Illinois Prairie Path

Illinois

At a Glance

Name: Illinois Prairie Path
Length: 58.4 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Cook, Du Page, Kane
Surfaces: Asphalt, Concrete, Crushed Stone
State: Illinois

About this Itinerary

Celebrated for being one of the country’s first rail-trail conversions, the Illinois Prairie Path (IPP) is a 61-mile Rail-Trail Hall of Fame destination. Just as the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin electric railroad provided passenger service from western suburbs into downtown Chicago beginning in 1902, today’s IPP follows this historical route to the communities of Elgin, Aurora, Geneva, Batavia, and Forest Park on five connected trail segments. Along the way, trail-users have access to forest preserves, wetlands, parks, and protected native prairies. The IPP consists of three main branches, roughly in the shape of a “Y,” which radiate out from the rail-trail’s hub in Wheaton, west of Chicago. You can explore each branch as a day trip as we’ve outlined here, beginning and ending in Wheaton, or opt for a loop ride by connecting to the Fox River Trail in Elgin, Geneva, Batavia, and Aurora, which links the various forks of the Illinois Prairie Path.

Your homebase for our 3-day itinerary is Wheaton. Thirty miles northwest of Chicago, Wheaton is easily accessible from downtown Chicago and O’Hare International Airport via public transit on the CTA Blue Line or Metra’s Union Pacific/West Line. There is street-parking and a parking garage near Volunteer Park in Wheaton (where the three trail branches converge) and bike rentals are available close by at Midwest Cyclery (a half mile west of the trailhead). The closest lodging is Holiday Inn, 3.5 miles north, and Inn at Water’s Edge, 4 miles east. Before heading off on your adventure, visit the Illinois Prairie Path website for construction updates, trail events, and other current trail news.

Day 1: Main Branch (Wheaton to Forest Park, 17 miles one way) This 17-mile segment through Chicagoland is the most urban of the IPP’s branches. You’ll begin heading east along city streets on bicycle-friendly sidewalks; anticipate road crossings and busy intersections. Dip into Peet’s Coffee & Tea , Suzette’s Creperie, or Egg Harbor Café if you need some energy for the ride (and these are just three of the numerous options in the area). The IPP parallels the Metra commuter rail tracks as you continue east toward Chicago. These tracks were once owned and operated by the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad, chartered in 1836 to be the first railroad constructed out of Chicago. Though its original destination was to be Galena, in the northwestern corner of the state, the railroad was only completed as far as Elgin. Within a mile you begin to pass along the southern edge of the Billy Graham Center, named after the famous Wheaton College alumni and internationally-known evangelist. Continue along the campus border to Hoffman Park, the first of five city parks along this main branch.

At mile 3, the IPP passes through the village of Glen Ellyn, where you’ll find shops and eateries.In less than a mile farther, the trail steers away from the rail tracks toward the Glen Oak Country Club. After crossing over US Highway 355, the trail passes through the town of Lombard. The Underground Railroad was active in this community prior to and during the American Civil War. A local farmer, portrait painter, and abolitionist, Sheldon Peck, was a major player in the Underground Railroad, hiding slaves and helping travelers; his homestead, located 4 blocks north of the trail at S. Lombard Avenue, is now a museum open to the public three afternoons a week.

Through mostly residential neighborhoods, you continue to Villa Park and Villa Park Historical Society and Visitors Center (mile 8.5), where you have another chance to learn about the region’s historical and cultural heritage. Originally built as a depot for the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin electric train line as well as an appliance store for the community, this museum now houses displays illuminating bygone days while providing a spot to rest; use the restrooms and refill your water bottle. You can also get on the Great Western Trail 2 blocks north of the visitors center on S. Villa Avenue.

The remaining half of the IPP’s main branch trail continues through the suburbs of west Chicago and the communities of Elmhurst, Berkeley, Bellwood, and Maywood. The pathway is lined with trees for a good part of the distance between Elmhurst and Berkeley, a shaded section that may offer some quiet before the busy urban environment east of the 294 tollway. Once crossing Salt Creek in Elmhurst, the IPP parallels a 6-acre virgin prairie remnant known as the Elmhurst Great Western Prairie. Look for an informational display case and interpretive garden near Berkeley Avenue at the path.

