Northerly Island

CYCLE CHICAGO, SIGHTSEEING RIDE, NORTHERLY ISLAND Relatively unknown and incredibly underutilized, Northerly Island is one of Chicago’s best cycling spots. The 1.3-mile loop around prairie grass offers stunning views of the city. Most cyclists use the path for leisurely spins, but it’s large enough for hard training during weekdays when you just might have the trail to yourself. Many people were shocked in 2003 when Mayor Daley bulldozed the airport runways that occupied this island, but most agree that the natural area is a great addition to Chicago’s parks and paths. The ride is flat over a well-maintained paved path and along bike lanes on city streets. Northerly Island is a 91-acre manmade peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan east of the Museum Campus. It was the most northerly island of many lakefront islands that Daniel Burnham proposed in the famous 1910 Plan of Chicago. The construction of Northerly Island began in 1920 and was completed in 1925. Over the years, it has seen many changes. Originally the island was connected to the mainland by a bridge, but in 1938 a causeway was built where you now find Solidarity Drive, which remains the only approach to the island. Then in 1930, the Adler Planetarium was built at the northern tip. Next, the island served as the center of activity for the extremely popular Century of Progress World’s Fair of 1933-34. Meigs Field, a small airport, was built on the island in 1947 under a 50-year lease. It was named after local publisher and intrepid aviation booster Merrill Meigs. After Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered the airport runways demolished in the middle of the night on March 30, 2003, the land was converted to a park. Charter One Pavilion (officially a temporary structure) was built on the island in 2005. It seats 7,500 and is a cool place to listen to music. Although the airport’s old control tower still stands, the land has taken on a natural look. Dozens of native species of prairie grasses and wildflowers have been planted. As they take root they provide a sense of what the area looked like hundreds of years ago. Occasionally, Chicago Park District workers burn the fledgling prairie to give native plants a better chance against invasive species. Bicyclists share the island with joggers and fishers, kite fliers and segway drivers but also birds and bees. Watch for some birdhouses along the path that provide a Tweet Home Chicago for purple martins. What’s most remarkable about the relatively secluded loop trail on Northerly Island is that it is usually empty. When I mapped it on Memorial Day, I encountered just five people on the loop even though there were thousands of people on the nearby beach and at the planetarium. This is a short easy ride, but it doesn’t have to be. Only 77 times around the loop adds up to a century ride! Traffic Roosevelt Road, Michigan Avenue and Solidarity Drive can be busy, especially on summer weekends, but the loop on Northerly Island is car free. Side Trip Visit any of the great museums on Museum Campus, bike around Grant Park (just to the north) or take a boat ride on the lake. Also, explore the booming South Loop neighborhood (just to the east of the park), full of interesting spots, such as Wine Styles at 1240 S. Michigan Ave., known for its unique policy of BYOF (bring your own food)! FOOD AND DRINK There are several sites for food and drink along the way, at least in the spring, summer and fall, selling everything from water to hotdogs and ice cream. ACCESS Take the Red, Green or Orange line “L” to the Roosevelt station or pick up the ride 0.4 miles into the ride at Metra’s Museum Campus/11th Street station. By car, park along Roosevelt Road, State Street or a side street. Otherwise, park in the Adler Planetarium lot and pick up the ride 1.6 miles into the ride at Northerly Island.
Ride type:
Mountain biking
Road riding
Kid friendly
Rail Trail
Difficulty: Beginner (Green)
Ride Duration: <1 hr
Fitness Level: Low
Shared Bike Path - Paved
Shared Bike Path - Dirt
On-Road Bike Lane
Off-Road - Fire Trail
Off-Road - Rail Trail
Off-Road - Single Track
Off-Road - Downhill
Estimated Distance (Kms): 8.0
First Aid
Bike hire facilities
Bike servicing
Accessible by bike
Accessible by car
Accessible by public transport
Accessible by shuttle / uber
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