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Winter Night Hikes Offer Unique Way to Commune With Nature

Jan 31, 2024 ● By Sheryl DeVore
A snowy trail through the woods.

Photo by Marie Laudeman/Illinois Department of Natural Resources

One cold winter’s night in February, instead of staying snuggled warm indoors watching television and playing computer games, the Eugenio family chose to walk beneath the full moon at Marengo Ridge Conservation Area.

“It was quiet all around except for the crunch of the snow as we ambled along the path,” recalls Cheryl Eugenio, who went with her husband and three children. “It was such a serene and peaceful way to enjoy nature.”

The McHenry County Conservation District schedules candlelit ski and hikes in February. Photo by Weg Thomas/McHenry County Conservation District.

Local natural areas including the McHenry County Conservation District, which owns Marengo Ridge, as well as the Lake County Forest Preserves open some of their preserves at night in winter to give people like the Eugenios a chance to get outdoors during the most inhospitable time of the year. Some offer solar-lit trails in designated preserves. Others offer moonlit or candlelit walks on specific dates. If there’s enough snow, cross-country skiing also is allowed. Indiana Dunes State Park is open until 11 p.m., even in winter, and hosts winter hikes at night and offers snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

“In February when it’s dark around 5:30 p.m. and the temperatures are hovering at 30 degrees, it’s much easier to stay inside,” acknowledges Kim Compton, education and visitor center services coordinator for the McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD). “But you still need to get out to get some exercise and fresh air, to get away from screen time,” Compton says. “If there’s a designated spot you can go to, then you should take advantage of it. It gives you the chance to escape and feel like you are totally with nature. During the day, you hear more traffic, but at night you might hear the haunting calls of the coyotes, grounding you and reminding you that we’re all connected.”

Compton adds that night hikers and skiers shouldn’t be afraid, for example, if they hear scratching in the leaves in the woods at night. “It could be a mouse or a raccoon, but there’s nothing there that will prey on humans,” she explains.

Lucky night-time winter hikers might hear or see the Eastern Screech-Owl. Photo by Danielle Brigida/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The MCCD keeps Hickory Grove Highlands Conservation Area, in Cary, and Pleasant Valley Conservation Area, in Woodstock, open until 9 p.m. in winter for hikers and skiers. Trails are illuminated with solar lights. “Hickory Grove Highlands is wooded where you can hear owls at night,” Compton says. “One evening an Eastern Screech-Owl gave its eerie whinnying call and flew over some hikers,” she recounts.

“Pleasant Valley is a prairie restoration area that gives you a really nice place to see farther without the trees in front of you,” Compton continues. “You have the opportunity to look at the night sky and the constellations.”

The MCCD also offers two candlelit ski/hikes in February at Prairieview Education Center, in Crystal Lake.

“The site is not normally open at night,” notes Compton. “We put our luminaries to light the trails.” Folks hike on their own and then a staff member hosts a campfire and offers hot chocolate, she says.

The Lake County Forest Preserve District keeps Old School Forest Preserve, in Libertyville, and Lakewood Winter Sports Area, near Wauconda, open at night with solar-lit trails in winter. At Old School Forest Preserve, visitors may hear or see the southern flying squirrel.

“Listen for high-pitched squeaks,” suggests Nan Buckardt, the recently retired director of education at the Lake County Forest Preserve District. “Sometimes they will swoop down in front of you before landing on a tree.”

The Lake County Forest Preserves keeps two of its sites open until 9 p.m. for winter night hiking and skiing. Photo by Steven D. Bailey.

Night-time hikers and skiers often bring flashlights, but naturalists say it’s better not to use them or select one with a red rather than white light.

“Your eyes take about 40 minutes to readjust to night vision after being flashed by a white light,” says Marie Laudeman, a naturalist at Indiana Dunes State Park (IDSP). It’s better to just walk along the trails, letting your eyes adjust, she says.

When hiking at night, Laudeman encourages people to be careful and find a guide or naturalist to accompany them if possible. “The shelf ice along the beach can be unsafe,” she cautions.

IDSP offers special moonlit hikes several times a year, with the next one scheduled at 6:30 p.m. on February 24. Volunteers and naturalists guide the visitors, and each hike is different. “We always start out indoors for a presentation,” Laudeman says, adding visitors may learn about the moon’s phases and why there are craters on the moon as well as what constellations they may see.

Indiana Dunes State Park offers a full moon hike in February. Photo by Marie Laudeman/Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

“Out on the trail, we can see the moon reflecting on the shelf ice that’s created on Lake Michigan right along our shore,” Laudeman says. “The shelf ice phenomenon at night is sparkly and cool. Shelf ice is ice building up over time and pushed by waves and accumulating on our beach. It can be at different depths and have various air pockets, so it’s only safe for people to view it from a distance.”

Sometimes the walks can be crowded with 50 or more people, which doesn’t always allow for intimate wildlife viewing, she says. But those who wait at the end of the walk may be treated to some special experiences. For example, Laudeman and several visitors once saw a group of coyotes come onto the beach and start digging in the sand. They also once saw a beaver swimming under a bridge.

The two-mile hike traverses sandy dunes. Visitors should wear hiking boots and dress in layers for warmth as well as bring water. “It’s important to stay hydrated even in winter,” states Laudeman, adding whenever hiking outdoors at night and in winter, visitors should be prepared.

Laudeman says visitors often comment on how they forget that the moon is there every night in different stages to enjoy. “After the two-hour moon walk, they leave with a whole new appreciation of the moon and realize they can enjoy this even in their own backyard.”

Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications. Read more at


A map shows the solar-lit trail at Lake County Forest Preserves’ winter sports area near Wauconda. Photo by Sheryl DeVore.


Solar-Lit Trails Open Through March and Special Night Hikes Set for February

Solar-lit trails are open until 9 p.m. through March 10 at Pleasant Valley Conservation Area, in Woodstock, and Hickory Grove Highlands Conservation Area, in Cary. Visitors should sign in before embarking on the trails. When there is snow, hikers are asked to walk outside of the ski tracks. Free. For more information, visit

Solar-lit trails are open until 9 p.m. through March 10 at Old School Forest Preserve, in Libertyville, and Lakewood Winter Sports Area, near Wauconda. Bicycles and horses are not allowed; dogs must be leashed. Free. For more information, visit

Candlelight ski/hikes are set from 5 to 9 p.m., February 9 and 10 at Prairie Education Center, in Crystal Lake. Pets are not allowed. Skiers must bring their own skis. Trails are groomed when there is 4 inches of snow or more. Free. For more information, visit

A full moon winter hike begins at 6:30 p.m., February 24 at Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center, in Chesterton. Children under age 12 must be accompanied by an adult. No registration is required. Free. For more information, call 219-926-1390 or visit

A full moon hike is set from 6 to 7:30 p.m., February 23 at Greenbelt Forest Preserve, in North Chicago. The event is for those 8 years and older. Registration is required. Fees range from $5 to $7. To register, visit