Moraine Hills State Park: Rolling Hills, Top-Notch Hiking Trails, Winter Sports, and Much More

If you’re looking for a little adventure just an hour from Chicago, you should visit Moraine Hills State Park (1510 S. River Road, McHenry, IL 60051). That’s what I did recently on an early spring day that started out in the high 40s and reached 62 degrees under a bright sun and blue skies. The trees were still bare, but the forest floor was starting to green. The marshes were noisy with the sounds of spring peepers (frogs) and birds (including geese, ducks, and cranes). After a difficult February weatherwise in Chicagoland, even the earliest signs of spring were heartening. Here are eight things you can do at Moraine Hills State Park

1. Visit the nature center to view displays about the park’s natural features, pick up brochures and maps, and talk with rangers regarding suggested activities.

2. Go hiking. There are 10 miles of trails to enjoy via hiking, biking, or skiing. They are color-coded and one-way, although I saw plenty of people breaking that rule during my hikes. The main trails are the two-mile Fox River Trail (Yellow), the 3.2-mile Leatherleaf Bog Trail (Blue), and the 3.7-mile Lake Defiance Trail (Red). These trails are surfaced with crushed limestone. A fourth path—the 1.7-mile River Road Trail—is paved. I hiked the Leatherleaf Bog Trail, which takes you through rolling hills and prairie and eventually to the Leatherleaf Bog, which the Illinois Department of Natural Resources calls an “excellent example of kettle-moraine topography.” Leatherleaf is an evergreen bog shrub with narrow leathery leaves (hence the name) that has rhizomes (a modified stem that stores food and assists in propagation) that can extend up to 12 inches below the bog. Because it is shade intolerant, it can grow up to three feet tall. In Illinois, leatherleaf is a threatened species. A kettle is a depression in the land that was formed by the melting of an isolated block of glacial ice. A moraine is an accumulation of stones, boulders, and other debris that were deposited by a glacier. The gravel-rich deposits (called kames) in Moraine Hills State Park remained after glacial ice melted at the conclusion of the Wisconsin glaciation period.

You do not have to hike the full length of these trails. There are 10 day use areas (Kettle Woods, Pine Hills, Hickory Woods, Oak Opening, etc.), where you can park, picnic, and hike a bit. There are also enjoyable foot trails on the east side of the main park road. I parked at the Pine Hills day use area, walked across the road, descended a rustic stairwell, and enjoyed a short hike through a forest of massive oak trees to check out Pike Marsh, which has a 230-foot boardwalk. You can view Ohio goldenrod, Kalm’s lobelia, dwarf birch, hoary willow, and other plants and trees. After I visited, I learned that there were carnivore plants in the marsh. In fact, one of the largest known colonies of pitcher plants (which attract, trap, and digest insects) in Illinois are found in the marsh.

3. Check out Lake Defiance. This pretty body of water was formed when a large mass of ice broke off a glacier during the last ice age, then melted and formed a lake. It is largely undeveloped—making it one of the few glacial lakes in Illinois that remains in near pristine condition.

4. View birds and other wildlife. More than 200 species of birds have been sighted at the park. Birds seemed to be everywhere I went during my visit. Of course, it’s spring migration time in Illinois, so you will see plenty of our avian friends in our nature areas and in the skies above us. I saw a pair of geese having a noisy battle — first on the water, and then in midair—over a fish at Leatherneck Bog, and I enjoyed seeing two sandhill cranes methodically working their way across Pike Marsh searching for food. Other migratory birds that you might see include mallards, teal, and wood ducks. Great blue herons and green herons reside in the marsh in the summer. Other animals that you might encounter include white-tailed deer, eastern cottontail, mink, opossum, red fox, coyote, raccoon, frogs, and toads.

5. Go fishing. You can drop a line at Lake Defiance and on the Fox River. The peat shoreline of Lake Defiance is too dangerous to walk near, so fishing is only available from designated piers along the boardwalk and via rowboat rental. You can also access the Fox River via the McHenry Dam in the southwest corner of the park. A concession stand sells refreshments and bait and rents boats and bicycles. A fishing pier that is accessible to those who have a disability is also available.

6. Have a picnic. There seemed to be a picnic table—or at least a bench to take rest—every time I rounded a turn as I drove or walked. In fact, there are picnic tables, drinking water, and rustic toilet facilities at the park’s 10 day use areas, and there are reservable picnic shelters at the Pike Marsh, Pine Hills, Whitetail Prairie, and the Northern Woods day use areas.

7. Savor the fall colors. Moraine Hills is heavily forested, and you should visit in the fall to watch the woods come alive with brilliant hues of red, yellow, and orange. Additionally, the leatherleaf plants at Leatherleaf Bog turn a deep red, then brown, in the fall, which also makes for stunning views.

8. Enjoy winter sports such as cross-country skiing, ice fishing (on the Fox River and Lake Defiance), sledding (in the Whitetail Prairie day use area), and snowshoeing.

Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes

Copyright (photos, except if otherwise credited; the blog main photo was provided by Shutterstock) Andrew Morkes


Looking for some great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more. 

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I have been a writer and editor for more than twenty-five years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlightnewsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job OpeningsNontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDsThey Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titlesThey Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. 

In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering CareersWhat Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).

My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.

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