Prairie Fever » Chicago area

The best small campgrounds in northern Illinois

Large, busy campgrounds have never appealed to me. Instead, I like to pitch my tent at places that are fairly quiet with a minimal number of other visitors. Good camping spots also should offer hiking trails to explore, picnicking grounds conducive to cooking out and napping, and rivers and lakes that give one’s mind opportunities to wander.

Here are a few places in northern Illinois that qualify as top-notch camping spots. All of these destinations are included in my book, Camping Illinois.

Apple River Canyon State Park
Located about 130 miles northwest of Chicago, this off-the-beaten-path campground offers one of the most beautiful settings in northern Illinois. The campsites are nicely spaced out; thick groves of oak and maple provide campers with plenty of shade and privacy. The Apple River flows through a series of limestone canyons within the park. The walls of the canyons are dotted with mosses, lichens, and small bushes that grow in the crevices. Hiking trails allow visitors to catch the views from atop the limestone bluffs, explore the deep ravines, and wander alongside the Apple River.

Sugar River Forest Preserve
Sugar River Forest Preserve

Sugar River Forest Preserve
Winnebago County in north central Illinois claims an impressive collection of scenic, well-maintained forest preserves. One of the best contains an attractive campground set within a dense grove of pine trees situated near the Sugar River. The surrounding terrain features prairie, wooded bluffs, and a perfect grassy picnic area beside the meandering river. This forest preserve also offers 5.5 miles of hiking trails, as well as a collection of riverside walk-in camping sites (a great avenue for those of us city dwellers who ache for solitude). Sugar River Forest Preserve is located about 100 miles northwest of Chicago.

Marengo Ridge Conservation Area
Situated up on a ridge left by the last glacier, this wonderfully wooded landscape provides visitors with an unusually isolated atmosphere about 60 miles northwest of Chicago. The pine tree-laden tenting campsites offer lots of privacy; about half of them require a short walk from the parking spot. The hiking trails at Marengo Ridge are reason enough to visit this remote little forest preserve–they run through hilly terrain crisscrossed with intermittent streams and blanketed with dense groves of oak, hickory, and conifers.

White Pines State Park
This charming 385-acre park invites visitors to explore the hilly terrain, traverse the many log footbridges over Pine and Spring Creeks, and trace the route of the creeks as they flow past moss- and vine-covered limestone cliffs. From the semi-open camping area, you’ll walk less than a mile for breakfast at the park’s log-cabin style lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

A bit larger than the other campgrounds listed here, White Pines wins the prize for the niftiest stuff to do in the immediate area. Nearby are the pleasant little towns of Oregon and Dixon along the Rock River. Also close are Castle Rock State Park, Lowden State Park containing the 50-foot concrete statue of a Native American on the river bluff, and the strange, shrine-like John Deere museum and historic site. White Pines is located about 90 miles west of Chicago.

None of the destinations listed above are known for being overly busy, even on weekends. All bets are off, however, on holiday weekends. The best approach is to call the park and ask what they expect for a particular weekend. If visiting during the week, expect plenty of solitude.

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Chicago bicycling maps

A good bicycle map is essential to cycling in the city. Such a map will point you to less-trafficked roads, roads with bike lanes, and roads with an ample shoulder for riding. It’ll also tip you off to cycling paths, and, in some cases, local bike shops.

While cycling around the city, the map I use the most is the free Chicago Bike Map. This map shows bike lanes and preferred routes for the entire city. It’s free and incredibly useful—what more could you want? The downside of this map is that it’s made from very low quality paper and starts to fall apart almost immediately.

Other local cycling maps:

Chicagoland Bicycle Map. Produced by the Active Transportation Alliance (formerly the Chicago Bicycle Federation), this map is now in its 4th edition. It shows the best cycling routes through a particular area; the routes are then rated according to ease of use. Since this map costs $7 (ATA members receive the map for free), I decided to push the envelop on geekiness and have the map laminated. (While lamination renders a map practically indestructible, it does make folding cumbersome.)

