Best hiking within 1/2 day drive from Chicago.

I scheduled a week off to get away from dealing with an alcoholic brother and crazy job situation and want to hike away some stress. I’m still relatively new to the Chicago area, and this part of the country in general.

I love mountains. I figured I’m too far away to spend all day hiking up one peak like in the Rockies, but are there any decent peaks or mini “mountain” ranges within half a days drive from Chicago? I drove my brother to a job interview in Morgantown, WV a month ago and was pretty impressed by those mini mountains, but that’s really at the end of my driving range. I’m hoping to find something within 8 hours but I’ll go further if I need to.

Some general areas with my 8 hour radius are W Ohio, W Kentucky, N Tennessee, The Ozarks, N Wisconsin, and N Michigan. My dad suggested Traverse City, but I’m really hoping to find some decent changes in elevation. Not sure that exists there. My first gut reaction is W Kentucky somewhere but I’m not sure that’s far enough West to find any decent peaks.

So help me find some ideas. Do I really need to drive the full 12 hours to the heart of Appalachia to find what I’m looking for or is there some reasonable substitute somewhere closer? Or just tell me about your hiking/outdoor experiences in these areas in general.

I grew up in Traverse City, so I’m just a tad biased. But if you want elevation changes, you won’t really find it there.

Given your drive time restrictions, I’d go north to Porcupine Mountains State Park, on the north side of Michigan’s UP. It’s not true mountains, but there are some decent changes of elevation there, and some rugged terrain. Mapquest says it’s about 8 hours and 425 miles from Chicago to Ontonagon, MI, which is on the east side of the Porkies. Do some research and check it out on Google Earth to see if there’s enough climbing there for you.

The Porcupines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula may suit you. The Porkies aren’t huge, and they’re a bit outside your 8 hour range but we are pretty limited, mountainwise, here in the Midwest.

My favorite hiking spot in all of the Midwest is the Superior Trail on Minnesota’s North Shore, but don’t tell anyone because I don’t want it spoiled. It, also, would be longer than 8 hours from Chicago but not by much.

If you’re interested in either of the above, feel free to ask more questions, I know them both pretty well.

The Porkies are closer than 8 hours from Chicago. I make it from the central UP to Chicago in less than 8 hours, and I’m no speed demon while driving.

You’re not going to get gorgeous soaring mountain ranges up here, but there is some damn good hiking and very pretty vistas. These pics are pretty typical of what you’ll find the the UP.

Are you into anything besides hiking? The other summer things the UP excels at are mountain biking and kayaking. Our mountain biking is world-class. I spent 10 years in and around Boulder, Colorado, for example, and there is no comparison. The UP is much better, and relatively unknown.

Thanks! The Porkies are starting to look very attractive, especially with the 8 hour drive.

It’s well past my graveyard bedtime so I don’t have time to take an exhaustive look right now. A quick look turned up the Union Bay Campground in the state park. How’s this for a starting point? Any favorite trails? Is the Porcupine Mountain State Park what I should be looking at or are there other trails near small towns outside the park I should look into?

I’ve never been kayaking and I haven’t been able to replace my mountain bike after it was stolen a few years ago, but if there is convenient place to rent either one where I’m going I’ll probably do one or both.

Googlemaps shows a 7h 50m drive from Bloomingdale to Duluth so that still may be a possibility. Where specifically along the Superior Trail would you suggest?

Consider the trails of the Kettle Moraine State Park (Southern & Northern units) in Wisconsin. Pretty close, lots of little ups and downs and ups and down and ups and downs.

Though I admit hiking the Porkies is much more interesting. I hiked from Lake of the Clouds to Mirror Lake and back long long ago, and loved it.

Have you considered Starved Rock?

I would suggest as much of it as you can! But the southern half is my favorite.

I really am angry to be sharing this, but the SHT is a true gem. It has excellent campsites situated at convenient intervals (almost all close to water and nearby privies), occasionally swings close enough to towns for easy resupply, great opportunities to see wolves, deer, moose, otters, beavers, loons, etc, and is well marked and maintained

You said you took a week off, so does that mean you’ll have 10 days? I don’t know what you’re used to hiking, but I would suggest parking your car at Lake County 301 (southernmost point) and having the Superior Shuttle take you as far north as you can go and make it back to your car. My suggestion is the Caribou River wayside. It’s a great spot to get introduced to the trail, with a quick side trail to see a majestic waterfall, and then a steep hike to the top of said waterfall.

