Chicago has manicured parks and an expansive lakefront, but where does one wander if one wants to get lost in the woods?
The options are slim for everyone, but the problem is particularly acute for long-distance cyclists, who ride for miles through the grittiest and most dismal parts of the collar counties to get anywhere vaguely green and remote (or anywhere with hills, for that matter). You know you're in trouble when a "good route" takes you down the very length of Ogden Avenue—broken glass, potholes, and all—and through a UPS depot before it deposits you in some nondescript suburban terrain.
The Des Plaines River Trail is an antidote to all that. Known affectionately by its acronym, the DPRT is a 58.6-mile dirt-and-gravel trail more or less in the city—it stretches through the forest preserves of Cook and Lake Counties in the near-western suburbs all the way from North Avenue up to the Wisconsin border. With a trailhead that's just a 25-minute drive from Logan Square, it's accessible. And with 200-year-old oak groves, scampering deer, and views of the river, it's a scenic dream.
Enter through the parking lot on Fullerton, just west of First Avenue in River Grove. Take the path into the woods. Stay sharp: here, the trail takes a steep dip. You ride downhill with a whoosh, then emerge into a clearing. This is what you came for. The sun shines through the canopy, dappling the earth with golden flecks. Twin paths, carved by riders, joggers, and even equestrians, wind their way through the ash and cottonwood trees. You may be just a few hundred feet from the din of the city, but you wouldn't know it here. The only sounds are the murmur of birds and the quick rush of the river to the left.
Sometimes this low-lying part of the trail floods, because of its proximity to the water. Or it turns into thick, impassable mud after a summer storm. Sometimes it's a fun challenge to ride through; more often it's a sign to try again later. In these conditions the trail is frequently drier and more ridable further north. There it veers away from the river, toward higher ground, with a nice bird's-eye view of the water below and access to single-track paths back in the woods. You may encounter dads with strollers on this section of the trail, but if you're lucky, you may also see a stag.
If you're adventurous, the DPRT is especially fun to ride after dark. For some reason my cycling friends call this "night moves," and it's become an annual tradition on Thursdays in the summer. We set out while it's still light, watch the light fade as we head north, then ride back in the dark, guided by powerful 1,200-lumen lights affixed to our helmets or strapped to the front of our bikes.
The night is inky. Our soundtrack is a symphony of crickets. We know how to get home from here. But for a little while, we have the wonderful, dreamlike feeling of being lost in the woods. v