Cycle Chicago, Mountain Bike Ride, Moraine Hills State Park

For its natural beauty, unusual topography and ecological significance, Moraine Hills State Park is a great place to bike. Located in Holiday Hills, this ride is one of our farthest from downtown Chicago. Nevertheless, the park’s unique combination of hills and scenery, flora and fauna make the drive more than worthwhile. The name of the park comes from the word for boulders, stones and other debris left behind by retreating glaciers. These moraines make the area hilly, at least by Chicago’s standards, which is to say noticeable but manageable.

Terrain

Dirt, crushed limestone and pavement over moderate hills.

Access

This ride is not convenient to transit. By car, take Highway 12 to Highway 176. Go west to River Road and then north approximately two miles to the entrance on the right at 1510 S. River Road. After you enter the preserve on Main Park Road, there are several parking lots on the right side of the road. Park at the second one for Pike Marsh because it provides access to a spur that takes you to the bike path.

Food and Drink

There are concessions at McHenry Dam and on the lower level of the park office, but with limited hours.

Side Trip

Rent a boat on a first-come, first-served basis at Lake Defiance or the McHenry Dam Concession, both within the preserve.

 

More Details

This exquisite park offers three interconnected trails that circle lakes, bogs and marshes. The crushed limestone loops are well maintained with occasional patches of pavement to prevent washouts and erosion. The twisting paths and challenging hills make for an exciting ride and will keep you pumped. One of the best features of this park is that, thanks to creative routing, there are no street crossings. Therefore, you’ll be able to commune with nature as if you were on a remote bike trail.

Watch your speed, however, since you’ll be tempted to speed up on short paved sections only to hit a patch of loose, crushed limestone - especially slippery on an incline or on one of the sharp turns. An unusual trait is that the trails are all one way, probably because they fill up on weekends. As a result, the best way to bike through the park is by taking one loop after another: Red, Yellow and then Blue.

That way the concession stand at McHenry Dam will be about half way through your ride. Also, you’ll be sure to ride every inch and get a good sense for the loops so that when you return you can more easily find your way around. There are many wayside signs, but the first time through you may find the signs confusing. Rather than directing you around the color-coded trails, as do signs in other parks, these signs provide mileage information for dozens of sites and junctions, which is more information than you’ll need.

In addition to moraines, this park is graced with kettles: steep-sided hollows created by glacial drift. Lake Defiance, the 48-acre centerpiece of the longest loop, is a 10,000-year old kettle lake, one of the few glacial lakes in Illinois that has remained in its natural condition. 

 

Ride Log

  • 0.0 Start at the trailhead directly across from the entrance to the Pike Marsh parking lot. Take the crushed limestone path straight ahead, not the paved path to the left.
  • 0.2 Turn left (one way) at Pike Marsh Junction to pick up the Red Trail.
  • 0.6 Bear right at Junction C.
  • 1.2 Turn right at Junction B.
  • 1.7 Turn right at Junction A.
  • 2.1 Park office and nature center on right.
  • 2.5 Bear right at the Y to stay on Red Trail.
  • 3.5 Bear right at the Y to stay on Red Trail.
  • 3.7 Bear right at the Y to stay on Red Trail.
  • 4.0 Bike through the Pike Marsh Junction, bearing right.
  • 4.4 At Junction C, take the second path left and bike under River Rd.
  • 4.7 Bear right at Junction D for the Yellow Trail.
  • 5.5 Check out the wildlife viewing platform on the left.
  • 6.0 Boating facilities on right.
  • 6.5 Bear right at the Y to stay on Yellow Trail.
  • 6.8 Turn right at Junction D to return to the main part of the park.
  • 7.1 Turn left at Junction C.
  • 7.7 Turn right at Junction B.
  • 8.2 Turn left at Junction A to follow the Blue Trail.
  • 11.0 Turn left at Junction B to take the Red Trail back to the trailhead.
  • 11.6 Turn right at Junction A.
  • 13.9 Turn left onto the spur at Pike Marsh Junction. It leads back to the parking lot.
  • 14.1 End ride.
  • Trail map

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    21.231 km / 13.193 mi

    Total Distance

    165 m / 540 ft

    Total Ascent

    166 m / 544 ft

    Total Descent

    242 m / 793 ft

    Highest Point

    Ride type:
    Sightseeing
    Mountain biking
    Road riding
    Commuter
    Kid friendly
    Rail Trail
    Difficulty: Intermediate (Red)
    Ride Duration: options
    Fitness Level: High
    MTB Segment: flow
    Terrain:
    Shared Bike Path - Paved
    Shared Bike Path - Dirt
    On-Road Bike Lane
    On-Road
    Off-Road - Fire Trail
    Off-Road - Rail Trail
    Off-Road - Single Track
    Off-Road - Downhill
    Mobile Coverage: Limited
    Estimated Distance: 14.1
    Services:
    Water
    Food
    First Aid
    Toilets
    Bike hire facilities
    Carparking
    Bike servicing
    Accessible by bike
    Accessible by car
    Accessible by public transport
    Accessible by shuttle / uber

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