I live in Rockford, Illinois with my husband, our four children and pets. It’s neither a small town nor a suburb. It’s a big town or, if you prefer, a small city. And it really spreads out: It has an area of approximately 65 square miles and a population of @150,000 of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.
For perspective, Chicago (pop: 2.71 million) has 234 square miles. Minneapolis (pop: @420,000) has 59 square miles. I include those two cities because I am very familiar with both and love them dearly. But I live in Rockford and am eager to share the beautiful and free places that make it so special. Here’s where we hiked in 2021:
Aldeen Park / Rockford University. If you want to get a quick, rugged two miles in, Aldeen is a city park that has a great trail system replete with a creek, dam, prairie, bluffs, hills and lots of deer.
Aldeen also connects with the local university, which offers several unexpected moments of nature.
Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve. A family favorite. Spectacular views of the Kishwaukee River, lovely trails that connect with several other preserves, lots of biodiversity throughout the system and the “springs” are always a delight, no matter the season,
It’s easy to get a quick three miles at Blackhawk but you can track several more if that is your intention. Mushroom hunters: I found old, decaying chicken-of-the-woods and oysters here in December. I hope to harvest some fresh choice edibles in the spring, summer and fall!
Colored Sands Forest Preserve. Terrific prairie, lovely woods, nice view of the Kish. A busy thoroughfare for birds and bird banders so be mindful of the mist nets. Easy to get a quick two miles here. With a little ingenuity, you’ll track 10 miles because it connects with Sugar River Alder Forest Preserve. Wear bright colors during hunting season because hunters are out on nearby private properties. Speaking of bright, check out this Northern Cinnabar Polypore I found at Colored Sands on Christmas Eve:
Deer Run Forest Preserve. Fern and I love it here. The trails go on for miles and take you through woods, by prairies and right up-and-into the Kishwaukee River. Easy to get a quick three miles in, but if you want more, you’ll track at least six. Hiking in the winter is delightful, but I can’t wait until the spring so I can forage for mushrooms here. I don’t want to give away too much, but if you see this tree in the spring, summer or fall, you are probably steps aways from several species of choice mushrooms! Hint: not a chicken, but a ______ of-the-woods!
Funderburg Forest Preserve. Go there in May to check out the spectacular meadows. You will see unique shades of green in May. You can cover a lot of miles here, but it’s not my favorite. While most trails are inherently uneven, the trails around the cornfields can be ankle-twisters, not to mention boring. And I noticed there were a lot of horse flies particularly in the deepest sections of the woods all summer long. This is one of those places I wanted (and repeatedly tried) to unconditionally love, but I only recommend it as a place to see cool shades of green in the month of May:
Kishwaukee Gorge North. If you’re going for miles, you’ll have to repeat the course, but the gorge is great and the workout going up and down is intense and fun. Lovely views of the Kishwaukee River and lots of mushrooms!
Macktown Forest Preserve. Sort of small so park at the entrance to get your steps in. This place features lovely trails through a hardwood forest, nice views of the Rock River, an interesting cemetery where Hononegah is buried and educational signage about the history, native plants and more. But be careful. There is weirdness lurking in the woods:
Oak Ridge Forest Preserve. Unique structure and vibe. I always see something unusual here. Almost feels like you’re in the South. It starts by the Kishwaukee River then dips in and out of the forest.
Rock Cut State Park. Located in Loves Park, this park features a beautiful forest, lovely lakes, camping and delightful trails. Once a year we rent a pedal boat and head out on Pierce Lake. It is especially fun to go early in the morning when it is quiet and misty.
Russell Woods Forest Preserve. In DeKalb County. Lovely views of the Kishwaukee River, nice trails, peaceful prairie and a nearby farm. Oh, and it has this sledding hill!
Severson Dells Nature Preserve. A family staple, easy to get in four quick miles. Interesting trails, lovely bluffs, an inviting creek and a pond that is teeming with life. Visit the woods in the evening to hear and see owls. Get an extra mile in by circling the prairie. Highly recommend the dells but avoid if it recently rained because it gets muddy and slippery.
Seward Bluffs Nature Preserve. One of the perks of hiking in the winter is that you will see things you wouldn’t necessarily see during the warmer months when everything is in “bloom.” Case in point: This dead, decaying tree 50 feet off of mile marker 20 is loaded with the biggest artists’ conks we have ever seen!
I am certain we would not have seen these conks if the leaves were still on the trees. But there’s more to this preserve than behemoth mushrooms. Seward Bluffs has bluffs (duh), a river, campsites and lovely winding trails.
Sugar River Alder Forest Preserve. Hands down my favorite forest preserve in Winnebago County. Exceptionally quiet, tremendous biodiversity, lots of long trails. Terrific prairie, woods, trails and creek. Wear bright colors in November / during hunting season.
Bonus Trails and Camping
The two “bonus trails” are in Minnesota and the campsites are at Rock Island State Park (not Rock Cut in Loves Park or Rock Island, one of Illinois’ quad cities) in Wisconsin’s Door County.
I’m including the Minnesota trails because even though I no longer live in Minneapolis, I still cherish these natural areas and visit them whenever I am the Land of 10,000 Lakes. And I’m including Rock Island State Park because it offers outstanding rustic camping sites on Lake Michigan or Green Bay and their trails are lovely and rugged.
Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge. Near the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. The trails seem to go on forever. Years ago, when I worked in Bloomington, I used to come here on my lunch hour, so it’s possible to get a quick, satisfying 30-minute hike here. But I recommend carving out at least three hours so you can explore beyond the usual two-to-four miles.
Quaking Bog in Minneapolis. Located in the heart of the city and home to a beautiful, mysterious bog and several tamarack trees. If you get your fill of sphagnum moss, the bog quickly connects to Eloise Butler Garden, Theo Wirth pathways, more city trails and interesting neighborhoods. This was my “go-to” nature place when I lived in Minneapolis and it’s the first place I visit whenever I go back.
What are your favorite places to hike? I hope you consider adding a northern Illinois trail to your list. Winnebago County alone has 44 forest preserves and even though we’ve lived in Rockford for 13 years, we still haven’t visited every single one which brings me to my new year’s resolution: Visit more trails!
Thank you for reading. Happy Hiking! -Connie