Biking Illinois Car-Free
Getting There Via Public Transportation
Biking Illinois: 60 Great Road Trips and Trail Rides
The rides in Biking Illinois: 60 Great Road Trips and Trail Rides are all easy to reach by car. I chose starting locations that were easy to find with ample parking. But there is a growing segment of the bicycling population that is living car-free, so I wrote this "extra" for them. Of course, it's also useful for people who just don't feel like driving. Check out the "Amtrak Weekend Cycling Getaways" below for car-free vacations. Some rides are as easy to reach by train or bus as by car, but others require some extra pedaling.
First, here is some general info about travel options. In the Chicago area, all Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and Pace buses have bike racks in front. Most Pace routes have limited hours, especially on weekends. Consult the Web sites below for more about specific bus routes -- I'm not going to go into detail here. CTA trains (aka the "L") allow bikes during non-rush periods. Metra trains also allow bikes, but service is more expensive and less frequent than CTA. Metra also has more restrictions and regulations. Metra sells $5 unlimited weekend passes, so this can be a cheap way to get around. It took considerable political pressure to get bicycles on Metra trains, and I've heard certain conductors are still not particularly accommodating. So please be read Metra's rules ahead of time (maybe even print a copy and carry it with you) and be polite.
Intrastate Amtrak trains allow bikes as roll-ons for $10 with a reservation. These are the routes that are subsidized by the state of Illinois (I think bicycle accessibility is one of the terms of that subsidy, but I may be wrong). Their Amtrak route numbers are in the 300s, and they run roughly parallel to US 34, I-55, and I-57. Bikes cannot be rolled onto long-distance, interstate trains such as the City Of New Orleans or the Southwest Chief, which have one- or two-digit Amtrak route numbers. They can be checked as luggage for $5 in an appropriate box (Amtrak sells them for $10, or you can check with local bike shops). Unfortunately, you can only get your bike out at stations with luggage service (Chicago, Champaign, Carbondale, Bloomington, Springfield, St. Louis). The Illinois trains and their long-distance counterparts stop at the same stations, so be careful to make a reservation on the correct train. When you make a reservation online, Amtrak shows a bicycle icon on trains that allow bikes. Also note that when Amtrak and Metra both serve a station (Joliet, Naperville), Amtrak does not sell tickets from downtown Chicago that would compete with Metra.
Greyhound isn't an ideal way to travel with a bike. For starters, I have heard on the bicycle touring e-mail list that Greyhound doesn't guarantee that a passenger and his/her bike will travel on the same bus! Bikes must be packed in "wood, canvas or other substantial container." Besides, two of the longest Greyhound routes in Illinois essentially duplicate Amtrak coverage. Since Amtrak is much better than Greyhound for bikes, I don't bother mentioning Greyhound when Amtrak is in the area.
One problem with boxing up a bike for Amtrak or Greyhound is that it must be repacked for the return trip. Although the Chicago stations probably have boxes (it doesn't hurt to call ahead to make sure), smaller stations may not. Consequently, you'll have to find a place to store the box while riding (you may be able to make arrangements with the station or your motel).
Summary of Available Services
Note: Most of the information below is based on research. I haven't made the trips myself (except to Galesburg). If you have any personal experience with these trips, please e-mail me. This information is not guaranteed to be correct, but it's a good starting point for making travel plans to the rides. Also, note that just because there is a train station doesn't mean train service comes at a convenient time, especially if you want to return home the same day. Fortunately, most towns big enough to have Amtrak stations also have lodging, often near the station. Lastly, I overuse the phrase "as the crow flies" below, but it is to distinguish from routes that I have measured on streets. Realize in those cases that the distance on roads could be much further, especially when limited to bicycle-friendly roads.
Chicago Area Via CTA, Pace, or Metra
I'll start with rides that can be reached from downtown Chicago. A Chicagoland Bicycle Federation (CBF) map is strongly recommended for finding the most bike-friendly routes from train stations to rides.
Ride 5 - The Harvard station on Metra's Union Pacific Northwest line is less than six miles east of the trailhead. It's probably not a bad ride although it includes two miles on IL 173.
