Illinois, and the Chicagoland specifically, has the unique distinction of having the first, and therefore oldest, rail to trail in the country. How cool is that? To think that the Midwest state of Illinois beat out the health conscious west coast and the fashion-trending east coast is quite a feat. Well done Chicagoland! Not only was it the first rail to trail, it sparked a country-wide rails to trails movement in the 1960’s that changed the way we bike in this country.
The Illinois Prairie Path is 62 miles long and is a multiuse trail for biking, hiking, horseback riding, jogging and just walking your dog. And that is just what we saw while we were on the trail. We started in the middle of the Aurora Branch in Warrenville after parking in the city center area and headed east. It had poured rain while we were traveling to the trail so we were not sure what kind of weather we would have for our bike trip. It was a pleasant surprise to find blue skies with moderate cloud cover when we arrived. As the day progressed we even were blessed with some sunshine. We kinda have good luck that way.
There is some heavy construction going on at Butterfield Road, but once we maneuvered around that under the honking geese, it was smooth sailing, ah, biking. The path is mostly limestone screenings with occasional asphalt. As you move through some of the towns you will be on city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, but not yet dressed in holiday style. That’s OK because the trees are starting to turn brilliant colors of gold and red dressing up the path nicely.
There are also several forest preserves that the trail passes through. The Warrenville Forest Preserve was the first one we came to on this trip. There were many wildflowers along the path and some funky looking tree stumps in the middle of a pond. You can also see St. James Farm Forest Preserve as you continue east. This has farm buildings dating from the late 1800’s and a unique history as well as prairies, wetlands and assorted wildlife. Closed from December to May, you can find out more information here: http://www.dupageforest.com/Conservation/ForestPreserves/St__James_Farm.html
As we passed between some pretty impressive looking houses, we envied those living there who could just hop on the trail any time they wanted. And there were plenty of neighborhood people out getting exercise, walking their dogs, training for a marathon, or just bicycling like us. We noticed several side entrances to the trail that were both make-shift by the people who lived there and asphalt ones built by the city, maybe? Anyway, one could almost forgo living out in the country for the amenities offered in some of the Chicago suburbs.
The best part of the trail for us was through Wheaton. Unique architecture and the discovery of an open market were just a few of the pleasant surprises. My husband wanted to check out the market which was just starting to close down for the day. It offered plants and flowers, baked goods, honey products, produce, Pampered Chef products, jewelry and much more. We indulged in cheese croissants (and it was an indulgence at $3.50 a piece) and packed them in our saddlebags to enjoy on the trail. They were delicious by the way. Since the market venders were packing up, we didn’t get to see all they had to offer.
There was a Watchtower center that had some great buildings and several interesting looking restaurants, namely Thai and sushi places, which will have us making another trip to Wheaton some day soon. Many places were just off the trail or only a few blocks away so that bicyclists could make a day of it riding on this trail and checking out the amenities of Wheaton, or any of the other great towns the trail passes through. So whether you are going the distance for exercise by biking the whole trail or just wanting a fun day out with plenty of entertainment options, don’t miss this historic trail. It’s definitely worth it.