Chicago has the Lakefront Path. But in the western suburbs, the Prairie Path is the go-to place for cyclists. The Illinois Prairie Path, which was created in 1963, was the first successful rail-to-trail conversion in the United States, taking abandoned rail routes and turning them into multiuse recreational trails.
What Makes It Great
Today the route features 62 miles of mostly crushed limestone trails that connect more than a dozen municipalities west of the city. Mile zero is in downtown Wheaton, and the trail goes in three directions from there—east to Maywood, northwest to Elgin and southwest to Aurora. The best sections of the trail feature a canopy of trees that offer shade and cool in the summer, and since you’re running on abandoned railroad tracks, the grade is never too severe.
Some sections of trail, particularly through downtown developments, require some street crossings, but there are miles of uninterrupted travel. You’ll find water fountains at the start in Wheaton and various points along the route. While the trail does co-opt some city streets, the Prairie Path is for the most part an off-road trail. Mountain bikes work fine on the trail, but there’s nothing too severe to keep your road bike off the path. Actually, a cyclocross bike is probably the perfect Prairie Path ride.
The Prairie Path is often more utilitarian than scenic, but it’s an amazing connector trail to forest preserves all over the western suburbs. Look at the trail map to see just how far you can go.
In addition to the three main paths, there’s also a spur to Batavia (which splits off the Aurora branch just north of I-88 and west of Route 59. It takes you all the way to the Fox River. There, you can take the Fox River Trail (which is paved) north to Genera, and connect with the Geneva spur of the Prairie Path. That will eventually take you back the to the Elgin branch, making a big circle.
Some of the most scenic sections are just north of mile zero in downtown Wheaton, taking runners through the Lincoln Marsh and up to the Timber Ridge County Forest Preserve.
The eastern leg, from Wheaton to Maywood, is probably the least scenic but most popular—as in filled with people. But the path is so big that it never really gets overwhelmingly crowded.
Who is Going to Love It
Anyone looking for a good place to put in long miles with limited interruptions. Get to know the Prairie Path and you’ll be amazed how many different places you’ll be able to explore.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
The trail is more than 60 miles long, so you have an endless number of places to join the trail. Visit here for a list of places to park for free near downtowns along the route.