Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Biking the Illinois Prairie Path

The Illinois Prairie Path is a 61 mile long multi-use trail in Cook, DuPage, and Kane Counties, following the old right-of-way of the former electric railway, the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin Interurban, which suspended all operations in 1959 and abandoned the line in 1961. In 1963, a retired teacher and naturalist proposed the trail in a letter to the Chicago Tribune, and in 1965 The Illinois Prairie Path Corporation was established. A year later, the first 21 miles were acquired and developed over the next 20 years, primarily through volunteer labor. The trail is now managed by various county government agencies due to liability issues, but IPP Corporation and its volunteers are still active in making improvements.

"The real story of the Illinois Prairie Path, however, is the determination and hard work of its volunteers, who for twenty years managed, developed and maintained the trail on a shoestring budget of membership dues and donations. Volunteers have built three steel bridges, surfaced miles of trail, installed benches, signs and steps, preserved prairie remnants, picked up tons of trash, and made the Illinois Prairie Path one of the greatest and most famous urban trails in the United States. In 1988 the volunteers received the Take Pride in America Award in ceremonies at the White House."

The main stem of the Path has its eastern terminus at First Avenue in Maywood and runs 15 miles west to Wheaton, where it sends one spur 14 miles northwest to connect with the Fox River Trail to Elgin, and a second spur southwest 13 miles to Aurora where you can pick up the Fox River and Virgil Gilman Trails. A spur off the Elgin Spur goes 11 miles west to Geneva, and a spur off the Aurora Spur goes six miles west to Batavia. In addition, the Path's main stem connects with the Great Western Trail in Villa Park (near Villa Street) and runs about 12 miles west to the Prairie Path's Elgin Spur, ending at Prince Crossing Road in West Chicago. Finally, since the Illinois Prairie Path connects to the Fox River Trail, which connects to the McHenry County Prairie Trail, you could bike 100+ miles from Maywood to the Wisconsin border on bike trails!

As you ride west, the Main Stem passes through Hillside, Elmhurst, Villa Park, Lombard, Glen Ellyn, and Wheaton. Pictured below is the lovely section through Villa Park which bisects a 100 foot wide expanse of park. The Lombard section as well as part of Glen Ellyn and Wheaton sections are framed with trees on each side of the trail, and the Metra RR tracks parallel the trail on its north side in Glen Ellyn and Wheaton.

Although brief segments are asphalt, the trail is predominantly crushed limestone, is maintained in excellent condition, and gets heavy use, especially on weekends. I saw numerous road bikes easily handle the surface. In Wheaton's downtown area, the trail is on a sidewalk. Since it passes through the heart of numerous suburbs, there are numerous road crossings, mostly small residential streets. A few overpasses have been built to carry you over busy roads and I-355.

The Elgin Spur runs 14 miles southeast from Elgin to Wheaton, much of it through lovely forest with occasional glimpses of wetlands, residences, a country club, and even an equestrian center where we briefly watched a jumping competition. This area gave two optional routes -- to the left the main trail through a wetlands, or to the right up a hill. The green sign points to the left and reads, "To avoid a steep hill", and it means it for the right trail takes you either down an eroded steep gully or you can carry your bike down some stairs. The few road crossings were easy and a bridge takes you over the busy Route 59

The Geneva Spur runs 11 miles from Wheaton to Geneva, some through woods, some through an industrial area, past DuPage County Airport and a country club, and through West Chicago on sidewalks and alleys. This huge overpass takes the trail over railroad tracks and sidings. There are numerous road crossings, including some busy roads. Several eateries are available from the trail in West Chicago and Geneva.

This map below shows the main stem starting on the right in Maywood. The thick red line is the Prairie Path, and it heads a bit southwest. (The Great Western Trail is the one heading a bit northwest.)  In Wheaton, the IPP splits into two branches, Elgin and Aurora. The bottom (Aurora) branch has a split to Fermi Lab and another split to Batavia. The upper Elgin Branch has a split to Geneva. Thus they call the sections the Main Stem and the five branches. Notice that all the branches eventually connect to the Fox River Trail, so you can create all sorts of loops to avoid an out-and-back ride.

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