Ride 13 - Metra's Union Pacific Northwest line goes to Woodstock, and the station is only two blocks from the start of the ride!
Ride 14 - The McHenry Metra station on the Union Pacific Northwest line is about five miles from the entrance to Moraine Hills State Park. I think there is or will soon be a bike path for part of that distance. Alas, only a few trains per day go to McHenry on weekdays, none on weekends. The closest station with regular service is Cary, also on the Union Pacific Northwest line.
Ride 15 - Metra's Elgin station on the Milwaukee District West line is two miles south of the start of this ride, but I don't know a good route through Elgin to get to Tyler Creek Forest Preserve. It might be better to skip the first part of the ride by crossing the Fox River and riding up the Fox River Trail on the east side of the river (I haven't ridden this part of the trail so I don't know how easy it is to follow). Alternatively, you could take Metra's Union Pacific Northwest line to the Crystal Lake station, which is less than two miles north of this ride's turnaround point.
Ride 16 - The National Street station in Elgin on Metra's Milwaukee District West line is 1.5 miles from the start. But wait, it gets even easier... Just cross the Fox River on National Street and immediately turn right onto the Fox River Trail. After about a mile, this trail intersects with the Illinois Prairie Path. The trailhead for Ride 16 is just a few hundred yards southeast. If you'd rather start at the turnaround, Metra's West Chicago station on the Union Pacific West line is only 2.5 miles away, and all but half a mile of that can be covered on the Geneva Spur of the Illinois Prairie Path. The Winfield station on the same line is only half as far but on suburban streets.
Ride 17 - Metra's Bartlett station on the Milwaukee District West line is about four miles from the trail, but the route isn't straightforward without riding on very busy IL 59. Consult a CBF map!
Ride 18 - The Arlington Heights Metra station on the Union Pacific Northwest line is about four miles from Busse Woods and a bit further from the ride's trailhead. The direct route on very busy Arlington Heights Road is not recommended. Perhaps Campbell west to Wilke/New Wilke south to Golf would work better. There is a path on the south side of Golf beginning near New Wilke.
Ride 19 - The Libertyville Metra station on the Milwaukee District North line is about three miles from Old School Forest Preserve. The best route is to go south past IL 176 to the east-west branch of the North Shore Trail. Then follow it east through town to the junction with the Des Plaines River Trail (DPRT). The trailhead of the ride is about 1.5 miles south on the Des Plaines River Trail. You can also reach Ride 19 from the east via the North Shore Trail from the Lake Bluff Metra station on the Union Pacific North line. It's five or six miles from Lake Bluff to the trailhead depending on whether you cut south on St. Mary's Road or take the trail all the way to the DPRT.
Ride 20 - The Morton Grove Metra station on the Milwaukee District North line is only a few blocks south of Dempster, so this one is easy. If you want to ride the North Branch Trail from its beginning, the Edgebrook Metra station on the same line is close to Devon & Caldwell.
Ride 21 - The easiest way to get there is the CTA's Purple Line, which terminates at Linden Avenue less than half a mile from the beginning of the ride. Metra's Central Street and Wilmette stations on the Union Pacific North line are both about 1.5 miles from the start. If you want to start at the turnaround instead, Metra's Highland Park station on the same line is just a few blocks from the northernmost point of the ride.
Ride 22 - The Central Street Metra station on the Union Pacific North line is less than a mile north of the start. Half that distance can be covered on the sometimes muddy path through Ladd Arboretum. The CTA Purple Line's Foster station is about a mile east of the trailhead.
Ride 23 - It's about four miles from Metra's Union Pacific West line's Geneva station northwest to the trailhead. The best route would probably be to follow the Fox River Trail up the east side of the river, cross to the west on the trail bridge in St. Charles, and continue northwest on side streets. IL 64 is very busy.
Ride 24 - The Aurora station on Metra's Burlington Northern Santa Fe line is about three miles northeast of the turnaround point of this ride. The good news is that half of that distance is on the Virgil Gilman Trail. The bad news it that the first half is right through the heart of downtown Aurora. This will improve in a few years when the Fox River Trail is built through downtown, but for now it's not a pleasant ride. If you want to start this ride from the trailhead instead, Pace buses run out to Waubonsee Community College.
