The Ultimate 64-Hour Weekend: Hike the Desert Southwest in Illinois

Sand Ridge State Forest looks like a slice of Arizona – but it’s only a short drive from Chicago.
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Sand Ridge State Forest looks like a slice of Arizona – but it’s only a short drive from Chicago.
hike the desert

Prickly Pear Cactus. Photo by: John Morton/Flickr

Published in partnership with Arc'teryx.

The American Southwest is closer to Chicago than you think – three hours away, to be exact. Formed when flood waters from melting glaciers deposited 100-foot-high heaps of sand along the Illinois River valley 15,000 years ago, the 7,200-acre dunescape of Sand Ridge State Forestattracted flora and fauna native to the southwest. Prickly pear cacti still line the forest's 44-miles of beach-like trails—the perfect spring hiking antidote for when Chicago winters inevitably outstay their welcome. Hiking on boot-sucking sand expends more energy, making the Sand Ridge backcountry ideal for an intense early-season tune-up. (Pro-tip: Walk along the trail edge for firmer footing.)

Friday: Leave Chicago at 5 p.m. and reach the park after sundown. Spend the night at Pine Camp near park headquarters.

Saturday: The 14.8-mile Yellow Trail loop circumambulates the park, but six other trails (between 1.25 and 11 miles) leave ample room for improvisation along adjacent sand roads. The park's soft, sandy soil is an ideal habitat for burrowers like gopher and badger, while migratory birds flock to nest in native oak-hickory forest and rows of CCC-planted pine (lookout for the vibrantly-colored indigo bunting and scarlet tanager in late spring). Sling a hammock at Oak Camp (and refill up to a gallon of water per person) or camp on one of twelve backcountry sites (obtain a permit from forest headquarters in advance) and drift off to the distant hooting of a barred owl.

Sunday: Finish the Yellow Loop and knock the sand from inside your boots for the last time (it won’t be the first time). Load up the car and light out a few miles west to the wonderfully-named Goofy Ridge, a Prohibition-era haunt for moonshiners and bootleggers on the banks of the Illinois River (Al Capone is purported to have loved visiting the gangster's paradise for its duck hunting). The small, fiercely independent settlement still attracts its share of colorful characters; when the local watering hole offers a horse hitch, you know you've come a long way from the Magnificent Mile. Camp another night in the park and make for Chicago at first light.

Be Aware: Hiking on sand trails is thirsty work. Don't get caught without ample water. Bring a water reservoir and water bottle, if possible.

What to Pack: Tent, backpack, bandana, hiking boots, sunglasses, brimmed hat, light-weight hiking socks and wicking sock liners, tent, light outerwear, stove and fuel.