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The Illinois Prairie Path (IPP) was one of the nation’s first rail-trail conversions. It consists of five connected trail segments with three main branches that converge at Volunteer Park (West Liberty Drive at South Carlton Avenue) in Wheaton.
The 62-mile trail follows the historical path of the Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad. Beginning in 1902, the electric railroad provided passenger service from the western suburbs into downtown Chicago. With the railroad in decline, some routes were transferred to bus service. The partial completion of the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) 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 former 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 16-mile Main Branch is the most urban of its corridors. Beginning in Wheaton, the IPP’s Main Branch follows city streets on extrawide bicycle-friendly sidewalks. Distinct green trail markers shepherd you eastward through the lively shopping district. 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 ambience, passing through the heart of the western suburbs. In Villa Park, about 8 miles from the trailhead, a restored train depot houses historical displays and offers water and restrooms. As you approach the museum, a short connector trail on the left links with DuPage County’s Great Western Trail.
In about 7 miles, the trail crosses First Avenue (IL 171) in Maywood, and a short trek along Maybrook Drive leads to a bicycle-pedestrian bridge over the Des Plaines River. The Main Branch eastern terminus is shortly thereafter in Concordia Cemetery, adjacent to the Forest Park Transit Center. Free parking is spotty at this end, so plan on a return trip along the corridor.
The 13-mile-long Aurora Branch begins at the south end of Illinois Avenue Park at a junction with the Fox River Trail. The IPP travels north on asphalt along the river through commercial areas and older neighborhoods for a mile; then the surface changes to hard-packed crushed stone that makes up the majority of the branch.
In another 5 miles, look for the trail connection on the left; this is the IPP’s Batavia Spur, which heads 6 miles west to Batavia. Your journey on the Aurora Branch is likely to be quiet, passing through woodlands and fields and beneath high-tension power lines. Wildlife finds refuge on the trail; deer, rabbit, and many bird species are the most common. At 3 miles past the Batavia Spur, pay attention where several trails converge at Winfield and Butterfield Roads in Winfield. Just follow the green IPP markers to stay on course to Wheaton’s Volunteer Park.
The Elgin Branch of the IPP runs 14 miles between Elgin and Volunteer Park in Wheaton. The surface of the trail is almost entirely 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 farms and small forests. About 5 miles from the trailhead, between Army Trail Road and Smith Road in Wayne, a steep hill climb might challenge wheelchair users and youngsters on bikes. Cresting the hill, you’ll enjoy a pleasant 4-mile ride through forests and residential developments to the vicinity of Prince Crossing Road, where the IPP joins the 12-mile Great Western Trail for 0.3 mile. (The Great Western also joins the IPP Main Branch in Villa Park.)
Another 2.2 miles along the Elgin Branch through similar terrain brings you to the connection with the Geneva Spur of the IPP, on the right side of the trail after crossing Geneva Road. The spur travels 9 miles west to Geneva, where it ends at Fox River Trail in Good Templar Park.
Well-manicured neighborhoods indicate your arrival in Wheaton. Just when you think you have left the trail’s remoteness behind, the Lincoln Marsh Natural Area affords a bucolic diversion. With multiple overlooks and interpretive signs, the marsh provides the perfect finishing touch. In less than 1 mile, after spanning a bridge over two city streets and three active rail lines, you arrive at Volunteer Park, named after the countless residents who made May Theilgaard Watts’s dream into a reality.
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.
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