Chicago Day Trips

Great River Trail Ride 25 of 52

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Date: July 6, 2017
Distance: 20 miles
Weather: Brutal heat, mid 90's.
Highlights of the trip: gorgeous piney campground on the banks of the Mississippi at Usace Thomson Causeway Recreation Area, Arnold's Bike Shop in Thomson, IL.

We picked the wrong day for this ride. We were planning to ride a 20 mile stretch of the 60-mile Great River Trail between the towns of Fulton & Savanna, Illinois. However, after the first few miles of nicely wooded, shaded path, the trail took us over vast, open expanse of prairie, crackling in midday sun. Thermometer readings may have been in the mid-90's, but with heat radiating off the exposed ground we felt like we were under a broiler. We began to look with anticipation for the smallest hint of shade offered by spindly trees and sparse sumac bushes.

At last we came to a beautiful evergreen woodland park with pine-scented shaded paths and a working water fountain. We used out bottles to generously douse ourselves with water from head to toe. This would be doable, we thought, prematurely, as it turned out. After a short run through the state park, the trail spit us out again onto the side of a flat, bare, straight, sun-baked road, with contours of a US Penitentiary shimmering on the horizon. Gamely, we headed on, but after a couple of blocks it became clear that continuing the journey as planned might actually put us in danger of heatstroke.

We decided to cut our loses and turned east into the small hamlet of Thomson, IL in search of light colored t-shirts, sunscreen and water. We were pleasantly surprised to find all three at Arnold's Bike Shop. Actually, we were even more surprised to find Arnold's Bikes Shop in the first place -- a tiny shop, tucked away in a tiny town, packed to the rafters with recumbent bikes and trikes! The owners gave us free tubes of sunscreen and a free t-shirt to cover up my sunburnt shoulders, and gave us directions to a nearby old school ice cream place.

On the way back to Fulton, we took a little extra time to explore the beautiful piney state park, and discovered a tiny, secluded campground directly on the bank of the Mississippi, pictured in the main photo.

We'll definitely be back. In cooler weather.

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.

Old Plank Road Trail Ride 6 of 52

Date: February 5, 2017
Distance: 42 miles
Weather: Sunny and relatively mild, low 40's
Hightlights of the ride: ice-fishing bald eagle & great horned owl sighting.

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.

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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.

Waterfall Glen Fat Bike Ride 2 of 52

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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.

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