Illinois Official Bicycle Map: Chicago and Northeastern Illinois.This map, published by the Illinois Department of Transportation, takes a different approach compared to the ATA map. Instead of showing a preferred route through a particular area, it shows suitability of all roads within a given area. This map loses much detail, though, once you get into areas with densely situated streets. Another freebie, this map is one of a series of nine cycling maps produced by IDOT focusing on the entire state of Illinois.

Northwest Indiana Bike Map. Just released in the spring of 2008 by the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, this map fills a much needed gap in local cycling resources. The single time I’ve used this map, it proved enormously useful. It looks and feels much like the ATA map in that it shows a minimum number of preferred routes through a particular area.

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In 2010 FalconGuides will publish my books, Road Biking Illinois and Best Rail Trails Illinois.

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Great places to hike close to Chicago

There’s something about living in a megalopolis like Chicago that makes people skeptical of finding scenic trails. Even outdoorsy Chicagoans express surprise when they learn about the assortment of well-maintained parks and foot trails close to the Windy City. Outdoor activities, they assume, require a lengthy trip somewhere else.

Chicagoland claims an impressive collection of foot trails that wind alongside streams, over wooded hills and through prairies and wetlands. And many of these spots are less than an hour from downtown. For some, hitting trails close to the city is especially attractive because it allows them to leave the car at home. Instead of getting in a car, they’ll hop on a bicycle or one of Chicago’s commuter trains to reach the trailhead.

So, here are a few of the best trails within spitting distance of Chicago.

Indiana Dunes State Park

At the Indiana Dunes State Park, some of the largest sand dunes on Lake Michigan’s southern shore are mixed in with woodlands full of giant oaks, many acres of wetlands and smaller wooded rolling dunes. While the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore offers a far greater number of trails, the state park contains the most dramatic and isolated trails.

Trails 2, 8 and 9 provide a total of about five miles of outstanding hiking. Pick up a park map at the guardhouse and start from the park’s nature center near the campground. Trail 2 takes you through a wet bottomland dotted with small ponds. A half-mile stretch of this trail follows a wooden boardwalk that spans a wetland called the Great Marsh.

After finishing Trail 2, make your way to Trail 9. Trail 9 eventually leads you to a 0.7-mile stretch of trail that follows a dune ridge topped off with cottonwood, juniper and patches of marram grass. A ravine blanketed with white pine and black oak plunges downward on one side of the trail. On the other side, the dune drops to the shore of Lake Michigan. The Chicago skyline juts out of the lake about 30 miles to the northwest. The ridge trail connects a couple of enormous blowouts–large areas of open sand and marram grass hollowed out by wind from the lake.

After wrapping up Trail 9, pick up Trail 8 near the nature center, and then get ready for a steep, sandy climb up Mount Jackson. After Mount Jackson, the trail takes a short dip before climbing again, this time up to Mount Holden, followed by the highest dune, Mount Tom. The tops of these dunes reveal expansive views of the shimmering lake and many miles of wooded landscape. If it’s a hot day, you’ll enjoy the cool, wet reward where Trail 8 ends at the bottom of the dune.

The park is a snap to reach on the South Shore Line, the northwest Indiana commuter train.

Palos/Sag Valley Forest Preserve: Cap Sauers Holdings

Outdoor explorers in the Chicago area are lucky souls to have the massive Palos/Sag Valley Forest Preserve in their midst. With more than 14,000 acres of hilly woodland, rolling prairie, scenic wetlands and quiet oak savannas, this giant natural area located southwest of the city contains some 35 miles of multi-use trails, and many more miles of narrow unmarked trails.

One of the highlights of Palos/Sag Valley is the isolated trails within Cap Sauers Holdings. For a 4.75-mile hike, start from Teasons Woods parking area at the corner of State Highway 83 and 104th Avenue, and head east on the yellow trail as it runs along the base of the 80- to 100-foot-high wooded bluff known as Swallow Cliff. Head up the bluff on the lengthy stone staircase that accompanies the decommissioned toboggan slide. Stay right at a series of junctions and then cross 104th Avenue.

