across the street.

Fox River Trail via Metra Milwaukee District West (¼ mile from National Street station in Elgin): From the station head north. Cross the Fox River at National Street and find the trail. 

Fox River Trail via Metra Union Pacific West (¼ mile from Metra Geneva station): From the station turn right onto Third Street. The trailhead is at the intersection of Third and First Streets.

• Cal Sag Trail via Metra Rock Island (Blue Island train station is along the trail): Exit the station at Vermont Street in Blue Island. Take a left for the western part of the trail. Cross the river to walk east.

• Midlothian Meadows and Oak Forest Heritage Preserve via Metra Rock Island (one block from Metra Oak Forest station): Head south from the station, cross Cicero Avenue and see the entrance to the park. Leaving Midlothian Meadows, head south across 159th Street and follow the path around the Oak Forest Health Center to the Oak Forest Heritage Preserve. 

• Midlothian Reservoir, St. Mihiel Woods, and East Yankee Woods via Metra Rock Island (¼ mile from Metra Oak Forest station): From the station head southwest. Turn left onto Oak Avenue and find the Midlothian Reservoir Trail. Exiting that trail, cross 167th Street for St. Mihiel Woods. Taking a left out of St. Mihiel Woods, you’ll find East Yankee Woods.

The 606 via CTA Blue Line (¼ mile from Damen stop): Walk north from the el station for two blocks.

Living in the South Loop, I require only my own two feet to reach two destinations that Welbers lists — the lakeshore path and Northerly Island. Each is a mile from me — a mile through Grant Park, which deserves to count as part of a walk in nature.

Online articles provide more ideas for walks right in the city. Accessible via CTA are the five miles of Lincoln Park paths. For shorter walks, there’s Henry C. Palmisano Nature Park, 2700 S. Halsted Avenue, and North Park Village Nature Center, 5801 N. Pulaski Road. Their trails are only about a mile, but you can always go around more than once.

Graceland Cemetery, one of the most serene getaways I know of in Chicago, should be mentioned. Or any large cemetery, for that matter. With abundant trees, cemeteries should offer lovely scenery during the fall color season.

I’m not resolving to never again rent a car to go hiking. Many of the area’s best hiking destinations — including Starved Rock State Park and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie — can’t be reached by train. It is good to keep in mind, however, that many trails can. Besides sparing the expense and hassle of renting a car, going by train is, Welbers writes, “the best way that I have found to carry that collected and serene feeling for the longest amount of time after I leave the trail.” 

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  • Thank you. I don't enjoy the rattles of the L, but I don't mind the steadier pace of Metra trains. These sound like good ideas.

  • Happy trails!

  • I can appreciate your article. That's why this summer instead of driving to Mackinaw Island, I decided to take a bus tour to the Island.
    Let someone else do the driving, it was a LONG drive, Chicago to
    Mackinaw, Michigan. Going thru Indiana is horrible.
    Also, took the Amtrak to Milwaukee, (Art Museum). A Delightful one
    day get away. Amtrak $45.00 round trip.
    I always wanted to walk the Indiana Dunes, never got a chance, just don't want to deal with Indiana.
    Happy Trails

  • Happy trails to all of you as well.

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