Thursday, May 1, 2008

Car-free Road Trips

[Originally published in Time Out Chicago 7/27/06:]

By John Greenfield

With a great public transit system and bikeable streets, Chicago is an easy place to live without a car. But in summer, even hard-core car-haters could use a quick escape from the city. Now that bicycles are permitted on CTA, Metra and Amtrak (see “Getting around,” page 63), there’s no reason a summer road trip should require $3.25 per gallon and time wasted in traffic.

Before you head out on any long trip, pack a few survival essentials: water, flat-fixing stuff (such as a pump, patch kit and tube), sunblock, lock, raincoat, snacks to avoid “The Bonk,” a sudden, devastating drop in energy—and of course, a map. For trips in the six-county region, check out the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation’s Chicagoland map ( For downstate trips, the Illinois Department of Transportation publishes a series of nine regional bike maps ( And if you’re taking your bike on Metra,be sure to bring a bungee or inner tube—conductors usually welcome cyclists, but they’ll insist you secure your bike.

North Branch Trail via CTAThis paved bike trail winds for 18 miles along the north branch of the Chicago River through quiet forest preserves. Take the CTA Blue Line to Jefferson Park and ride northwest on Milwaukee Avenue to the trailhead at Devon Avenue. The path ends at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, where you can find tranquility in the lush Malott Japanese Garden set among 385 acres.

If you feel like taking in a concert at the outdoor Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, pack a picnic and take Lake-Cook Road east for one mile from the Garden to the Green Bay Trail bike path, then head north for a half mile.

On your way back to the city, stop by Superdawg (6363 N Milwaukee Ave, across the from the south end of the North Branch Trail). You can’t miss the giant, winking, Tarzan-and-Jane wieners on the roof, and you’ll dig the tasty chow, retro packaging and old-fashioned carhop service.

Fox River Trail via MetraThis paved bike path runs for 33 miles, connecting the old river towns of the far Western Suburbs. It’s a long ride to the trail but you can cover about half the distance on the Illinois Prairie Path, a 55-mile web of crushed limestone trails originating in Maywood. Or take the easiest route— hop aboard Metra, which takes you right to multiple stops along the Fox River Trail in a jiffy.

For a full day’s ride, take the Union Pacific District Northwest Line from Chicago’s Ogilvie Center (500 W Madison St) to Crystal Lake and head south from the station a few blocks to the trailhead at Main Street and Crystal Lake Avenue. End your ride in Aurora at Walter Payton’s Roundhouse (205 N Broadway), a huge entertainment complex, which was built in an old, circular railcar-repair facility. They’ve got a great outdoor patio, and surprisingly good food and microbrews. Catch a ride home at the Metra station right next door.

St. Louis to Galesburg via Amtrak
We Illinoisans are lucky in that three major passenger rail lines span the state from Chicago to various points along the Mississippi River. As a bonus, Amtrak allows unboxed bikes on most of its Illinois trains for $10.

One option for a satisfying 200-mile, long weekend trip is to take the train from Union Station (500 W Jackson St) to St. Louis, and then ride north along the Mississippi, before heading east to catch a different line home from Galesburg, Illinois. The six-hour ride to St. Louis can drag, but hanging out in the café car drinking Budweiser and chatting with the colorful clientele make the hours fly by.

The train drops you off in the shadow of the Gateway Arch—be sure to ride the cramped, retro-space-age elevator to the top. Its a stone’s throw from the city’s riverfront bike path, similar to our Lakefront Trail but with more industrial scenery. About ten miles north of downtown, take in the breathtaking view as you cross back into Illinois on the bikes-and-pedestrians-only Chain of Rocks Bridge.

From there you can take bike paths and secondary roads north along the Mississippi, through some of the state’s least-populated areas, sleeping at cheap motels or camping. Along the way be sure to visit Villa Katherine, a bizarre, Moorish-style castle in Quincy. Nauvoo, the remnant of a Mormon city that was once bigger than Chicago, features the riverfront homestead of the religion’s founder and prophet Joseph Smith, a re-creation of his temple, and Baxter’s Vineyards, Illinois’s oldest winery. Toast the end of your journey at a friendly tavern in the railroad town of Galesburg, birthplace of poet Carl Sandburg.

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