I have lived in Chicago for eight years and have been cycling in the greater area of the Skokie Lagoons and Chicago Botanical Gardens for about four and have known about the North Branch Trail during most of that time yet never cycled the path. I remember looking at a map of it many years ago and thinking that it would take forever because it seemed to cross through a lot of busy roads and my overuse of GPS tracking software in the past and a slight obsession with getting faster and faster times meant not wanting to wait too long on stop lights. Sunday’s trip reveals that this was a grave miss calculation.
The North Branch trail only crossed via a cross walk four or five roads with only one being busy enough that I had to wait for the cross walk light. The trail also offers a great sense of not being in the city, which is something you have to go a lot further northwest than the Skokie Lagoons to find here in Chicago. Round trip from the start of the trail at the south point going around the Chicago Botanical Gardens and Skokie Lagoons and back to the south end of the North Branch Trail would be about 40 miles of woodland scenic and little car traffic interference cycling. One other concern I always had was the amount of pedestrian and cycling traffic, as a bit of a competitive cyclist this is always a concern. Turned out on this day it was far less than that of the Lake Front Trail on your average day and posed little interference, although some of the turns through parts of the wooded area shouldn’t be taken much over 15 mph as your view around the curve is fully blocked by trees but there are plenty of straight stretches and gentle curves to make that a non-issue along with some subtle inclines to make it interesting.
Getting To The North Branch Trail
Without a car getting to the North Branch Trail from the most populated Chicago Neighborhoods is not the most bike friendly trip. It essentially is on the opposite side of major streets and I94. You can’t avoid one to three miles of roads that is basically like biking down Western Avenue. On the way there I chose to go west on Devon Ave from Kedzie to Caldwell which is a 2.9 mile stretch of a busy road but straight with drivers where are semi accepting of sharing the road. The return trip I took my most disliked stretch of road since it was dusk and a shorter distance. From the Caldwell exit of the trail taking Central Ave south to Elston. This is a terrible strip of road to bike as it is very busy and a narrow around the tracks / river with two lane and no parking and no real sidewalk. The distance is only 0.9 miles till you are at Elston which has full bike lane. If you don’t feel like braving either of those options you could probably weave through some side streets if you wanted but I prefer as few turns as possible.
North Branch Trail
Once you get past the ugly part of getting there you are presented with a heavily wooded and a very natural forested area with a two lane paved bike path. The fall colors were in full swing on this particular day making the first experience even better, it was simply sublime while I was there. I also expected it to be much busier, nothing like the Chicago Lake shore Path despite it being a very warm late October Sunday.
The trail offers quite a bit of sightseeing and places to stop from deviations off the main path to see different parts of the Forest Preserve to crossing a few times the North Branch Chicago River / Skokie River which leads you directly to the Skokie Lagoons. If taking a more casual trip through the area make sure to allow enough time to stop and soak in the surroundings. It’s good for the soul just like a warm bowl of soup.
Now I’ve blasted by the Skokie Lagoons a many of times on team rides where we would ride the Forest Way Drive three mile sprint wheel to wheel in a tight knit two wide pace line accelerating to near break neck speeds of 35mph. This was always the part of those rides that separated the men from the boys, the glimpses that I caught of the area were always just beautiful but it was always short lived as focusing on grinding those pedals continuously and that one millionth of a second distance between me and the rider in front was paramount.
This time however I took the opportunity to make a few stops off the trail that really caught my eye, I was fighting against the falling sun so I had to only make a hand full of stops this trip. One particular stop which was down a small hill off the trail and to the north I stopped and talked to this man who was fishing, traded a few stories and laughs admired the pristine spot, below, he had found to fish in. This area really makes me want to get out the kayak and explore every nook and cranny up close of these waters. They were simply amazing. The bike trail takes you past several really great overlooks as well by going over bridges or just getting you up to higher ground.
Chicago Botanical Garden
Set inside and at the north end of the Skokie Lagoons is the Chicago Botanical Gardens. Although much of the flowers were finished blooming this highly landscaped area is a great destination. Although if you are biking there make sure to take a bike lock. You can cycle around the Botanical Gardens on the outside of the Lagoon but you can’t go into the actual gardens with your bike which is located in the on the largest north island of the lagoons. The Chicago Botanical Gardens is also free; but car parking is not.
Final Word of Caution
The path is full of fold down car / vehicle barriers which just so happen to mostly be folded down. The are a serious hazard and are something that you should be on the look out for. They are on either side of where a road or parking lot meets the path but some further into the path than you would think. Just be on the look out for them.
Hope you check out this wonderful place and please let me know what you think in the comments.