The Prairie Trail—not to be confused with the Illinois Prairie Path—runs border-to-border, entirely within McHenry County, Illinois, and is managed by the McHenry County Conservation District. It is built on an alignment of the old Chicago and North Western Railroad, taking a separate course only for short passages through two cities and a natural area. It sometimes runs in a rail-with-trail configuration, alongside still active railways.
On the trail, there are some rather long rural stretches without access to water. But the trail also passes through the towns of Richmond, McHenry, Crystal Lake and Algonquin, where one can find restaurants, bike shops, and other services.
Passing as it does through a region of glacial moraines, the trail has several bridges over small creeks and its share of mostly long, gradual elevation changes. The one exception is through Sterne Woods, just north of Crystal Lake. There the hills are mostly short and very steep. There are several cautionary signs for bikers to dismount and walk down especially dangerous grades. South of Sterne Woods the trail has a long, gentle slope all the way to the old railroad bridge over the Fox River.
The most rustic and rural part of the trail is in the north. There's a short dirt connector spur from the trail end to a neighborhood street (Southeastern Court) in Genoa City, Wisconsin. The first section of trail is a rough and sometimes muddy mix of dirt and gravel. It is intersected by the Hebron Trail and goes on to pass through the village of Richmond, partly below grade with street bridges overhead. Continuing southward, the surface improves to crushed rock as it passes farmlands and a 5-mile section of Glacial Park.
At the small historical village of Ringwood (Bernard Mill Road), the trail surface changes to asphalt and one begins seeing more and more people using the trail. Now with mostly farmlands and cityscapes in view, it continues through McHenry, and on through Sterne Woods and Crystal Lake. Then, it's on past a recreational lake, an airport, a gravel pit and concrete operation. On past Algonquin, across the Fox River, and all the way to meet the Fox River Trail at their common endpoints.
There is no parking at the two trail end points – only trail access. But there are multiple parks along the way that offer access, parking, drinking water and restrooms all together. From north to south, these are:
- Glacial Park – at Harts Road
- Whispering Oaks Park – McHenry
- Hillside Road Trailhead
- Main Street Trailhead – Crystal Lake
- Algonquin Road Trailhead – Algonquin
- Washington Street Park – Algonquin
See the Trail Map for other locations that provide parking only.