The trail appears to end where it hits North Forest Avenue in Maywood (mile 12). Continue on-road for a quick jaunt to Warren Avenue, where you’ll need to travel east for 8 blocks. The trail resumes for 2.5 miles to Maybrook Drive, only to put you on-road again for another half mile. Here, the IPP continues as a bicycle/pedestrian bridge and takes you over the Des Plaines River. The eastern terminus of the trail is shortly thereafter at the Forest Park CTA Station. Put your bike on the train and enjoy a relaxing ride back to Wheaton.

Once back in Wheaton you don’t have to go far for an excellent lunch or dinner meal in the downtown district, with plenty of casual to fine-dining restaurants to choose from, such as the farm-to-table Cellar Bistro and the upscale Ivy Restaurant. You can enjoy ale from Dry City Brew Works or feed the sweet tooth with locally-made ice cream at Kimmer’s. There is no dearth of options here. If you feel like barbecue and don’t mind a drive of a couple miles, head to Steamboat BBQ for a hickory-smoked pulled pork or brisket dinner, fried catfish sandwich, or jumbo coconut breaded shrimp. While you are in town, make sure to check with the local chamber of commerce for community activities and events. Each Saturday during the growing season, the Wheaton French Market is held at the Municipal Parking Lot at Main Street; there are numerous annual events in this college town as well, including the Wheaton Wine & Cultural Arts Festival—boasting fine art, local wine and food vendors and live entertainment—and Shakespeare in the Park, presented by Wheaton College Arena Theatre and Wheaton Park District.

 

Day 2: Aurora Branch (Wheaton to Aurora, 13 miles one way, and Batavia Spur, 6 miles one way)

The 13-mile-long trail to Aurora has a more bucolic feel than the main branch counterpart, passing through rural neighborhoods, woodlands, and fields. You are far from being in the middle of nowhere, however; anticipate road crossings, commercial areas, and riding under high-tension power lines. Bring plenty of water and pack a picnic lunch as there are fewer markets and cafes along this branch of the IPP but lots of inviting woodlands perfect for a peaceful repast. Mariano’s Fresh Market, a full grocery store with a deli and bakery, is a good place to get provisions and just a few blocks south of the IPP in Wheaton.

A highlight of this branch is the 600-acre St. James Farm Forest Preserve in Warrenville (mile 3.4). Woodlands, prairies, and wetlands await the visitor and a 2-mile limestone loop trail in the preserve is easily accessible from the Illinois Prairie Path. Birders, naturalists, and anglers may be tempted to spend hours discovering the flora and fauna of the park but historians and art-lovers may also be pleased. Several structures from late-1800 farmsteads remain and numerous pieces of art, commissioned by the McCormick family who lived here beginning in the early 20th century, remain on the grounds. The St. James Farm Forest Preserve abuts the Blackwell Forest Preserve/Silver Lake, a popular spot for fishing, camping, and renting boats and kayaks. Watch for signs directing you to this preserve. To stay on the IPP, take the tunnel under US Highway 56 to Winfield Road; the crossing here can be confusing so look for the green IPP markers. The IPP continues southwest through the Warrensville Forest Grove Preserve; watch for the W. Branch DuPage River Trail, a mile-long wooded stretch heading south from the IPP to the West Branch Du Page River.

Take a break at Warrenville’s Town Park (mile 5) where there is water, toilets and benches. The “Roarin’ Elgin” or “Great Third Rail”, as the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad was fondly known, began service through Warrenville in 1901. By the late 1800s, small, horse-powered streetcars were lining the streets of surrounding communities, such as Elgin and Aurora. Soon interested parties were eying a direct, electrically-operated route into Chicago and it didn’t take long for the interurban rail, utilizing third-rail for electrical-pickup, to be up and running. Warrenville’s first establishments were an inn and tavern, circa 1838, still standing today. The town is also known for being the home to the celebrated oil painter, Adam Albright, and his son, Ivan, also renowned as a magic realist painter. The Albright Studio Museum and Warren Tavern are available to tour but require a mile-ride through town to get there (or you can take the West Branch Du Page River Trail to Main and 2nd Street for a more expeditious route). You won’t have to go far in September, however, to enjoy the Art on the Prairie Festival, a juried art fair with live musical entertainment, held each year at the town park.

Just before the IPP crosses under Highway 88 (mile 7.3), the 6-mile Batavia spur branches off to the west. On this leg, the IPP parallels Highway 88 for a short stretch and a zigzag before veering north to Batavia. Most of the remaining route is tree lined, passing by farm fields and through residential neighborhoods. The Batavia spur ends at the Fox River Trail in the Glenwood Park Forest Preserve, an oak-filled forest about a mile south of downtown Batavia. From here, you can take the Fox River Trail 1.5 miles north to eateries and shops, including the bike shop, All Spoked Up, or travel south along the scenic Fox River and eventually reconnect with the IPP in Aurora.

