Cycle Chicago, Sightseeing Ride, Great Western Trail & Illinois Prairie Path
The Illinois Prairie Path (IPP) is Chicagoland’s most extensive trail network. From ground zero in Wheaton, two branches head northwest and southwest while the Main Stem heads east to Maywood. This ride includes all of the Main Stem and most of the northwest Elgin Branch, which provides some of the prettiest, most tranquil biking around. To make a triangle, the ride is capped off with the Great Western Trail (GWT). If you start early and pace yourself, you might be surprised how doable it can be to bike 54 miles. Easy.
Both trails are crushed limestone but the Illinois Prairie Path is well maintained while the Great Western Trail is rough. The lanes and paths from the “L” station to the trailhead are paved.
The farther northwest, the less traffic. Close to the city there are many road crossings, but most of them are minor thanks to well-conceived bridges over the major highways.
Take CTA Blue Line to Forest Park. After exiting turnstiles turn left. After exiting station go north up the sidewalk to Van Buren Street, the first street. Bike west. You could also pick up the trail at three Metra stations on the Union Pacific West Line.
By car, exit Interstate 290 at Harlem Avenue going south. Turn right on Harrison Street and right on Des Plaines Avenue. Cross the interstate, turn left on Van Buren Street and park in the CTA lot.
Food and Drink
Innumerable options for food and water most of the way.
For a picturesque town that celebrates the IPP, visit Villa Park, with its Historical Society Museum in a former railroad depot on the trail. For a natural setting, visit the living history Kline Creek Farm in Timber Ridge Forest Preserve. Try to catch a special event there.
The IPP is one of the country’s first rail-to-trail conversions. After the Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railroad was abandoned in 1961, naturalist May Theilgaard Watts suggested converting its right-ofway into a trail rather than allowing the land to be developed. It took a lot of vision, hard work and money to make that happen, but this trail system is quite extraordinary. It keeps getting better as it’s extended, amenities are added and overpasses and underpasses are constructed.
One of the more recent extensions involved forging a path, albeit awkward, from the end of the Main Stem in Maywood to the Forest Park “L” station, where this ride begins. The 61-mile IPP connects with numerous other trails. As a former railroad right-of-way, the roadbed is elevated so it does not flood as often as do many other Chicagoland trails. It runs mostly through covered wooded areas with ample shade. In fact, you’ll see more woods than prairies, despite the name of this trail. It also passes suburban downtowns, homes, schools and museums. Some sections have interpretive panels covering ecology.
Thankfully, you won’t see many utility line towers until you reach the GWT, which is not as pretty, shaded or smooth as the IPP. That may explain why it’s not as busy, either. Still, the GWT is another successful railto-trail conversion, in this case repurposing portions of the Chicago Great Western Railway. Its path is somewhat remote passing farms and fields as well as suburbs.
This ride is structured so that you’ll have the sun at your back as you ride east along this straight open trail in the afternoon. If that seems like too much, you can skip 12.5 miles of the Elgin Branch (from 21.3 to 33.8 miles into the ride). Either way, you’ll have accomplished a great ride, and the short paved section at the end will feel like coasting into Paris on the last day of the Tour de France.
85.3 km / 53.003 mi
216 m / 709 ft
216 m / 709 ft
245 m / 804 ft