North Branch Trail Ride 7 of 52

Date: February 12, 2017
Distance: 33 miles
Weather: Sunny and mild, high 40's

 

 

 

 

 


 

When something sits in front of you every day, it can be easy to forget it's there at all. On the NW side of Chicago, we have the North Branch Trail, and I am often surprised by how few people have been on it. Some don't even know about it.

The North Branch Trail is surely a gem among Chicagoland's network of bicycle trails. It has everything a great bike trail should have: distance, scenery, variety, along with excellent pavement conditions and generally well-designed street crossings (a notable exception being the deplorable crosswalk at Touhy). The NBT will take you through woodland and prairie, along the river and its adjacent wetlands, and if you follow it to the end, between Tower & Dundee Roads you will come to the Skokie Lagoons, which can almost make you forget that you are still in the big city.

You can easily turn this ride into an all-day excursion, with a mid-day break at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, accessible through the gate off Dundee Rd. (admission is free if you cycle in!). We skipped the CBG on this winter day, and instead parked ourselves above one of the dams in the Lagoons for a fresh-air picnic, a diversion that I heartily recommend.

The new NBT extension begins in just west of the North Branch of the Chicago River on Forest Glen Ave. From this point, it is about 16-17 miles to the end of the trail at Dundee Rd. This summer, the trail will be extended even further south-east to Gompers Park. This section will be linked to the existing trail through LaBagh Woods.

On a side note, this was the first time in recent memory that I rode a 700c-wheeled bike. I usually ride my ancient 1990 Bridgestone, with its stout steel frame and sturdy 26" wheels outfitted with heavy-duty Schwalbe Marathon Premium tires. Because the weather was mild and dry, I picked up a Kona Dew Plus (photo at right) from the shop: a lightweight aluminum hybrid with nimble 700x32 tires and disc brakes. At well under $700 this bike is everything that any recreational and commuting cyclist would want: it's fast, responsive, versatile enough to move effortlessly between pavement, light gravel and grassy slopes. And I'm pretty sure it cut my riding time and effort in half compared to my old-faithful Bridgestone. I love, love, love this bike!

Seriously, ride the North Branch. Take a day, pack a nice lunch, bring a friend -- you will not regret it.

Old Plank Road Trail Ride 6 of 52

Date: February 5, 2017
Distance: 42 miles
Weather: Sunny and relatively mild, low 40's

This is the longest ride we did so far. This trail is flat and completely linear, and it's really the distance that makes it challenging. At the eastern end, it connects to the Thorn Creek Trail, and we plan to do a ride later this year that somehow combines the two.

The trail passes through the town of Frankfort, which might be a nice stop over to break up the ride in warmer weather. Although on a Sunday morning there wasn't much going on in the town, we did pass by a number of restaurants, cafes and even a brew pub, any of which would be great to recharge the batteries after completing a portion of the trail.

The highlight of this trail for me were the wildlife sightings East of Frankfort: an extensive network of beaver structures, a great horned owl which we miraculously spotted resting on a branch, and which - once spotted - took off silently over the marshland, and a bald eagle on a tree, not high above the path. The eagle also flew away, but on the way back, we spotted him again ice fishing on a frozen pond.

Moraine Hills SP Fat Bike Ride 5 of 52

Date: January 29, 2017
Distance: 11 miles
Weather: Cold and overcast, upper 20's

Three loops form a cloverleaf of crushed limestone trails, with far more interesting topography than one might expect from a Northern Illinois park. Because of the relatively short distance of the trail, we again chose fat bikes to increase the level of difficulty.

The one-way trails are beautifully maintained and well-marked. The terrain is quite hilly, and the climbs rewarded us with sweeping views of Lake Defiance, and streams and wetlands in the area. We stood on the edges of the mostly frozen lake, and listened as the conversation from the other shore floated to us over the wintry silence.

The park has a number of overlooks with viewing platforms and shelters. These, however, afforded little protection from the cold as we huddled over our salami sandwiches and thermoses of hot tea.

The final loop offers an up-close look at the McHenry Dam. This would be a great finale for a day-long hike in warmer weather.

