Car-Free Rides

LaBagh Woods Ultra-Local Adventure Ride 22 of 52

We've reached the point in the summer when it's getting harder and harder to schedule our adventure rides. It's hard to take days off from our highly seasonal business in season. And some of those days off need to be designated for mundane tasks like laundry, taking the cat to the vet, shopping for groceries. Time for adventures has to be fought for and fiercely defended. Days, weeks tick by, and we're only just managing to stick to our goal of 52 adventure rides in 52 weeks.

Adventure this week had to happen on a workday (unlike God, we work on Sundays), and it had to happen before shop hours. The only solution was to keep it ultra-local. Adventure had to begin right outside our front door.

Fortunately, outside our door is LaBagh Woods. It is a gritty, scrappy little strip of urban forest preserve holding on for dear life along the banks of Chicago River's North Branch. But when you dip into the thicket on foot, or a fat-tired bike, the oaks are as magnificent, the water as sparkly, and the grasses as sun-dappled as anywhere.

The singletrack, which snakes along on both sides of the river, and branches out on numerous intriguing paths throughout the woods, is highly rideable (UPDATE: recent forest management work along the river has made it less so. Please respect the restoration efforts while biking, or enjoy the woods on foot.) We were on fat bikes, but a mountain bike or even a hybrid would be up to the task, provided it has not rained and the ground is bone dry. But there were a lot of branches and logs strewn across the trail, and getting around them required a lot of dismounting and portaging the bikes over obstacles.

These derelict woods can be creepy, and bear evidence of weird, and even sinister human undertakings. So even if you live in one of the adjacent communities, you may not know that this small green space also holds surprises like several hidden ponds, which are hunting grounds for wading birds, tall stands of brilliant yellow irises, and dramatic long-fallen old trees whose decaying carcasses teem with the life of dense mosses, tiny flowers, insects and fungi.

Undersides of bridges and train trestles are bombed with exuberant graffiti, which, like this entire preserve, pulses with vibrant life.


Date: June 11, 2017
Distance: under 10 miles of fatbiking and bushwhacking
Weather: Sunny, muggy 90's
Highlights of the ride: Instant escape. Graffiti.

Guerrilla Camping Ride 8 of 52

Date: February 18-19, 2017
Distance: 35 miles split between one evening and following morning
Weather: High 50's daytime, low 40's overnight
Highlights of the ride: actually getting lost, actually sleeping in a tent in an unsanctioned spot in February, TWO bald eagles on one branch.

North Branch Trail Ride 7 of 52

Date: February 12, 2017
Distance: 33 miles
Weather: Sunny and mild, high 40's
Highlights of the ride: basking in the warm sun on the riverbank above one of the dams.







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.

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.

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.