If you stay on the main trail and continue to Aurora, the IPP passes along the northern edge of the Prairie Path Woodland Swamp County Forest after 3 miles from the junction with the Batavia spur. At this point, you are another 3 miles away from the trail’s end at Illinois Avenue Park where, again, you have the option to join the Fox River Trail. If continuing on the Fox River Trail, head south along the river’s eastern edge beginning at E. Illinois Avenue or cross the Fox River there to its western banks where the trail runs both south and north.

Day 3: Elgin Branch (Wheaton to Elgin, 14 miles one way, and the Geneva Spur, 11 miles one way)

Leaving Volunteer Park in Wheaton, the IPP shoots north spanning an impressive bridge over two city streets and three active rail lines. You very quickly you enter the lush, 150-acre Lincoln Marsh Wetlands, another beautiful preserve consisting of diverse habitats, including wetlands, grassland, prairies, and woodlands. If you spend time exploring Lincoln Marsh, keep an eye out for the red fox, opossums, raccoons, and muskrats that live here. An abundance of bird activity also can be seen year-round.

After traveling through the well-manicured neighborhoods of Wheaton, the IPP splits at the intersections of County Farm and Geneva Roads (mile 2.5). Remain on the south side of Geneva Road to take the Geneva Spur south west for 11 miles to the elegant Chicago suburb of Geneva.

The Geneva Spur begins by traversing the Winfield Mounds County Forest Preserve and pre-historic burial site. Watch for a 0.4-mile trail off of the IPP which leads to the three Native American burial sites that remain visible as dome-shaped mounds today. The IPP continues through the city of West Chicago and begins to hug the southern edge of Reed-Keppler Park at mile 6.5. Soon after, a bridge carries you over active rail lines to another attraction of this trail, the Truitt-Hoff Nature Preserve, part of DuPage County’s West Chicago Prairie Forest Preserve. This preserve is considered to be one of the most biologically diverse sites in northeastern Illinois with the largest and best preserved prairies in the region. Nine footpaths meander through the preserve south of the IPP, several of which are accessible from the trail. Keep in mind that these are footpaths; bikes are prohibited in the preserve. The remaining 4.5 miles of the Geneva Spur are largely through residential neighborhoods. The trail’s terminus is at Riverbank Park in Geneva; turn around and return the way you came or connect to the Fox River Trail and head north 1.5 miles to St. Charles or south 0.5 miles to downtown Geneva.

The Elgin branch continues north of Geneva Road. You’ll see the Timber Ridge Trail which splits off to parallel County Farm Road and travel to the Kline Creek Farm, a 1890s living-history farm. Staying on the main Elgin branch, the IPP immediately cuts through the Timber Ridge County Forest Preserve to offer up a 2-mile shaded stretch of relative seclusion. A bridge takes you over the West Branch Du Page River and, at N. Prince Crossing Road (mile 4.8), the IPP connects with the 12-mile DuPage County segment of the Great Western Trail. Agricultural fields and pockets of trees surround the trail to the village of Wayne. There is a rest stop with water and toilets at Army Trail Road.

The IPP merges with the Stearns Road Trail after crossing W. Stearns Road. Continue west, crossing Dunham Road. Veer north where the trail splits again to remain on the IPP. The Valley Model Railroad headquarters is 1.6 miles farther in South Elgin. This railroad club is housed in the historical Clintonville Station, located right off of the trail. The station was built in 1902 to serve as a power distribution center to convert AC power to 600-volt DC for the third rail of the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railroad. On this property was also a small bungalow for the station operator and a passenger waiting room. The Valley Model Railroaders moved into the building in 1953 where they now house a permanent railroad layout. The Elgin Branch of the IPP ends a mile later to join with the Fox River Trail after crossing Raymond Street in Elgin. To continue on, follow the river north less than two miles to downtown Elgin. Refuel at Al’s Café & Creamery or Prairie Rock Bar & Grill, two restaurants a block east of the Fox River Trail on S. Grove Avenue. You can also take the Fox River Trail south to Geneva to reconnect with the Illinois Prairie Trail.

Attractions and Amenities

Outfitters/Bike Shops

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