The North Loop Ride. A Chicago Adventure to Remember.
Two state parks, the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge ... cabins, camping, or hotel, plus the big city all in one epic weekend bike ride: Enjoy The North Loop Ride — Chicago to Chain O’Lakes State Park.
When: April through October works fine.
Bicycle Adventurers: Glenn Schneider, Andrew St. Paul, and Matt Stockov
Accommodations: Camping and cabins at Chain O’Lakes State Park, IL, or try a hotel nearby.
Distance: Day one: 80 miles. Day two: 80 miles, for a round trip of 160 miles (257km).
Bonus tips for this adventure:
- Late “check-ins” at Chain O’Lakes State Park.
- Many route options.
- Natural and cultural diversity.
- Early morning beers.
- All on paved and hard packed smooth crushed limestone paths and bikeways.
Note: Andrew’s excellent map has icons with detailed information. You can also turn on hidden map layers that show you the available train stations and highlights along the route. Use the slider button in the upper left corner.
Preparation. Check. Breakfast. Check. Ready for adventure. Check.
Glenn, Matt, and I rolled out. The city streets were empty and we had the roads to ourselves. Chicago was just starting to wake up as we made our way to Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain
We pedaled north along the 18 mile, paved Chicago Lakefront Trail (#chiLFT) along Lake Michigan, a marvel with historical stories up the wazoo. We made sure to pause at North Avenue Beach on the Lakefront Trail to take in the Hancock Tower dominating the skyline behind us.
The headwind was intense that day, so much so, people could have walked faster than us. A well-aged cyclist actually passed us with her 90-year-old white curly hair. Needless to say, I felt ashamed of my bicycle athletic skills. Glenn and I discussed taking the optional route pattern, The North Branch Trail, which is protected from the wind by the forest preserves, but we set out to experience the grandness of the shores of Lake Michigan. I’m glad we decided to push on!!!
Peering over Fort Sheridan Lake bluffs
Grosse Point Lighthouse
Along the “Sheridan Hills” route option, we came across tucked away, hidden public beaches, natural ravines, and Illinois’ very own lake bluffs all from the Sheridan Road bike lane. With this also came a barrage of architectural mansions all individually unique. We even entered the backside of historic Fort Sheridan, an ex-military base created from land donated by the Commercial Club of Chicago in hopes for a return favor for the sole purpose to disrupt and suppress labor strikes and to protect club member properties during the late 1800’s. The area has now been converted into a town and a protected natural area with great tid-bits of historical signage throughout the area.
“Nature’s Path,” an alternate route option.
The alternate route option, “Nature’s Path,” takes you from Chicago to the Illinois-Wisconsin State Line almost entirely through forest preserves as you follow the North Branch Trail System and the Des Plaines Trail System. In spring the forest floor is carpeted in color with woodland spring flowers, and in autumn, it’s a treat all on its own. You can literally smell syrup when riding through the maples. Plus, you get to visit Chicago Botanic Garden amongst many other highlights. However, for today’s ride, we rode closer to the Lake Michigan via the “Sheridan Hills” route to see two state parks in one weekend.
We embarked further on our chosen route heading towards Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park, the only preserved beach shoreline in Illinois, to see what Chicago looked like before European settlement and what the Chicago River looked like in its natural state. Did you know we have cactus here in Illinois?
Route 173 alternate route option with wide shoulder.
After eating lunch with beachside views and riding through a one of kind biome, we started to make our way toward our next state park and camping destination. We had the choice between riding the backcountry roads of Wisconsin or taking Route 173. The backcountry roads are relaxing with rolling hills and come with additional turns. Route 173 is an easy to navigate, 20-mile straight-shot road with a wide shoulder.
Racing against the clock, we needed to pedal-push quickly to Chain O’Lakes State Park. So the answer was easy: take Route 173, running through a lowland area that often creates mystifying foggy views when conditions are right. Unsure about check-in times and reservations … we pedaled faster.
We made it! 6 person cabins.
Our first-day highlights consisted of Hollywood-style homes, stunning lakeshore mansions, natural ravines, tucked away hidden beaches, riding through Illinois Beach State Park, and beers and lunch in a high-priced yacht harbor. Onward to Chain-O-Lakes State Park, the largest concentration of lakes in Illinois, we enjoyed great food, live music ,and beer at KC’s Cabin pub and grill, then listening to the harmony of nature sounds in the prairie while we camped in Chain O’Lakes State Park.