After passing through a series of oak savannas, take the green trail to the left. Nearly a half mile ahead, look for a trail marker on the right and take the narrow trail up a small hill. Soon, the trail starts to snake along the top of what is known as Visitation Esker. Sloping down 40 to 50 feet on each side of the trail, the esker looks like a perfectly shaped winding mound. Indeed, some geologists maintain that this landform, created by a sub-glacial stream, is one of the most well-defined eskers in the state. Returning to the yellow trail, turn left for a short trip back to the parking area.

Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve

While the trails at Fullersburg Woods are not extensive, they make up for it with pristine surroundings. Nearly all the trails at Fullersburg accompany Salt Creek as it meanders alongside bluffs and winds around a couple of islands on its way through the park. If you’re looking for a place to bring the family, Fullersburg is one of the best options around. In addition to a visitor center with exhibits and activities for kids, there’s a nifty museum housed in an old gristmill along the creek. An exhibit in the basement offers details about the mill when it served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Start the hike on the trail north of the visitor center and stay to the right. While exploring the banks along Salt Creek, you’ll see tree stumps sculpted by beavers, oaks and maple trees hanging lazily over the water, and small wooded bluffs rising above the creek. Nearly two miles into the hike, keep going straight ahead as you pass the picturesque log bridge on the right that leads to the visitor center. From the bridge, the path heads toward the dam, which is flanked by the brick Graue Mill and its giant water wheel.

Fullersburg Woods is 1.2 miles north of the Hinsdale station on the BNSF Metra Line. The west end of the 11-mile-long Salt Creek Bicycle Trail is located one mile from Fullersburg Woods.

Veteran Acres Park/Sterne’s Woods

These two parks, Veteran Acres and Sterne’s Woods, are individually charming and each well worth a visit. But taken together, they offer an array of scenic landscapes and many miles of enjoyable rambling through quiet woodlands, rolling prairie, and wildflower-laden wetlands.

From the front door of the Veteran Acres nature center, look for the wood chip trail on the left heading into the woodland. Taking the second junction on the right brings you into the rolling grassy expanse of Wingate Prairie. Stay to the right as you pass along the outer edge of the prairie. Among the prairie remnants in the Chicago region, this one is unique for its rolling hills and stands of fragrant pine. Mixed in with the big bluestem grass, you’ll see plenty of goldenrod, compass plants and rattlesnake master.

Eventually, you’ll reach the Prairie Trail, a regional rail-trail. Follow this paved path through stands of pine, hickory and enormous black and white oak trees with gnarled limbs reaching out over the trail. After 0.9 miles, keep an eye peeled for a wide gravel trail that runs on the left parallel to the Prairie Trail. Take the gravel trail to the right and you’ll pass through a 40-acre wetland, home to a variety of wildflowers, including two types of orchids. Stay to the right and continue through the woods. Once you return to Wingate Prairie, you’ll zigzag along the trails back to the nature center.

The nature center is located one-half mile directly north of the Crystal Lake station on the Union Pacific/Northwest Metra Line. The Prairie Trail runs for 25.9 miles from Algonquin north to the Wisconsin border.

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Learn more about hiking in the Chicago region by checking out 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago, recently available in a second edition. This article first appeared in the July 2008 issue of Silent Sports magazine.

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Overcoming traffic fears

You’re on your way home from work and a coworker notices your bike helmet tucked under your arm, and says, “You’re a cyclist?” You nod and perhaps mention one of the many benefits of pedaling to work. Then your colleague says something you’ve likely heard number of times: “I’d love to ride to work, but the traffic is too dangerous.” How should you respond? Do you dismiss your colleague’s fears and tell him or her to quit whining and get riding? Do you tell this person that biking is not for everyone and leave it at that? Or do you suggest ways he or she may become more comfortable biking in traffic?

