For me, summer in Chicago has become the season to hike. I don’t mean a stroll through Grant Park or a long walk home from the bar after a breakup. I mean a purposeful pilgrimage across the city. I’m talking about urban hiking. For years, as a hiker and fitness freak, I packed my gear and headed west or east to the mountains of Appalachia to get my nature fix and break free from the city. But after a walking tour of the UK, where people walk everywhere and trails link city to country to coast, I came home and looked out at this vast metropolis and asked myself: why can’t I hike here? A few weeks later, I walked to the Indiana Dunes from Rogers Park, and I’m discovering you can walk anywhere with a good pair of shoes, an adventuresome spirit and the willingness to break old ways of seeing urban landscapes.
The key to urban walking is distance. A three- or five-mile walk won’t do. You have to push beyond your idea of how far is far. You have to treat the hike as if it were a new place, a wilderness of another sort. I have a few rules: no car, no cell phones, no soundtrack to distract you, but, sure, bring a small camera or notebook. This is all about exploring how perception changes when you slow down and look at the landscape at the pace generated by nothing more than your own muscles and will.
Here are a few of my favorite hikes. Living in Rogers Park I’ve explored all three directions, south, north and west. But the joy of this form of recreation is to make your own pilgrimages.
Devon Avenue Evening Walk
Along Devon Avenue from Broadway to California, every night in the summer feels like a street festival. I like to walk in the evening, as the sun sets, it seems, in the middle of the street, and with the neon store lights and colorful dress of a Nigerian wedding party or the busy Indian and Pakistani women shopping, it’s a dazzling display of color. Block by block, Devon takes you on a journey around the world, one continent and ethnicity bleeding into another. Walk back on the other side. It goes without saying that you end up at an Indian buffet before walking home. (0kay, you can take a bus or cab because you ate too much.)
Pilgrimage to Baha’i Temple
There’s something about walking several miles in preparation to step inside this wonder of architecture and celebration of the world’s great spiritual traditions. The silence inside the circular sanctuary is not just aural but sensual, as your eyes seem to lift your body into the pure white arched basilica. The walk along the wooded streets of Evanston and Wilmette also offers canopies from the giant oaks, maples and other remnant trees from when the North Shore was covered in forests.
Oh, sure, you’ve ridden a bike along the lakefront, but have you walked all 18.2 miles of it? Have you traversed the city from north to south, from Rogers Park to Calumet Park? Whether you do a ten-miler or go to the Loop and back, the key is to get an early start, have good shoes, bring moleskin, and don’t wimp out. This hike will forever change how you see the city, because you’ll experience a cross section of everyone who uses this great communal backyard: from Polish ladies in flowering bathing caps at Hollywood Beach to the miraculous bird sanctuary at Montrose, to the flesh and flash of Oak Street, to the African drum circles in Jackson Park. Every mile is a slice of Chicago history and a challenge of your body and mind. Eat along the way and take a plunge as often as you can.
Indiana Dunes Circuit Trail
If you want to get out of the city, take the South Shore train to the Indiana Dunes State Park (Dunes Park Station) and spend a long day in the marshes, dunes, wooded trails and beach of one of the few urban national parks, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Yes, you will see steel mills and power plants in the distance, but this doesn’t detract from the miles of trails, otherworldly dunes and amazing plant diversity. You can take a long hike by walking southeast from the train station along Marquette Trail to Cowles Bog Trail, where you will pass a massive marsh and then roll up and over the dunes to the beach. You can then follow the shoreline for several miles until you get to the Indiana Dunes State Park, where you can climb into the blowouts and walk along the pine-shaded ridge, before heading back through thick deciduous forest to the park entrance and South Shore train. Pack water, food, binoculars for birding, sunblock and bathing suit or your tent and camp out at the campground. Go on a weekday.
Urban hiking is as much a physical challenge as a psychological one. Yes, you will confront urban ugliness and neglect, but you will also be surprised by how walking strengthens not only your legs but your resolve to reclaim this metropolis along the lake as a shared space dependent on the diversity of all its inhabitants (human and nonhuman) for its health and future.