The Illinois Prairie Path (IPP) is one of the country's first rail-trail conversions. It consists of five connected trail segments with three main branches that converge at Volunteer Park in Wheaton. The 61-mile trail follows the historic path of the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin electric railroad. Beginning in 1902 the railroad provided passenger service from western suburbs into downtown Chicago. With the railroad in decline, many routes were transferred to bus service. The completion of the Eisenhower Expressway in 1955 spelled the end for this once mighty railroad: by 1959 passenger and freight service on the line were finished.
A letter to the editor by noted naturalist May Theilgaard Watts in the Chicago Tribune in September 1963 argued for the novel idea of converting the abandoned corridor into a "footpath." That letter sparked the efforts a determined group of Chicagoans and gave rise to the unprecedented conversion of railroad to public trail.
The Illinois Prairie Path's 17-mile main branch is the most urban of its corridors. In Wheaton the main stem of the trail begins along city streets on bicycle-friendly extra-wide sidewalks. Distinct green trail markers shepherd you east through the lively shopping district of this college town. As you leave downtown Wheaton, Metra commuter rail tracks share the corridor, allowing you about 4 miles of rail-with-trail experience.
The trail maintains a distinct urban ambiance, passing through the heart of the western suburbs. About midway to Maywood, in Villa Park, a lovely restored train depot houses great historical displays as well as a chance for water and restrooms. The trail ends where it hits 1st Avenue in Maywood. Parking is spotty at this end of the trail, so plan on a return trip where the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin once roared.
The 13-mile-long Aurora Branch begins on the Fox River in Aurora, traveling north along the river and through a mix of commercial areas and older neighborhoods on a strip of asphalt. After 1 mile the surface changes to a hard-packed crushed stone that makes up the majority of the trail, and the corridor leaves the river and moves northeast toward Wheaton. In another 5 miles, look for the trail connection on the left; this is the IPP's Batavia Branch. This 6-mile spur takes you west to the town of Batavia.
Your journey on the Aurora Branch is likely to be quiet, passing through woodlands and fields and under high-tension power lines. Wildlife finds refuge on the trail; most common are deer, rabbit and many bird species. Pay attention at just past mile 7 where the crossing at Winfield Road can be confusing. Other trails converge here, so look for the green IPP marker directly across Winfield Road.
The Elgin Branch of the IPP is the 14-mile northern segment, between Elgin and Volunteer Park in Wheaton. The surface of the trail is almost entirely a hard-packed crushed stone. Heading southeast from the Elgin trailhead you immediately plunge into a lush, rural atmosphere of farm fields and pockets of trees. Near mile 4 in Wayne, between Army Trail Road and Smith Road, a steep hill climb will give pause to youngsters and road bicyclists and is not advisable for wheelchair users.
When you crest this hill it is a pleasant 4-mile ride through a mixture of forest and residential development to Prince Crossing Road, where the IPP connects with the 11.5-mile Great Western Trail at the trailhead facility. This trail meets up with the IPP again in Villa Park along the Main Branch between Wheaton and Maywood. Another 3 miles through similar terrain brings you to the connection with the Geneva Spur of the IPP, on the west side of the trail at Geneva Road. The spur travels 11 miles west to the elegant Chicago suburb of Geneva.
Well-manicured neighborhoods soon indicate your arrival in the town of Wheaton. Just when you think you have left the trail's remoteness behind, the Lincoln Marsh Natural Area affords an excellent bucolic diversion. With multiple overlooks and interpretive signs, the marsh presents the perfect finishing touch to a wonderful 14-mile trip. In less than 1 mile, after spanning an impressive bridge over two city streets and three active rail lines, you arrive at Volunteer Park.
Parking and Trail Access
Access the Aurora trailhead by taking Interstate 88 to Farnsworth Avenue South; go 1.1 miles. Turn right on Indian Trail and after 1.5 miles turn left on Aurora Avenue for just under 1 mile. Take a right onto Illinois Avenue and the trailhead is on the right just before the Fox River.
To reach the Maywood endpoint from I-290, take 1st Avenue North. The trail is about 0.3 mile north on the left between Quincy and Wilcox Streets; no parking available.
To reach the Wheaton trailhead, take I-355 to Roosevelt Road. Go west 3.6 miles. Turn right on West Street and go 0.4 mile. Make a left onto Liberty Drive. The trailhead is on the right just past a parking garage. Park on the street or in the garage.
The Elgin trailhead is on Raymond Street in Elgin. From I-90 take the State Street exit south for 2.7 miles. Turn left onto National Street and go just under 0.5 mile then turn right onto Raymond Street. The trailhead is about 1.3 miles ahead on the right between Purify Drive and Riverview Drive.
From Elmhurst, Going West
We rode the Illinois Prairie Path in August 2012, starting in Elmhurst and travelling west to mile marker zero. This is a great trail, with the only downside being the many road crossings. But we look forward to returning!
Suprisingly nice urban trail
In my quest to ride all of the "Hall of Fame"trails, I rode the trail on Saturday and Sunday, Sept 10 & 11. I was surprised on how much I enjoyed the ride even with the numerous street crossings. It was a beautiful weather and there were nice neighbors ...
Just recently they have made a new path connecting Fox River Trail to the IL Prairie Path it follows the new stern road bridge/route 25 that they have built. They are also saying their going to build a park buy where the bridge starts on the east side. ...