For those with an interest in earning songs of high praise from their cycling friends, here are suggestions offered by a handful of local cycling instructors on how you can provide encouragement and guidance to the up-and-coming cyclists in your midst.

1. Understand their fears. When someone is afraid of riding in traffic, the first step is confirming his or her concerns, said Dave Glowacz, author of Urban Bikers Tricks and Tips: Low-Tech and No-Tech Ways to Find, Ride, and Keep a Bicycle. Glowacz said this approach typically opens the door to more conversation: “I say ‘Yeah, it is scary, but there are a lot of people who do it and don’t have any trouble,”

“I acknowledge that it’s a valid feeling no matter how realistic their concerns are,” said Randy Warren, a Chicago Bicycle Federation (CBF) program specialist who heads up the federation’s Commuter Challenge. Warren suggests asking if there are specific situations that are most scary for this person, and then offering some solutions–or providing him or her with relevant resources.

2. Suggest a mentor. Sarah Kaplan, a cycling instructor and bike mechanic, said novice riders can learn a lot by riding with more experienced riders. Many urban biking skills–such as positioning oneself at a stoplight, making left turns at a busy intersection, and riding through traffic jams–are better understood when seen, she said. If the colleague lives within a reasonable distance of you, Kaplan suggests commuting with this person until he or she achieves a greater level of comfort. Also, she said, you may try to connect your colleague with other bike commuters who could ride with this person or advise him or her on local routes.

3. Expand their comfort zone. “Suggest that they ride in a places that are comfortable and then expand their territory slowly,” said Glowacz. Your colleague may want to start out on a quiet bike path, and then slowly move onto quiet streets, he said, and then busy streets with a bike lane, and then busy streets without a bike lane. Eventually, said Glowacz, “Most people can achieve a level comfort riding in most places.” Still, he warns, some people will never feel comfortable riding in car traffic.

4. Send ‘em to school. Chicago cycling instructor Eric Willms said beginners will become more self-assured if they know basic skills such as riding predictably, being visible, using a helmet, and keeping a safe distance from parked cars. Bicycle safety classes offer an introduction to these topics from trained individuals. Willms and other biking instructors said that people who participate in a good bike safety class consistently express how much safer and more comfortable they feel riding in a variety of traffic conditions. Cycling courses also typically touch upon other topics essential for novices, such as bike selection and fit, basics of bike handling, and maintenance.

5. Offer resources. Give your colleague a copy of the free Chicago Bike Map and explain why it’s important to stick to bike-friendly roads. Point out the Safe Bicycling in Illinois guide and CBF resources such as Bike to Work Guide, Chicagoland Bicycle Map and Safe Bicycling in Chicago, all found at the CBF website.

While fear of traffic is likely to be the most common obstacle holding people back from bike commuting, a variety of other concerns may crop up. These could involve anything from parking to cleanup to clothing to the plain ol’ fear of being different. Some of these concerns you could help with; others are addressed in the resources listed above. And, of course, whatever amount of guidance you provide for the would-be cyclists around you, don’t forget to brag about your efforts with your cycling friends.

This article first appeared in the July 2008 issue of Windy City Sports magazine.

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Camping out on regional rail-trails

Want to experience the thrill of hoboing without the danger of getting mugged while sleeping in a dirty train car? If so, an overnight trip on local rail trails may be just what you need.

Well, yeah, it’s true that you’re not going to find any trains along local rail-trails. But you will find that these long linear paths provide an adventurous way of seeing the countryside and experiencing a taste of local history.

For a longer rail-trail trip, most people prefer to saddle up on a bike. This is because hiking more than a couple of miles along a gently graded and straight-as-an-airplane-runway trail often induces the desire to nap. And, of course, schlepping your camping supplies is simplified immensely on a bicycle.

Camping options alongside local rail trails come in various styles, and range from a fire pit and small patch of grass to pitch your tent to red carpet treatment with spacious campsites, picnic tables, nearby hiking trails, and–rejoice–restrooms.