Good morning wake-up call. Chain O’Lakes S.P.
Bird songs, frog chorus, and sunrise as we awoke and positioned the tent to dry in the sun. We strolled out for a walk in the native prairies and forest for a half hour. A great way to break ourselves in, followed by clean hot showers.
The Illinois prairie in July
After saying our goodbyes to the forest rangers, with their recommendation for half-off breakfast and an early morning beer at KC’s Cabin, our muscles were feeling great and relaxed.
The lost valley. The kame is behind us.
First stop on the route: Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge and Glacial Park and the Lost Valley of McHenry County, IL. Most Chicagoans would not even believe a place so close like this exists, even with a short car visit, let alone a bike overnight ride! You’re nearby, yet a world away. A half hour walk over the Camelback kame, formed by a receding glacier, near the visitor center will do you just fine. The views at the top are spectacular, especially when you view Illinois as the land of “Ice and Fire.”
We saddled up and moved south along the Prairie Trail, where we were graced with countryside farm views on a comfortable rail trail. We saw five or so people in the two hours we rode on this section of the route.
Moving along, we entered a different natural landscape as we closed in on the Fox River Trail. This river ecosystem mixed in with small charming towns of West Dundee and Algonquin are some great places to take snack breaks and a well needed lunch. We saw the activity of an ancient sand dune aggregate operation with many belts and conveyors carrying sand as we rode beside it. You literary feel like you’re part of the operation, moving along with the entire process itself, from start to finish. Gawk.
Pushing forward, we rode along the nation’s first rail-to-trail conversion, called the Illinois Prairie Path, as we started to make our entrance back into the towering metropolis, City of Chicago, passing towns like Maywood and Oak Park where Frank Lloyd Wright’s world famous prairie style architectural homes reside along the bike path.
Coasting on this last stretch, I began to reminisce about the many different types of greetings we received in the two days we were out on the bikes. From “howdy” to “hello,” to “what’s up” to “hola,” from “yo” to “hey.” I was reminded of how culturally diverse this area is. The many different types of cultures build resounding communities around their personalities and we were able to witness and learn how Chicago neighborhoods and its outlying communities are truly unique.
As we passed through a tunnel under the last bridge, we were thrown out onto the shores of Lake Michigan, standing at the mouth of the Chicago River where this city began, where we began: Chicago. We realized that adventure doesn’t always mean a trip to a distant place. We learned that adventure lies right outside at any moment and that moment is always ours to embrace as we see fit, remembering that the only way to get lost is within our own sense of wonderment.
Your favorite local bike shop? Comrade Cycles. Their patch says it all. Good bunch of guys.
Bike overnight tips and tricks?
- When the weather is nice, a celebration jump in the lake will do this Chicago bike overnight just fine.
- If your legs get too tired or you’re running behind schedule due to all the great highlights along the way, you can always hop on the Metra train with your bike and head back home.
- A good easy choice for us was strapping on a milk crate to our bike rack via zip-tie or hose clamp. Our backpack, with supplies, fit snugly with all necessary camping gear. The crate is great for quick access and provides an easy transition from biking to hiking. Bag it up if it rains. Bungee it down for less rattle. I also went professional and rode with some sweet panniers — all weatherproof for those just in case moments.
- Don’t let 160 miles intimidate you. You can do it. Remember the pace is not a race; there is a second day. Pedal at an easy 12mph. Manage your ride, build up your riding distance/endurance beforehand and take those five minute breaks. Follow the rule of breaking up the day into thirds. Ride 25 miles then break for a half hour with a meal. Stretch while on and off your bike. Switch those hand positions. And always eat before you are hungry. Stretch that neck while riding, because there are some great things to see along the way.
- My friend and I also created an entire website for this overnight ride, plus many others in the lower Lake Michigan basin area. You’re more than welcome to join us on a ride. Just contact us or check it out for yourself. We are a volunteer group called Out Our Front Door: www.outourfrontdoor.org.
HOW ABOUT YOU? Inspire others by submitting your bike overnight adventure!