Think you have to travel for hours to get in touch with nature? Think again. Visiting a natural environment can be simple, and doesn’t require extensive travel out west to Yellowstone or east to the Appalachians.

Illinois may be known as the Prairie State, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our fair share of natural beauty. So whether you want to spend just a few hours on an autumn afternoon, or take off for a day trip, here are 5 great hikes you don’t want to miss!

1. Chain O’ Lakes Park is located in northwestern Illinois near the Wisconsin border, about 1 ½ hours from the city.

There are a variety of terrains available for hiking. The trails wind through Grass, Marie, and Nippersink Lakes, in addition to linking with the Fox River, which connects to 7 other lakes in the area. There are trails ranging from a ¼ mile for those with limited abilities, up to 8 miles for those who are looking for more of an extended hike. The grounds are generally made up of marshland and grassy hills left behind by the glaciers.

2. Starved Rock State Park is located in western Illinois, about 2 hours southwest of the city.

Starved Rock State Park is a change from the prairie land area of Chain O’ Lakes area. There are 18 canyons to explore throughout the park, and after a heavy rainfall there are numerous waterfalls to see. Native species include whitetail deer, bald eagles, otters, and herons.

3. Morton Arboretum in Lisle, about 30 minutes west of the city.

There are 9 miles of paved trails available for biking and 16 miles of manicured trails that will take you through prairies, marshes, and peaceful woodlands. Numerous paved paths, accessible for everyone, take you through a variety of places, including: a maze garden, lakes and rivers, and the Children’s garden.

4. Chicago Botanic Gardens in Glencoe, is located 30 minutes north of the city.

Looking for something a little closer to home? Check out the Chicago Botanic Gardens. This place is home to a variety of plants, with paved walkways making it a great trip for people of all abilities. The facility offers seasonal walks, so be sure to check out the autumn colors. There are 4 different natural areas and numerous gardens: Japanese, Rose, and Waterfall are just 3 of the gardens open for viewing.

5. Palos/Sag Valley Forest Preserve: Cap Sauers and Swallow Cliff Loop, located near Downer’s Grove, about 30 minutes west of the city.

One of the best features of this hike is near the end where there is a section that runs along the top of a ridge, known as an esker. There is also an 80- to 100-foot-high bluff known as Swallow Cliff, formed by the melting of a glacier about 12,000 years ago.

All of these places have one thing in common, they are all considered public lands. This means they are here for our use. They are used for everything from resource management (mining, drilling, and lumber), to wildlife refuge, recreational use, and to preserve untouched wilderness areas. Land management agencies work all across the country to protect and maintain these areas. Public lands don’t just consist of the national parks out west, they encompass all public land, including national, state, city, and non-park land. Many people don’t realize that the National Mall in Washington DC, which houses countless museums, is a national park!

September 24 is National Public Lands Day, the single largest volunteer event for public lands. This is the event’s 18th year and in that time, it has increased from just 700 volunteers to nearly 200,000. This is a day when people like you, come out and help maintain and protect the public lands. Worn hiking trails are repaired, invasive plant species are pulled, trash is picked up, and trees are planted. These are just a few of the tasks that are done to help keep our public lands safe. There are multiple projects open throughout Illinois, including 6 projects through Chicago Cares.

So whether you’re hitting the trails or spending the morning with a leisurely walk through a garden; take care of your public lands, so that each of us can continue to enjoy their beauty and benefit from all they have to offer!

Today’s post is by Service Events Coordinator, Violette Green.