Most cyclists choose to ride rail-trails out-and-back. Some opt for leaving a vehicle at one end of the trail. However you do it, here are few options within a 3-hour drive from Chicago.

Rock Island State Trail

Initially running from Chicago to the Quad Cities, the Rock Island Railroad Line soon branched out to 14 states and played an important role in bringing white settlers west. The railroad acquired nearly mythical status by way of a folk song first recorded in a southern prison in the 1930s, and later recorded by everyone from Lead Belly to Johnny Cash to Pete Seeger.

North of Peoria, a section of the Rock Island Line has been transformed into a 26-mile-long path. Five miles outside of Peoria, you’ll encounter Kickapoo Creek Recreation Area, a spacious trailside campground within an oak savanna. The park’s campground is specifically for Rock Island Trail users, as well as people who are willing to walk a half mile from the nearest parking lot. While you’re there, take a hike along several trails that run through a restored prairie and alongside a stream.

Don’t miss: The graceful old trestle bridge over the Spoon River at the north end of the trail.

Distance: 26 miles one way

I&M Canal Trail

Completed in 1848, the 96-mile-long Illinois and Michigan Canal provided the final shipping link between Chicago and the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, Chicago became the largest grain market in the world. Mules were guided on a path alongside the waterway as they pulled canal boats halfway across the state.

Better described as a mule trail than a rail-trail, I&M Canal Trail now runs from the outskirts of Joliet west to the town of LaSalle. From end to end, the I&M Canal Trail wanders through a variety of landscapes: dense woods, marshes, prairies, riverbank, agricultural land, and small towns. Primitive campsites appear along the side of the path, as do small public campgrounds in the towns of Channahon and Morris. The best camping spots are alongside the Illinois River at McKinley Woods. (Call first: As of the late June, 2008, a couple sections of the I&M Canal Trail were closed–but not impassable–due to erosion damage.)

Don’t miss: Between Channahon and McKinley Woods, the route traces a thin sliver of land between the canal and the wide and mighty Illinois River.

Distance: 61 miles one way

Hennepin Canal Trail

After it was finished in 1907, the Hennepin Canal never gained the prominence of the nearby I&M Canal. The growth of railroads, the waning production of Illinois coal, and the dredging of the Illinois River all conspired to make it obsolete. Nine small campgrounds are spaced out along the 62 miles of the main Hennepinn Canal Trail running from north central Illinois to the outskirts of the Quad Cities (camping is not allowed along the 29-mile north spur of the path to Rock Falls).

Along the way, don’t expect to see any towns. But you will see big soft shell turtles basking on logs, great blue herons fishing along the banks, and kingfishers and hawks looking for meals from above. Small wooded bluffs often appear alongside the east half of the canal, while wide-open corn country dominates the west half.

Don’t miss: 32 locks that were used to raise and lower the boats on the canal and six aqueducts that carried the canal and its traffic across rivers and streams.

Distance: 91 miles one way (including the north spur)

Glacial Drumlin State Trail

Named for the many glacial mounds bulging up from the Wisconsin landscape on the eastern half of this trail, the Glacial Drumlin Trail runs from Waukesha to Madison. It cuts through a half-dozen towns and skirts the edges of numerous lakes, ponds, and wetlands. Plenty of farmland appears along the way. At the west end of the trail, you’ll meet up repeatedly with Koshkonong Creek and cross the southern tip of Rock Lake. Near Lake Mills, keep an eye peeled for a herd of bison.

The Sandhill Station State Campground, less than a mile south of the trail near Lake Mills, offers walk-in campsites near the shore of Mud Lake. Keep watch for the campground’s namesake bird, an enormous grey crane with a red spot on its forehead. At the west end of the trail on the outskirts of Madison, cyclists can continue pedaling on the Capital City Trail; the east end of the trail connects with the Fox River Trail in Waukesha.

Don’t miss: Between Dousman and Sullivan, the trail passes through a vast marsh busy with waterbirds.

