Assuming you’re brave enough to leave your room this winter, cross country skiing is worth some consideration. It’s a great way to explore our city’s “backcountry” and can also help you stay in shape for next summer. We’ll discuss a brief background of the sport and highlight 6 trail options (with rentals!) around Chicago.
What Is Cross Country Skiing?
Cross country skiing (also called Nordic skiing or ski touring) dates back several thousand years to the Scandinavian region of Europe. It was originally developed as a way to traverse across large snowfields, which was critical for hunting and general transportation at the time.
The activity slowly evolved into a competitive sport, eventually debuting at the 1924 Olympics. Although alpine skiing now tends to overshadow cross country skiing, it nevertheless remains popular in Northern Europe, Canada, Alaska, and other areas.
Styles & Equipment
There are two basic skiing styles:
- Classic (aka Diagonal) is the original form of the sport. Classic skiers glide forward using a kick motion, keeping the skis parallel at all times.
- Freestyle (aka Skating) was developed in the 1980s as a faster alternative to Classic. Freestyle skiers use the edge of the ski to push off, leaving a V-shaped track.
Each style requires specialized skis, boots, bindings, and poles. The common characteristic is that the heel of the boot is unattached to the ski, which provides the flexibility needed to glide forward on a flat surface (this will be an adjustment for alpine skiers).
Most rental shops carry classic-style skis, which are best for beginners and easier to maneuver on ungroomed tracks. Once you’re comfortable with this style, you may want to transition to freestyle skis. Both REI and Sierra Trading Post have published helpful articles on this subject.
Cross country skiing is considered one of the best fitness activities, as it requires significant strength and cardiovascular endurance. Two of the top three world records for VO2 max were set by athletes in this sport (the other was cycling). From a calorie-burn perspective, cross country is better than running, cycling, and other activities. The chart below illustrates the calories burned per hour based on a 150-lb. person.
Trails Near Chicago
Each option below provides rentals and at least a couple miles of trails, many of which are groomed. If you’d like to explore rougher terrain, you can rent your own skis and check out a few of the forest preserves in the area (see the Resources section). We suggest calling ahead for snow conditions.
1. Camp Sagawau & FPCC | Lemont, IL | 630-257-2045
Camp Sagawau is part of The Forest Preserve of Cook County, which covers more than 68,000 acres of forests, rivers, wetlands, and other landscapes. Cross country skiing is allowed in nearly every area of the district, with the exception of golf courses, nature centers, and other special use areas.
If you have your own equipment, you can ski for free. If not, then head to the Nordic Ski Program at Camp Sagawau. The area is open daily from December until early March (weather permitting) and offers free parking, restrooms, warming areas, and about 4 miles of groomed trails. Rentals are available for $15 and lessons are offered on the weekends for $20.
2. Northerly Island | Near South Side | 312-745-2910
Northerly Island, part of the Chicago Parks District, is a peninsula located within a short walk of Soldier Field. It was once the site of a small airport, but converted to a park in the late ’90s. The area encompasses over 90 acres of wildlife, lagoons, trails, and even a concert venue. It also offers one of the best views of our skyline.
Snowshoeing and cross country skiing are offered on the island most weekends in January and February (weather permitting – check the CPD site). Admission is free and rentals are available for $5 for two hours. The Field House will be open as a warming area.
3. Morton Arboretum | Lisle, IL | 630-968-0074
Morton Arboretum is a nonprofit organization that maintains a beautiful 1,700 acre property in Lisle. The Arboretum is dedicated to the study of trees, shrubs, and other plants from around the world. It also provides extensive educational programs for kids and adults. Doors are open 365 days a year.
Cross country skiing is available throughout the winter, provided there are 4 inches of snow on the ground. There is a designated 3-mile groomed trail, although visitors are welcome to explore off-trail if they wish. Admission is $12 and rentals are available for $15 (2 hours) or $20 (all day).
4. Heller Nature Center | Highland Park, IL | 847-579-4182
Heller Nature Center is a 97-acre public preserve that encompasses a forest, prairie, and wetlands. The grounds are open from dawn to dusk every day. The area has three miles of ungroomed trails that are open as long as there is a 4 inch base of snow. Admission is free and daily rentals are available for $12.
5. Arrowhead Golf Course | Wheaton, IL | 630-653-5800
Arrowhead Golf Course, part of the Wheaton Park District, is a 27-hole golf course in Wheaton. In the winter, cross country skiing is offered 7 days a week (six inch base of snow required). The groomed trail is 3-4 miles long, although skiers are free to explore off-trail. The property connects to the surrounding Herrick Lake Forest Preserve, which offers additional trails. Admission is free and rentals are $15 for two hours.
6. Sportsman’s Country Club | Northbrook, IL | 847-291-2351 (x3)
Sportmans’ Country Club is an 18-hole golf course owned by the Northbrook Park District. It’s open to snowshoers and cross country skiers from sunrise to sunset (weather permitting). Daily rentals are available Tuesday through Sunday for $12 and lessons are offered 10am-12pm for $15. The club also offers candlelight skiing on select dates.
Cross Country Resources
REI Lincoln Park offers a pretty good selection of cross country ski rentals. A basic package is $30 for the first night out and $12 for each additional night. A $300 deposit is required for nonmembers.
Nordic Fox Ski Club is a cross country club in the western suburbs of Chicago. The group organizes day trips, weekend trips, and weeklong trips to Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and even as far away as Yellowstone.
Northwest Nordic Ski Club was founded over 20 years ago to serve ski enthusiasts in the northwest suburbs. The group organizes day-trips all over the Midwest. They also offer informal outings at local parks and golf courses.
Lake County Forest Preserve has nearly 124 miles of cross country skiing trails which are open as soon as there is snow (except for Ryerson Conservation Area, which needs a 4-inch base). Groomed trails are available in Wauconda and Libertyville.
Forest Preserve District of Will County is open to cross country skiers who have their own equipment. The preserves are located in Joliet, Naperville, Homer Glen, Mokena, New Lenox, and surrounding suburbs.
Rails-to-Trails is a non-profit organization that maintains a list of trails converted from former rail lines. They list several cross country options in the state of Illinois.