Ride 25 - The Illinois Prairie Path (IPP) runs parallel to Metra's Union Pacific West line, so there are numerous options for this ride. The Villa Park station is less than a mile north of the IPP. To get to Ride 25's trailhead, go south on Ardmore to the Great Western Trail, then east to its junction with the IPP. Further west, the Lombard station is only half a mile north of the IPP. The Glen Ellyn station is right on the IPP, as are the College Avenue and Wheaton stops. If you'd rather ride the IPP from its start in Maywood, take the CTA Blue Line out to Forest Park and use the new trail bridge across the Des Plaines River.
Ride 26 - The Western Springs Metra station on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line is closest to the trailhead, about a mile away. I think Woodland Avenue will take you north directly to the forest preserve entrance so you don't have to ride on busy Ogden Avenue. The Hollywood stop is closest to Brookfield Zoo and the turnaround point of the ride.
Ride 27 - The CTA is a good way to get to the start near the north end of Lake Shore Drive. The Red Line train station at Berwyn Avenue is closest to the start of the ride, but you can also ride east from the Bryn Mawr stop to the lakefront to pedal an extra half-mile of the trail (I chose Foster Avenue as the start in the book mainly because more parking is available there). Many CTA buses run along the lakefront as well.
Ride 28 - All Metra and CTA trains go downtown as well as many CTA buses. The Madison and Adams CTA train stations are equally close to the start at Monroe Drive and Lake Shore Drive. Most Metra train lines terminate at the stations located on the west side of the Loop. Whichever street you choose to ride east to the lakefront, on weekdays this is one of the most stressful miles of cycling in Illinois . On weekends it isn't nearly as bad. If your train comes into Millennium (formerly Randolph) station, you miss out on all that fun. Of course, there are many other places where you can join the Lakefront Bike Path as well.
Ride 29 - The Westmont Metra station on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line is five miles straight north of Waterfall Glen. It's a straight shot down Cass Avenue, but I don't know how bicycle-friendly that street is.
Ride 30 - The Oak Forest station on Metra's Rock Island District line is about 2.5 miles northeast of the start of the ride, and you can ride forest preserve trails most of the way along Cicero Avenue, 167th Street, and Central Avenue.
Ride 31 - Metra's Rock Island District line and Amtrak serve Joliet's Union Station, which is less than three miles east-northeast of the Brandon Road Access of the Illinois & Michigan Canal Trail. Follow the trail about 10 miles southwest to Channahon State Park. (Note: Metra's Heritage Corridor trains also serve Joliet, but they do not allow bikes since they only run during rush hours.)
Ride 32 - The Matteson station on the Metra Electric line is very close to the Old Plank Road Trail, which you can ride about 1.5 miles west to the official start of the ride.
Amtrak Weekend Cycling Getaways
Several destinations stand out with a combination of bicycling, other activities, and convenience to Amtrak. Obviously, the Chicago area rides described above comprise another Amtrak destination for downstate cyclists.
Galesburg: I recommend booking a room near the Main Street/East Galesburg exit off I-74 on the east side of town. Then you will be closer to the shops and restaurants on Seminary Street, historic sites, and the starts of Rides 35 and 36. Most of the other motels are near the north end of Ride 36 by US 34 and the mall, a generally less bike-friendly area. Contact the Galesburg Area Convention & Visitors Bureau for more information.
Alton: Alton has several bed & breakfasts as well as motels. There are some accommodations in towns along the Vadalabene River Road Bikeway (Ride 46) as well, plus the lodge and campground at Pere Marquette State Park. Contact the Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau for more information.
Carbondale: One of the rides is close to Carbondale and two more are within striking distance for those who like longer rides. As home of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale has no shortage of restaurants and motels. Another option is to stay at the lodge in Giant City State Park. The SIU Cycling Web site offers cue sheets for a bunch of nearby rides. You might even run into SIU professor and cyclist Mike Magnuson, author of Heft On Wheels. Contact the Carbondale Convention and Tourism Bureau for more information.