Distance: 52 miles one way

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New edition of “60 Hikes Chicago”

After much toil and sweat, the new edition of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago has been released. If you’re familiar with the first edition, you’ll see that a snazzy new cover adorns the new version of the book. Like the first edition, this one provides in-depth information on 60 hikes within the Chicago region, and another 10 or so hikes that are briefly described.

The new edition of the book also offers:

  • 5 new hikes covered in-depth.
  • Heaps of updates on factual details, including contact information, web resources, routes, and directions.
  • Loads of new information on getting to the hike via public transportation and bicycle. If there’s a Metra train that stops near the trailhead or a bicycle path running nearby, you’ll get the skinny.

Check out the newly updated book page.

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Overnight hiking trips near Chicago

Sleeping under the stars is one of the great pleasures of summer. Listening to owls, crickets, and tree frogs while drifting off to sleep promises a peaceful slumber. For many, camping is even better if you’re able to get further into the wild woods, away from parking lots and Dairy Queens. Of course, camping in remote places usually means carrying your own gear. Strapping a tent, sleeping bag, and food on your back will sound unappealing to some. For others, it instills a sense of adventure, freedom, and self-sufficiency.

While plenty of options exist for camping around Chicago, most of these places are very busy during the summer. Camping overnight on trails takes you away from the hubbub of a campground. Campsites along trails are nearly always empty and quiet; sometimes reservations may be required, but generally, few people entertain the idea of visiting regional trails overnight.

This is part one of a two-part article focusing on overnight excursions that can be found hiking and biking trails in the region. The first installment highlights a few backpacking trails within 3 hours of Chicago. The next installment will look at overnight biking trails in the region.

Forest Glen Preserve

Forest Glen Preserve is a surprisingly large county park nestled alongside the Vermillion River, just south of Danville, Illinois. The park’s 11-mile backpacking trail takes hikers through prairie, savanna, and bottomland woods. Dozens of ravines blanketed with maple and oak trees provide hikers with a thorough workout. (Be sure to hike clockwise so the trail markers are visible). Some of the campsites for the backpacking trail are perched on the edges of these ravines.

In spring, the trail comes alive with wildflowers. Some 230 species of birds have been seen in the park, including pileated woodpeckers, a variety of owls, and a full compliment of Illinois warblers. Don’t miss a climb up the observation tower overlooking the river valley. In addition to 25 miles of hiking trails, the park contains a pioneer homestead exhibit, a nature center with live animal displays, and an arboretum where visitors can walk among hundreds of native and non-native trees, shrubs, ornamentals, and conifers. The park is located on the Indiana border 180 miles directly south of Chicago.

Kettle Moraine State Forest North Unit and South Unit

When completed, the Ice Age Trail will follow a snaking route for some 1,000 miles through Wisconsin along the southernmost edge of the last glacier. Currently, 600 miles of the trail exists in discontinuous segments throughout this terrain dense with lakes, ridges, and rugged hills. Fortunately, a couple of excellent segments of this trail are within striking distance of Chicago.

A 35-mile segment of the Ice Age Trail runs through the Kettle Moraine State Forest’s southern unit and an 31-mile segment of the trail runs through the park’s northern unit. The north unit is 150 miles north of Chicago and south unit is 100 miles northwest of Chicago. While the southern unit is more accessible from Chicagoland, the northern unit boasts fewer visitors, more of an isolated ambiance, and less encroachment from nearby development.

Both parks feature rugged glacial terrain with ridges, bluffs, thick hardwood forests, and expansive hilltop views. Wetlands, ponds, and small lakes are a matter of course. Both parks offer a handful of primitive shelters alongside the trail for camping. Because you’re in Wisconsin where people like to spend time outdoors, call the park for reservations. Visitors thin out considerably midweek.

