Cross Country Ski Spots near I-88 in Suburban Chicago

These are a few of my favorite spots to go cross country skiing (or winter hiking). They're mostly within a couple miles of I-88 in west suburban Chicago. These are all great spots to get some fresh air and exercise during the Illinois winter.

Morton Arboretum on Chrstmas Day

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by travelswithkids on February 5, 2011

Christmas afternoon. You've opened the presents, put batteries in the new electronic gizmos, been to church and back, and had dinner. What next? This year, my family decided to try something new and headed over to Morton Arboretum for some time in the snow. Admission is free on Christmas, or $11 other days of the year.

Morton Arboretum is a huge nature preserve just west of Chicago, right off of I-88. Encompassing over 1600 acres, it showcases a variety of ecosystems, from woodlands of various types (oaks, buckeyes, conifers,...), to prairies and wetlands, to more formal gardens. If you're feeling lazy, there's a seven mile road loop that will let you catch a glimpse of the trees here, but the joy here is getting out and going for a stroll, a cross-country ski outing, or a bike ride.

Morton has many miles of hiking trails, some paved, some covered in wood chips. So you can just pick up a map at the entrance and hit a trail. It also has paved paths through its more formal gardens, such as the Children's Garden, a Fragrance Garden, and a hedge maze. Of course the best cross-country skiing takes you on one of the paths through the woods and makes for a really enjoyable nature experience. Many of its trails are only about a mile or so in length, so you can easily build as long of an excursion as you want.
Morton Arboretum
4100 Illinois Route 53
Lilse, Illinois, 60532
+1 630 968 0074

Nelson Lake Ski Trails

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by travelswithkids on February 6, 2011

Nelson Lake is about 3 miles west of Batavia on Main Street. The main feature of skiing out here is the big loop around the 40-acre lake. This loop takes under an hour to complete and is around 3 miles. The trip takes you through some frozen marsh areas and runs alongside some woods on the west side of the lake. Also on the west side, the path connects up with trails running through the prairie section of the preserve. These trails make it easy to add 1, 2, or 3 miles to your skiing, so you can really make a day of it if you have the stamina.

The wintry lake, wetland, and prairie landscape is very relaxing. I saw a few pheasants on a recent ski outing there. During the fall, Nelson Lake has been a stopover for migrating pelican's in recent years. Nelson Lake is definitely out in the countryside, and it is quite peaceful, even though the trails run just a snowball's throw away from the roads in a couple spots. The scenery mostly includes some farm houses in the distance. I usually only see a handful of other people when I ski there, even on weekends, so you don't have to worry about crowds.

The trails aren't groomed or anything. However, enough people go hiking out here that the snow does get pretty trampled down, so you could skate on large parts of it if you wanted. (I know I said I don't see many people here, but apparently it does get a pretty steady use from the condition of the snow after a week or two.)

The trails are mostly very exposed to wind and sun. So there isn't much protection on a cold windy day, and you aren't going through woods for very long. Also, the snow here seems to get mushy and muddy pretty quickly when things start to thaw since it is nearly all in direct sun.

There are two parking lots: one off Nelson Lake Road on the east side of the lake, and one off of Main Street a little further west that gives direct access to the prairie. There are picnic shelters near both parking area.

Summary: I like the big lake loop and being in the countryside. I don't like that the trails don't go through woods so much.
Nelson Lake Marsh Nature Preserve
Dick Young Forest Preserve
Batavia, Illinois

Herrick Lake Ski Trails

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by travelswithkids on February 6, 2011

The Dupage county forest preserve of Herrick Lake is just north of I88, between Wheaton and Naperville. It's possibly the best place for cross country skiing in the area, with many miles of trails, mostly sheltered in the woods.

It's trails cover a variety of terrains, from a short one mile loop around the lake, to the longer trail that will connect to the Danada Forest Preserve. It's easy to get in a 5 or 6 mile circuit without ever covering the same tracks twice. A lot of the trails are under cover of trees, so they keep the wind off you if it is really cold, and there are some modest hills to go up and down on the main trails. My favorite part is the long downward slope through the trees on the trail that heads towards Danada. Of course, you have to come back up it on your way back, which makes it not quite so attractive. Herrick Lake is adjacent to Arrowhead Golf Course, so you can head onto the course for even more variety (but avoid tees and greens, please!).

