Chicago used to have a bad rep in the outdoor world. We’re too far from the mountains and the ocean, our vast expanses are at least part suburb, and our weather swings from balmy hot to Chiberian cold without much of a fall or spring anymore (thanks, climate change). But those are just the table stakes for carving out a life outdoors, and Chicagoans know it.
Yeah, we know you can drive nearly from one end of Illinois to another without hitting so much as a hill — Illinois is after all the second flattest state in the Union. But if you’re willing to explore a bit, pack some friends into a car, and hit the road, you can enjoy the largest lake system in the world, send your project at the best sandstone bouldering this side of Fontainebleau, trek through glacial plains, and rope up for world-class sport climbing at the Red.
The best part? You can do all of this, and still live in a major city, with everything that entails. The news is getting out: Chicago’s been overlooked. But no longer, and here’s why.
1. City resources, global access
Tired of weekend-warrior-accessible climbing in Kentucky, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and just about every other state in the Midwest? With access to Amtrak and Metra trains, O’Hare International Airport, Midway Airport, the El train lines, and several of the major US interstates, outdoor enthusiasts and climbers based in Chicago can reach almost any outdoor destination in the world, probably by multiple ways of travel. Need a quicker escape, and lack a car? Jump on a train and head down to the newest U.S. National Park, the Indiana Dunes National Park, or carpool to the hundreds of places to participate in almost every outdoor sport there is, from trail running on the Ice Age trail to bouldering in the Holy Boulders to kayaking in the Chicago River.
One of the advantages of living in Chicago, for the outdoor enthusiast and climber, is the ability to maintain a specialized career in addition to your outdoor pursuits. It all requires balance, of course: if you’re living in a van in Bishop, you’ll probably reach your bouldering limit more easily than someone living in Wicker Park, but you’ll also have more problems finding a job in your specific career path.
2: The community is huge
Living in Chicago also gives you access to a larger field of potential outdoor friends. From the Greater Chicago Rock Climbing Community group on Facebook, to the new Chicago chapter of Mappy Hour, to Logan Square’s Three Run Two (and don’t forget hubs for your specific sport, like First Ascent for climbers), you’ll never lack for new friends to try your latest pursuit with. And that’s not to mention classic Chicago outdoor events, like the Chicago Marathon and North Avenue beach volleyball leagues. There’s something to find — and friends to meet — whatever you’re trying to pursue.
3. Even Outside Magazine thinks we’re an Adventure Capital
Outside Magazine recently listed Chicago one of its 2019 Adventure Capitals. We’re inclined to agree. Outside recently put their money where their mouth is when they brought their inaugural Outside Experience to the McCormick Center last weekend (July 13-14, 2019). With more than 200 exhibitors, including adventure speakers, films, beer tastings, gear demos and giveaways, Outside Experience brought thousands of outdoor enthusiasts from all around the country to Chicago on a perfect weekend — you know, the kind of summer days we stick around through the winter for. The best part? We ran a booth allowing expo attendees to rappel off the side of the Lakeside Center.
Since we started First Ascent, we’ve been so proud of the way the community has formed and grown into a hub of friends who love to share their sport with others. So in a sense, we did what we’ve always done at Outside Experience. Made friends, took care of each other, and had a great time in Chicago. And that’s what it’s all about — only now, people outside Chicago are starting to get it.
By Chris Rooney, FA member, writer, and Chicago adventurer.