The end of fall and the beginning of winter is the in-between time for Chicago-area athletes. We spend much of the year taking advantage of the crushed limestone trails found in most forest preserves. But now, before the ground is frozen, those trails are often useless for runners and cyclists, either covered in wet snow or too muddy to use. While you may be looking to avoid the pavement the rest of the year, this is when it sure does come in handy. Here are five paved paths that will allow you to still enjoy the outdoors while not tearing up the trail in the process.
1. Morton Arboretum
The Morton Arboretum in west suburban Lisle, Ill., is a self-described “museum of trees,” with a collection of species from around the world. The 1,700-acre preserve started in the 1920s and now features more than 4,000 different species of trees and shrubs. It offers 16 miles of hiking (or cross-country skiing) trails, but this time of the year it’s the 9 miles of road that’s perfect for runners and cyclists looking for a challenging yet scenic run. The arboretum plows the roads, but you’ll find minimal traffic this time of year. In fact, on Saturday and Sunday mornings you’ll find many more runners than vehicles taking advantage of the pavement. The only drawback is the cost of admission. But if you’re a west suburban runner training for a spring marathon, a yearly membership is well worth the cost to access to long runs without a treadmill.
2. Lakefront Path
The Lakefront Path is the obvious choice for anyone in close proximity to Chicago’s Lakefront. The 18.5-mile path starts at Hollywood Avenue on the North Side and hugs Lake Michigan all the way to the Chicago Cultural Center at South Shore Drive. The city even clears the path of snow to keep it accessible year-round. For those who don’t live within running or cycling distance of the city’s most famous trail, this isn’t a bad time to take advantage of it. Crowds are smaller, and it’s tough to find so many uninterrupted paved miles. You will, however, usually have to deal with that wind off Lake Michigan.
3. Fox River Trail
Chicago’s got the Lakefront Path, the far western suburbs have the Fox River Trail . This multiuse path stretches all the way from Algonquin in the north to Oswego in the south, 43 miles in all. There are stretches that veer away from the river or use an occasional city street, but particularly in the northern part of the trail you’re never very far from the Fox. In some sections, the trail even goes on both sides of the river, connected by six pedestrian bridges along the way.
Much of the path is rail-to-trail, which takes advantage of the defunct railroad lines out west. But particularly in the Fox River Valley between North Aurora and St. Charles, Ill., the trail is incorporated into riverside parks with beautiful tree-lined sections and some fairly challenging hills.
A good place to start is in downtown Geneva, which has plenty of good restaurants, a bike and running store and parking near the trail. From there, you can head north to St. Charles, where there are several impressive pedestrian bridges as you make your way toward Elgin. Go south from Geneva and you can run through Batavia and to North Aurora, which features some wooded bluffs with challenging hills. You can also access the Illinois Prairie Path in this section of the trail, both in Batavia and Geneva (although that is not paved).
4. North Branch Trail
The North Branch Trail links together the many forest preserves and green spaces along the North Branch of the Chicago River from the northwest side of Chicago all the way to the Botanic Gardens in Glencoe. While it’s relatively flat, the nearly 17-mile route is an excellent place for both long training runs or shorter weekday runs.
The trail is divided into two sections. The southern half starts in Chicago at Devon Avenue and Caldwell Avenue in the Caldwell Forest Preserve. Going north you’ll hit the Bunker Hill Forest Preserve, and eventually take an overpass to Miami Woods Forest Preserve. Eventually you’ll hit the Chick Evans Golf Course in Morton Grove.
The north side of the trail continues following the Chicago River into Harms Woods Forest Preserve just north of Golf Road. From there you’ll hit Glenview Woods, Blue Star Memorial Woods, and, just north of Willow Road, the Skokie Lagoons. The trail continues to follow the North Branch and parallel the Edens Expressway to just south of the Chicago Botanic Gardens at Dundee Road. Take the opportunity to explore the 26 gardens and four natural areas there—admission is free (although parking isn’t if you plan to start your run there.)
5. DuPage River Trail
When looking at the map of the DuPage River Trail , you’ll notice that it includes at least 10 different park districts, forest preserves or taxing authorities of some kind. Which makes it pretty amazing that the trail has come together so nicely.
The mostly paved trail that follow both the east and west branches of the DuPage River forms a giant Y with Naperville’s Knoch Knolls Park at the junction where the two branches of the river meet.
Once again, looking at the map, you’ll notice some dotted lines, which indicate a proposed section of the path. So the trail is still a work in progress, but what’s been finished is already impressive, particularly along the west branch of the river and into DuPage River Park in Bolingbrook.
The trail starts as a spur off of the Illinois Prairie Path just east of Winfield Road and South of Butterfield Road in Warrenville, in the Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve. From there, it follows the DuPage River south, underneath I-88 and into the McDowell Grove Forest Preserve. You’ll cross Fawell Dam just north of Ogden, and take the trail down the other side of the river as it continues south. This section of the trail is mostly tree-covered with some exposed river views. South of Ogden it opens up a bit, but still hugs the river closely with plenty of green space until you get to the Riverwalk at Jefferson Avenue in Naperville.
Bikes aren’t allowed on the Riverwalk, but luckily there are good signs and bike lanes on city streets to direct you back to the path south of downtown Naperville, where there are plenty of places to eat or grab a cup of coffee. Plan to end your workout there and reward yourself for a job well done.