Great Western Trail & Illinois Prairie Path

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.

Terrain

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.

Traffic

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.

Access

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.

Side Trip

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.

 

More Details

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.

 

Ride Log

  • 0.0 Bike west on Van Buren St, which runs east-west on the north side of CTA Forest Park station. 500 ft Bear left to bike through a long parking lot and then on a sidewalk, both of which cut through Concordia Cemetery.
  • 0.4 Cross a small bridge and bear left to continue biking west on Maybrook St.
  • 0.8 Cross First Ave at the light and turn left on the sidewalk.
  • 0.9 Turn right at the trailhead for the Illinois Prairie Path.
  • 1.0 First of many small street crossings, which I will not enumerate. Be careful as cross traffic is rarely required to stop.
  • 2.3 Warning: There is no cutout on the curb crossing 25th Ave.
  • 2.8 Cross a small bridge.
  • 3.5 Turn right and bike a short distance to Washington Blvd to cross Mannheim Rd. Bike back to the trail on the other side of Mannheim Rd.
  • 4.3 Turn right on Forest Ave.
  • 4.4 Cross Butterfield Rd and follow the trail as it swings left.
  • 5.9 Trail switches to crushed limestone.
  • 8.4 Villa Park Historical Society Museum on left.
  • 12.1 Bear left along trail to cross busy road ahead.
  • 13.4 Statue of kids biking on left.
  • 15.7 Enter downtown Wheaton; ride on sidewalk or street.
  • 16.2 Cross West St. Normally, you would continue onethird of a mile straight ahead on Liberty Dr until you reach Carlton Ave with Volunteer Park on the right. (This is where the Main Stem of the IPP officially begins.) Turn right on the crushed limestone trail, which is the IPP’s Elgin Branch, and cross the big bridge. If the bridge ahead is closed, however, as it was when I last biked the trail, you’ll need to take a detour. Bike back to West St and turn north. Bike six blocks to Franklin Ave and turn left; three blocks to Carlton Ave and turn right; one block to Lincoln Ave and turn left; and half a block to the crushed limestone trail and turn right. Cross Jewell Rd and Silverleaf Blvd and pick up the trail going northwest.
  • 19.1 Cross Country Farm Rd and Geneva Rd. Do not go west along Geneva Rd or north on the crushed limestone Timber Ridge Trail - unless you wish to take a side trip to the Timber Ridge Forest Preserve’s living history Kline Creek Farm. To continue on this ride, take the middle path through a small gravel parking lot and pick up the crushed limestone Elgin Branch.
  • 21.2 Turn right along the side of Prince Crossing Rd.
  • 21.3 Turn left, crossing road. (This is the optional extension along the Elgin Branch.)
  • 21.5 Turn right.
  • 22.9 Bear right at Y. Warning: Slow down at other side of bridge to cross busy Diversey Parkway.
  • 25.7 Cross Army Trail Rd.
  • 27.6 Turn around at the entrance to Pratt’s Wayne Woods on the right.
  • 29.5 Bear right at Y to go over bridge.
  • 33.5 Turn left.
  • 33.8 Cross Prince Crossing Rd and pick up the Great Western Trail heading back east.
  • 37.9 Slow down for a long stretch of loose gravel.
  • 38.2 Turn right to cross Schmale Rd at St. Charles Rd. Bike back to the trail on the other side of Schmale Rd.
  • 43.1 Turn right on the sidewalk along Grace St. Cross the railroad tracks, St. Charles Rd and Parkside Ave. Then turn left and bike east on the sidewalk along Parkside Ave, with the park on your right.
  • 43.5 At the end of Parkside Ave, pick up the crushed limestone trail in the woods on the left.
  • 45.3 Turn right on the short connector path, following the sign for the IPP.
  • 45.4 Turn left at T to pick up the IPP’s Main Stem.
  • 48.1 Trail switches to pavement.
  • 48.5 Be careful crossing the street since there is no cutout on the curb.
  • 49.5 Follow the trail to the right, cross Butterfield Rd and turn left on Warren Ave.
  • 50.1 Turn right on sidewalk to cross Mannheim Rd at Madison St and then bike back to trail on the other side of Mannheim Rd.
  • 51.1 Be careful crossing the street since there is no cutout on the curb.
  • 53.0 End of Main Stem. Turn left, cross First Ave right away and take Maybrook Dr east.
  • 53.4 Cross bridge on left; follow the path through the parking lot and then along the sidewalk through the cemetery.
  • 53.8 Bike east on Van Buren St.
  • 54.0 End ride at CTA Forest Park “L” station.
  • Trail map

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    Back

    85.3 km / 53.003 mi

    Total Distance

    216 m / 709 ft

    Total Ascent

    216 m / 709 ft

    Total Descent

    245 m / 804 ft

    Highest Point

    Ride type:
    Sightseeing
    Mountain biking
    Road riding
    Commuter
    Kid friendly
    Rail Trail
    Gravel
    Various
    Difficulty: Intermediate (Red)
    Ride Duration: 2-4 hrs
    Fitness Level: High
    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: Excellent
    Estimated Distance: 86.0
    Services:
    Water
    Food
    First Aid
    Toilets
    Bike hire
    Carparking
    Bike servicing
    Accessible by bike
    Accessible by car
    Accessible by public transport
    Accessible by shuttle / uber

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