I've literally mountain biked all around this country and I'm so thankful that one of the best destinations I've ridden is 40 miles from the Chicago Loop. Composed of the "Front Side" and the "Dark Side", the Outback Trail is certainly on its way to being and International Mountain Biking Association "Epic Ride". Each trail has a different personality- the Front Side has a more relaxed flow where you can appreciate the abundant wilderness of Salt Creek. On the other hand, the Dark Side is the double-black diamond of mountain biking trails in Chicagoland. While novices can still enjoy both trails, it certainly attracts its fair share of hardcore enthusiasts. Thankfully they are very welcoming of more casual riders too!
Hiking the Indiana Dunes State and National Parks
The first time I ever visited the Dunes, I actually took the South Shore Line from Downtown Chicago right to Dune Station. Before I knew it, I was hiking in the backcountry! I liked the "Three Dune Challenge" because naturally I want to hike all the high points of a place. A few years later I discovered "Big Blowout" which is a more elusive dune near the boundary of the state and national park. The view from the "summit" is incredible, especially on a summer day. Lake Michigan looks just so blue! "Big Blowout" is also an excellent place to catch a sunset and see the Chicago Skyline off in the distance
This is a place that took me a while to discover. Usually I'm so focused on getting to the beach that I forget that there's a lot more to see in the area. Quiet and secluded, there's an abundance of wildlife and wilderness tucked away in this park. I found it to be a fantastic birding location. There's about 5 miles of trail systems that circumnavigate the park, which are great for casual meandering or enjoying some stillness.
Further South is Dunns Bridge which crosses the Kankakee River. The legend is that it was constructed from the infamous Ferris Wheel of the 1892 World's Columbian Exposition that put Chicago on the map. This section of the Kankakee River is particularly scenic and paddling opportunities do exist as there is a boat launch. Locals love this place for dropping a line, either from the shore or a boat. Personally, I just love spending time taking in all the nature at this place.
Birding is something that I've only recently been introduced to. What really began this interest was the fact that the Indiana Dunes are such a destination for serious and amateur birding. While the entire Midwest acts as a highway for migratory birds, the Indiana Dunes has a particularly high density and concentration of species. The reason for this is far better explained by serious birders, but essentially the North-South orientation of Lake Michigan acts as a funnel of species to the Dunes Area. Its a major rest-stop for the massive journey. Hence, it is very easy for people like me with less experience to have a great birding experience. In the spring, especially on a windy day, it is very easy to spot larger birds of prey. Fall offers excellent warbler viewing with many bright and musical specimens. I would venture to say that in the circle of professional birders and photographers, Indiana Dunes is known nationally as a destination for this pursuit.
Can't wait to get out there soon!