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 of a determined group of Chicagoans and ultimately 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 2 miles of rail-with-trail experience.
The trail maintains a distinct urban ambiance, passing through the heart of the western suburbs. About midway to Forest Park, in Villa Park, a lovely restored train depot houses great historical displays as well as a chance for water and restrooms. The trail appears to end where it hits 1st Avenue in Maywood, but a short trek along Maybrook Drive leads to a bicycle/pedestrian bridge over the Des Plaines River. The eastern terminus of the trail is shortly thereafter at the Forest Park CTA Station. Free 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 at the Fox River Trail 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, where the IPP again meets the Fox River Trail, 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 cyclists 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 12-mile DuPage County segment of the 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 Forest Park. 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.
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 at the intersection with Carlton Avenue. Look for street parking.
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.