On weekends in Chicago, the Lakefront Trail is bustling with bicyclists. It’s no surprise—Bicycling magazine in 2012 voted Chicago the fifth most bike-friendly city in the nation. And it may continue to move up in ranks since Chicago isn’t letting up on its bike-friendly plans. The city’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 consists of adding 645 miles of on-street bike routes. There are also plenty of off-the beaten-path trails around Chicagoland, if you’re looking to bike and avoid the bustle. Strap on your helmet and check out our favorite hidden bike paths in the Chicago area—enjoy the ride.
Steer clear of skyscrapers and opt for a bike ride through Cook County and Lake County forest preservation areas. The aptly named Des Plaines River Trail is a 31-mile, crushed-gravel trail that takes you along the Des Plaines River, winding through wilderness, waterfront areas and a network of other trails (including North Shore Bike Path and Millennium Trail). The trail has northern and southern sections and extends from North Ave. on the west side of Chicago to the Wisconsin border. It’s the perfect chance to ride away from the city life and see some wildlife and water.
The 9-mile Green Bay Road Trail runs parallel to Chicago’s Metra commuter rail line. The trail starts at the Wilmette Fire Station on Lake Ave. (just east of Green Bay Road) and winds north–through Kenilworth, Winnetka, Lake Bluff and Highland Park–until the trail comes to an end point in Highland Park. On your ride, scenery ranges from big backyards to small shops to beautiful parks. This is more of a leisure trail, with heavier bike traffic on weekends, which means more cruising than carving. Pack a picnic lunch and head east to Lake Michigan—the trail generally stays within a mile of the beachfront.
For some of the best mountain biking in the Chicago-area, head to the Palos Forest Preserves on 95th Street and Wolf Road in Willow Springs, about 30 minutes southwest of Chicago (if you prefer the highway, you can take I-55 to Archer Road, where you’ll find several entrances). Crushed limestone trails lead the way in this forest preserve, where you’ll find 78 miles of trails, some steeper than others. Be sure to pack you helmet.
The 20-mile North Branch Trail is the perfect way to spend a Sunday. The trail winds from Devon and Caldwell Ave. in northwest Chicago around the North Branch of the Chicago River and ends at the Chicago Botanic Garden, a perfect lunch pit stop. The trail is, for the most part, paved and shaded under the canopy of the Cook County Forest Preserve. You’ll ride under the trees through Skokie Lagoons and Erikson Woods and beside golf courses.
The Illinois Prairie Path was once the Chicago Aurora & Elgin electric railroad. In the 1960’s it became the first U.S. railway to be converted to a recreational trail. The epic 61-mile rail trail is named for its rare segments of original, thousand-year-old prairies, and it’s about 18 miles west of the city, just past Oak Park. You can take in the sites on the path’s multi-purpose, crushed limestone trail, where you’ll find bikers, hikers, joggers, and even horseback riders enjoying nature just minutes from the city. The trail is mostly long stretches with occasional bends. After a long ride, you might want to hit up nearby Two Brothers Brewing Company in Warrenville, a half-mile from the path. The brewery opened 1996 and is still hopping—Prairie Path Ale became their first beer.