Hiking from Caribou River back to your car will take around 7 days for someone hiking 15 miles/day average, IIRC

Not really mountains, but Devil’s Lake in Baraboo, WI (~3.5 hours from Chicago) has some nice hiking. But I’m an amateur though, so take it with a grain of salt.

Eagle trail at Peninsula State Park goes down and back up the bluff. Some other hilly trails as well.Perrot has some hilly trails.

Porkies is probably better, but those are closer. If you go to Peninsula, you could stop at High Cliff

ETA: Union Bay is a nice campground. There is also Presque Isle campground, which is more primitive (vault toilets). If you go to the Porkies, the Preque Isle waterfalls are worth a visit.


I’ll second Missy2U’s suggestion of Starved Rock State Park if you need a quick fix of varied elevation that’s close to home. Not mountainous, but a nice place to see some terrain that’s not like the rest of northern Illinois.

And close by is Matthiessen State Park; you could visit both in one day or camp at Starved Rock and make a weekend of it.

A little farther west, in Iowa, is Maquoketa Caves State Park, another interesting area worth a visit. Plenty of above-ground trails in addition to the caves.

Head east into northern Indiana to visit Salamonie River State Forest on the north side of Salamonie Reservoir. They have a nice campground, trails, varied terrain and some huge sycamore trees just below the dam. Very different from the corn and soy bean fields that make up most of northern Indiana.

All these places are considerably less than 8 hours from Chicago and would make a nice place to spend a weekend.

If you want to stay in Illionois, there is Mississippi Pallisades - similar to Perrot with bluffs by the river.


I came in to say Starved Rock as well. I grew up in that area and although the word “mountainous” would not be the normal description, there are some amazing trails and you can find some off-the-beaten track canyons to explore. Plus it is only about a 90 minute drive from downtown Chicago, but a world away. Weekends are a bit busy there, but during the week, it is like having a huge State Park alone as your backyard.

You could also rent a cabin or room at the Starved Rock Lodge, or the new Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort next to the park.

Thanks for the links everyone! So many ideas for the future. The only one I’ve heard of was Starved Rock. Someone told me about it a few months ago and its on my must do list, but since I can make a one day trip out of it I’m going to save it for a weekend. Same thing for the new ones I learned about in Iowa, Indiana, and Wisconsin. I’m sure I’ll get to them all eventually.

Looks like I’m strongly leaning towards the Porkies. I like the idea of the modern campgroud at Union Bay with showers and toilets. I don’t have much spare time and I’m not an experienced backpacker/camper. That will save me the trouble of having to invest in a backpack, and learning how to pack many days worth of stuff in it. I also don’t know much about being in bear country. At the modern site I can just throw everything in my car instead of leaning how to tie it up, and I can use that as a base and drive to the different trails around the park.

Hopefully I will have 5 or 6 full days, but I’m looking for a new job and if I have an interview I’m not going to wait. At the very least I’m going to have 2 full days/3 nights.

Oh. And thanks for the sacrifice August West

When are you going? I (and possibly Athena) will be in the Porkies on a multi day bicycle tour ( The tour arrives in the park On August 6th (Monday) and leaves the 8th.

There is car camping in the Presque Isle area, but as previoulsy mentioned no showers or flush toilets.

Park Website

Wow! Thanks for the offer but I will be there in about 3 weeks.

Not me… this year’s bike trip is to ride the crazy cool trails in Copper Harbor, recently named one of 6 official IMBA Ride Centers in the world. It looks stupidly cool - the trail builders up there are incredible.

I’ll put in a plug for Knobstone Trail in southern Indiana. A friend hiked it many years ago, and enjoyed it immensely.

The Keeweenaw is another Tour da UP route. I didn’t do any MT biking, but I did bike up (an down!) Brockway Mt Drive.