IMG_1180.JPG
IMG_6160.JPG

Salt Creek Trail 4 of 52

Date: January 25, 2017
Distance: 24 miles
Weather: Light misty rain, low 30's

Who knew that you can ride this 26-mile trail from the back of Brookfield Zoo all the way to Busse Woods?! We didn't do the whole ride this time, but we explored a 12-mile out-and-back section which may offer some of the nicest scenery on this trail. The paved path winds along the creek through a lovely woodland, punctuated with those dramatic leafless winter oaks, which look like old men standing around, with nothing much to do.

Gorgeous trail, and we definitely plan to ride this its length all the way north and back when time permits.

North Branch Trail to Baha'i Temple 3of 52

Date: January 18, 2017
Distance: 36 miles
Weather: Overcast, cold and windy, lower 30's

As recently as last Spring, getting to the North Branch Trail involved winding our way through a number of streets, including one especially hairy signal-less crossing at Peterson & Leader. So, even though we've lived near the trail for almost two decades, we've gone on it less often than we should. With the a number of new extensions trails - North Branch reaching all the way into Forest Glen, and what used to be the Sauganash-Trail-to-nowhere now continued north to Dempster, and the partially-completed Weber Spur Trail - new and easier connections between trails now beckon.

This was a pretty straightforward ride. We were going mostly for mileage. We rode the NBT from Forest Glen (just west of the Chicago River at Forest Glen Ave) to Glenview Road. We traveled eastbound via Glenview/Wilmette Rd. to Sheridan. The street was generally wide and traffic light on a weekday mid-morning.

We always pack a picnic and hot tea, and we were hoping to enjoy our victuals at Wilmette Beach, but the wind was too fierce. We tried to find a good shortcut along the North Shore Channel back to the bike path that runs along it at McCormick Blvd, but we ended us getting a little turned around on the cobbled streets of Wilmette. (We did find a lovely coffee shop at the Purple Line terminus that we plan to investigate, but had to leave that for another day.)

Back on the North Shore Channel path, we found a protected spot for our picnic at Ladd Arboretum in Evanston, and made out way back home by connecting to the Weber Spur Trail behind the Grossinger Auto complex off McCormick Blvd. This trail has been paved between Touhy and Devon, but the southern section that would connect it to LaBagh Woods remains wild and unpaved.

Waterfall Glen Fat Bike Ride 2 of 52

IMG_6083.JPG

Date: January 11, 2017
Distance: 11 miles
Weather: Light rain, low 30's

Nice 11-mile loop over crushed limestone with a few climbs. The riding was made more strenuous by the ultra-low-pressure fat tires, which require consistent pedaling, even on descents. Near-freezing conditions created barely-visible ice patches in some places, and soft, squishy terrain in others, which provided additional challenge and added a bit of unpredictability.

The landscape is gorgeous. I almost like it more this time of the year, when foliage does not obscure the contour of the terrain or the drama of the oak branches reaching for the sky. Scones and bracing hot tea made were especially tasty with the chilly mist falling all around.

IMG_1114.JPG
IMG_6082.jpg
IMG_1123.jpg

NYD Ride to Northerly Island 1 of 52

Date: January 1, 2015
Distance: 30 miles
Weather: Very sunny, low 30's

Beautiful destination offering sweeping lake views, and a rarely-seen (for north-siders) perspective of the Chicago Skyline. Northerly Island (formerly the site of Meigs Field airport) is supposed to be an excellent birding area, but we did not see any birds more interesting than gulls and mallards.

Highlights of the ride: In my 38 years in Chicago, I have never been to Northerly Island. I imagine it gets more crowded in warm weather, but I loved the seclusion and the quiet of it. It was a sneaky escape past the usual hustle and bustle of the Museum Campus. Once we crossed Solidarity Drive, it actually felt a little like we were riding off beyond the sanctioned trail. (There are, of course, designated trails, but on a cold NYD, our small group was the only one using them).

Our ride was ideally timed to avoid crowds. We set off from Cosmic Bikes at bout 8:30 am, taking Milwaukee to Montrose, to Elston (enjoying the new separated bike path at the newly redesigned crossing with Fullerton), to Cortland/Armitage, and then through Lincoln Park to the Lakefront Path. For the traffic-averse, early morning is definitely the best time to get through the city. The Lakefront gets quite crowded in season, but a clear & mild winter day let us enjoy the full glory on this wonderful path.