Sand Ridge State Forest

A sand desert in the middle of Illinois cornfields? Well, yeah, sort of. Fifteen thousand years ago the floodwaters of the most recent glaciers receded down the Illinois River Valley leaving a vast deposit of sand in the area. Shifting winds sculpted 100-foot high sand dunes that now are the wooded ridges for which the forest is named. Sand Ridge State Forest is one of few places in Illinois that supports an intriguing variety of plants and animals more associated with the Southwest than the Midwest. The rolling terrain is covered with oak-hickory woods, plantations of pine, open grasslands, and unique sand prairies. Prickly pear cacti thrive in the sandy soils.

At 7,200 acres, Sand Ridge State Forest is one of Illinois’ largest state-operated natural areas. A dozen primitive campsites are located along more than 40 miles of trails. The yellow trail is the longest loop at 17 miles, with tent sites along the way. Be warned, though, many of the trails have a sandy surface, which can be difficult hiking for some. Sand Ridge is about 15 miles south of Peoria and about 185 miles southwest of Chicago.

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Check out my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago, recently published in its second edition by Menasha Ridge Press.

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The elusive hills of Chicagoland

When I tell people that I wrote a hiking guidebook for the Chicago region, their first question often has do with the whereabouts of local hikes with hills. When I get this question, I often direct people to the Indiana Dunes, the Palos/Sag Valley Forest preserve in southwestern Cook County, and Chain O’ Lakes State Park in Lake County.

If people ask for advice on hilly road biking routes in the area, I find myself on shaky ground. I let them know that I’m in the process of researching a biking guidebook for the Chicago region and have yet to explore many of the local road biking routes. After that disclaimer, I’ll mention possible routes in McHenry County and even more options further north into Wisconsin.

Now, I’m happy to report, I’ve discovered a scenic road biking destination relatively close to Chicago that has a fair number of hills: Barrington.

Scenic vistas of Barrington

Given the bustle of the suburban landscape surrounding Barrington, I was utterly surprised with its rural atmosphere, and found myself congratulating the Barrington residents who fought to preserve their wooded hills, their sprawling marshlands, and widely spaced farms and houses.

One of the highlights of the ride was following River Road—a wavy ribbon of asphalt that parallels the wide and mighty Fox River outside the town of Algonquin. River homes with big porches and inviting yards line the sides of the river along this road.

Another highlight of the ride was pedaling alongside Spring Creek Valley Forest Preserve—4,000 acres of densely tangled woodland, tranquil prairie, and reedy marshes active with birds. Interrupting the savannas and the wetlands are oak- and hickory-laden hills, some of which are steep enough to shift into the granny gear. Mixed in with the woods and open space are horse farms, scattered houses, and the occasional lavish estate.

If you know the area, you know that Barrington is not the average upscale suburb. While average-sized houses do exist, many of the dwellings are better described as mansions, country manors, or in some bizarre cases, castles.

If you go

If you live in Chicago or some of the adjoining suburbs, Barrington is a snap to get to on the Metra. I started from the Metra Station in Fox River Grove on the Union Pacific District Northwest Line.

Some of the roads that were best for cycling were North River Road, Spring Creek Road, Bateman Road, Penny Road, Old Sutton Road, and Otis Road. Many of these run through or border Cook County Forest Preserves.

The full ride description and map will appear the Best Chicago Bike Rides, to be published by FalconGuides.

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Welcome!

Tomahawk Lake at the Palos/Sag Valley Forest Preserve

Thanks for visiting Prairie Fever. My name is Ted Villaire, and I’m a writer from Chicago who delights in open-air excursions. I spend a great deal of time hiking, biking, and paddling.

My activities are typically focused near Chicago or elsewhere in Illinois. Occasionally, though, I’ll venture out into other corners of the Midwest. My outdoor travels allow me to gather information for books and articles. In 2005, I wrote a guidebook for day hiking near Chicago, and currently, I’m writing four more guidebooks focusing on biking and camping near Chicago and throughout Illinois.

I’m glad to reveal that not all of my excursions are work-related. Sometimes, I lace up my hiking shoes simply because I enjoy exploring the local landscape and seeing what’s around the next bend. In any case, through the posts on this page I intend to share my discoveries and offer suggestions on where readers can pursue outdoor wanderings of their own.

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