Herrick Lake is also one of the few places which grooms its trails for skating style (or freestyle) skiing. Personally, I just go the classical style, but there are plenty of skaters there.

Herrick Lake is a very popular spot and there are always several people on the trails in winter, skiing, hiking, walking their dogs, or even mountain biking.
It is a big enough preserve that you do mostly feel like you're disconnected from the nearby busy roads.
Herrick Lake Forest Preserve
Naperville Road
Wheaton, Illinois

Skiing Fermilab's Big Woods

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by travelswithkids on February 6, 2011

Fermilab is a big physics research lab between Batavia and Warrenville where they investigate fundamental properties of matter. You can visit Fermilab and learn a lot more about the science going on there, but that isn't what this review is about. The 10 square miles required to host its experiments also offers a couple great places for cross country skiing. One of the favorites is the Big Woods, a nice little forest just north of Fermilab's main high-rise building, Wilson Hall.

The loop through the woods is really just a quick 20 minute ski (not really suitable for skating-style at all). But it is a really pleasant, relaxing trail among the trees. There are two trail entrances: one near the intersection of the Pine Street entrance road and the road leading to Wilson Hall, and the other off of the prairie north of the Lederman Education Center (along the outbound lane of Pine Street). This restored-prairie area, which receives a continuous stream of schoolkids on field trips during the fall, is also a great skiing area. You can easily double or triple your skiing time from the woods trail by meandering along some of the prairie trails.

There is also a bicycle trail which runs through east-west through Fermilab and you can also ski alongside it. There are some open fields next to the bike trail where you could also ski around. Most of these more open areas of the bike trail are towards the Warrenville entrance to the lab and trail. (There would be a break in the bike trail around the parking lots of Wilson Hall if you were really trying to do the whole east-west thing.)

You aren't ever terribly far from the roads on this part of Fermilab, but there is at least one hollow in the prairie where you really can't see any cars, pavement, or buildings. There are quite a few deer and some coyotes at Fermilab, but you probably won't bump into any of them while skiing in the middle of the day. However, you will see their tracks in the snow. You have a good chance of spotting some hawks flying overhead, though. You're only likely to bump into one or two other skiers or hikers if you ski over lunch time here. All-in-all, its a really nice, calm, place to experience the outdoors in winter.
Big Woods Park

Batavia, Illinois, $zip

Red Oak Nature Center

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by travelswithkids on February 5, 2011

Red Oak Nature Center is a nature preserve with a prime location in the woods along the Fox River. This park is a relatively narrow strip along the river banks with some nice scenic overlooks above the icy river and other places where the trails runs right along the river bank. When you arrive, you'll probably be greeted by the sight of fat squirrels scampering in the tree branches. Watch for cardinals and listen for woodpeckers hammering away among the trees.

For skiing (or hiking) trails here, there are two types. The first is the relatively narrow trails winding up and down the hills through the maple trees where they do maple sugaring demonstrations in early spring. The second type of trail is the asphalt bike path which runs through Red Oak. This bike path runs from Aurora to Elgin. Within a short distance of Red Oak it connects you with a couple other river front parks where you can explore on skis. You can also ski along the trails here to explore Red Oak's Devil's Cave, a little recessed area along the river bank which has some Indian legends associated with it.

I like exploring through the woods at Red Oak, although you don't get a lot of speed going since they are typically short paths with lots of corners. When there is plenty of snow, you can stretch your legs by skiing the bike trail down to the dam in North Aurora or north to the open fields of Lippold Park (a former archery club) and the woods of Glenwood Preserve. But if there isn't a lot of snow, I get annoyed hitting my ski poles on the hard asphalt of the bike path. The trails here cross some pretty ravines and there are some decent hills to give you a little thrill.

Across the highway from Red Oak Nature Center is the Fox Valley Country Club, and skiing around the perimeter of the golf course also provides a good workout.

Red Oak also features an education center which is a fun place for kids. They hold different programs here throughout the year. If you want to bring some sandwiches along for your ski outing, there is an open-air picnic shelter with a big stone fireplace.
Red Oak Nature Center
2343 South River Street
Batavia, Illinois
(630) 897-1808

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