Others Easily Accessible Via Amtrak
Ride 11 - The Princeton Amtrak station is 6.5 miles from the Hennepin Canal. Then it's another 11 miles west on the trail to this ride's trailhead at the visitor center. I judged this as easily accessible because most of the ride to the start is on the trail.
Ride 33 - The Amtrak station in Kankakee is about six miles from the trailhead. You can avoid major highways for the most part with some planning, but riding a couple of miles on IL 102 is simpler.
Ride 43 - The trailhead at IDOT headquarters is about four miles southeast of Springfield's Amtrak station.
Moderately Accessible Via Amtrak
These rides are one or two hours away from Amtrak by bicycle. You'll have to pedal almost the distance of the ride just to reach the trailhead from the station.
Ride 10 - The Mendota Amtrak station is about 15 miles southeast of Amboy. The direct route, US 52, has some traffic.
Ride 12 - There was once an interurban railway that ran through the Illinois River Valley, and there has been talk of restoring rail service to Chicago along this corridor. But for now, your best bet is Amtrak in Mendota, 15 miles north of the end of the I & M Canal Trail (the turnaround point for Ride 12). Greyhound can bring you closer, dropping off near I-80 about five miles northwest of the end of the trail. Another option for a more ambitious cyclist is to start in Joliet and take a couple of days to ride out and back on the trail. Amtrak and Metra's Rock Island District line serve Joliet's Union Station, which is less than three miles east-northeast of the trail's Brandon Road Access.
Ride 38 - Amtrak runs right through Lexington but doesn't stop there. The nearest stops are Bloomington, 14 miles to the southwest, and Pontiac, 18 miles to the northeast. The better route is old Route 66 from Pontiac. It's a bit further but with less traffic than riding through Bloomington.
Ride 40 - The trailhead at Lake of the Woods is about 12 miles west-northwest of the Champaign Amtrak station. It's kind of a long way to go for a short ride, but the rural roads should be pleasant riding.
Ride 42 - Lincoln's New Salem is about 18 miles northwest of the Springfield Amtrak station. You don't have to pedal as far if you don't mind hooking up with the ride mid-route.
Ride 44 - The Amtrak station in Mattoon is 15 miles south-southeast of Arcola.
Ride 51 - You can take Amtrak to St. Louis and a MetroLink train across the Mississippi River into Illinois. Then you're stuck because the buses that serve Waterloo (route X502) cannot accommodate bicycles. You'll have to pedal the rest of the way to Waterloo, which is about 18 miles away from the MetroLink as the crow flies.
Barely Accessible Via Amtrak
You'll spend much more time getting there and back than you will on the ride. If you love long rides, you'll probably enjoy yourself -- at least it's mostly rural riding. Be sure to order a set of IDOT's state bicycling maps before you go. Otherwise, you're better off renting a car or bumming a ride from a cycling friend.
Ride 8 - Amtrak goes to Princeton, about 30 miles south-southeast of Rock Falls as the crow flies. However, the Hennepin Canal Trail is only 6.5 miles away from the Princeton station, so you could ride that all the way out to the feeder trail (the junction is described in Ride 11) up to Tampico and Rock Falls. There is lodging in Rock Falls if you want to make an overnight trip. It's probably not worth it except for Ronald Reagan fans.
Ride 9 - Amtrak's Mendota station is 30 miles to the southeast. An ambitious rider could do the Amboy ride along the way from Mendota to Dixon. There is an excellent bed & breakfast/restaurant in Grand Detour, the Colonial Rose Inn, which was once owned by one of my relatives. There are several motels in Dixon.
Ride 34 - Galesburg is the closest Amtrak station with roll-on bike service, but that's more than 30 miles away. Although Burlington, Iowa on Amtrak's California Zephyr route is closer, that station doesn't handle checked baggage so boxed bikes aren't allowed.
Ride 45 - The start is about 25 miles southeast of the Mattoon Amtrak station as the crow flies.
Ride 48 - The Amtrak station in Carlinville is about 27 miles west-northwest of Hillsboro.
Ride 49 - The Alton Amtrak station is the closest, about 40 miles west of Greenville.
Ride 50 - The Amtrak station in Centralia is about 28 miles southwest of Stephen A. Forbes State Park, while Effingham's station is about 33 miles to the northeast.
Ride 56 - Dongola is about 27 miles south of the Carbondale Amtrak station by way of US 51 and Old US 51, the most direct but not most enjoyable route.
Relatively Easy Via Greyhound
I've never taken Greyhound. I've heard enough horror stories to avoid it. But when the nearest Amtrak station is a day or two away by bicycle, Greyhound is the only reasonable non-automotive choice. Amtrak has been studying the cost and feasibility of adding routes from Chicago to Dubuque and Chicago to the Quad Cities. Together, those could serve the first five rides below.
Ride 1 - There is no service to Hanover. Greyhound stops at the intersection of US 20 and IL 84, about five miles away on a somewhat busy road. One option is to join the ride at Saw Mill Road and Rodden Road, which only requires 2.5 miles on IL 84.
Ride 2 - There is Greyhound service to Elizabeth. Unfortunately, the stop is not in town it's at US 20 and IL 84. The start of the ride is only 2.8 miles to the east, but US 20 is a very busy road with truck traffic.
Ride 3 - Freeport has a Greyhound station on the east side of town, about six miles from the trailhead. You can probably find low-traffic streets for much of that distance, and four-lane US 20 has paved shoulders if I remember correctly.
Ride 4 - Rockford has a Greyhound station inconveniently located near I-90. Amtrak's Thruway bus service stops near the same place. It's about six miles to the Rock River. Since the trailhead is about nine miles away, it makes more sense to start the ride at the southern turnaround point.
Ride 7 - Greyhound's Moline station is a stone's throw from the bike path. Amtrak's Thruway Bus Service also goes to Moline, but the station is on the south end of town, six miles from the trail. The nearest Amtrak train stations are about 40 miles away
Ride 37 - The trailhead is about ten miles as the crow flies from the Peoria Airport, which has a Greyhound bus stop.
Ride 57 - There is a Greyhound stop in Vienna very close to the trailhead. The alternative is a 35-mile ride from Carbondale's Amtrak station.
Hardly Accessible -- Good Luck!
For most riders, the only way to do these rides without a car will involve a multi-day bicycle tour. Order IDOT's state bicycling maps to plan your route. For your convenience I have included some lodging options.
Ride 6 - There is no transportation anywhere near Fulton, not even in larger Clinton, Iowa across the river. Greyhound goes to Moline, but that's 30 miles away as the crow flies. The good news is that the bicycle trail along the Mississippi River is complete (or close to it) between the Quad Cities and Fulton. After riding the trail up to Fulton and doing the ride in the book, you can choose from a couple of motels in Fulton. I highly recommend the Pine Motel, which is clean and affordable with free Wi-Fi and lots of TV channels (I watched the Tour de France on OLN there). Another option would be to continue north to Savanna (where there are also motels), then ride back the next day.
Ride 39 - The closest Amtrak station is in Macomb 38 miles to the west, with Lincoln about 47 miles to the east. There are motels in Havana.
Ride 41 - Versailles is about 40 miles as the crow flies from the Macomb (to the north) and Quincy (to the west) Amtrak stations. There is a motel in Rushville, about 18 miles to the north. There is camping at Siloam Springs State Park about 20 miles west of Versailles.
Ride 58 - There's just nothing easy about this ride, including getting there any way other than by car. The nearest Amtrak station, Carbondale, is more than 50 miles away as the crow flies. The Vienna Greyhound bus stop is only ten miles closer. You camp in Shawnee National Forest. There is a motel near the intersection of IL 1 and Pounds Hollow Road halfway through the ride. Otherwise, your best bet for lodging is Harrisburg, about 20 miles away.
Rides 59 & 60 - These are about 50 miles from the Carbondale Amtrak station. There is a motel along IL 3 on Ride 59, but I can't vouch for its quality. You can also camp at Horseshoe Lake.
Do you know another good, car-free way to reach the rides in Biking Illinois? E-mail the author.
Copyright © 2002-2010 David Johnsen. All rights reserved.