One fine spring day several young people helped celebrate Ruth Grinstead’s sixteenth birthday. Among the guests were Zeiner Ploughe and Hester Phillips a/k/a Esther Ellis.
Max elevation: 686 ft
Min elevation: 292 ft
Total climbing: 499 ft
Total descent: -128 ft
Average speed: 8.03 mi/h
The Illinois Prairie Path trail is probably the second rail-trail in the country, and was created on the right of way of the abandoned Chicago, Aurora and Elgin electric railroad. The CA&E has a long history; it was built in 1902 and the railroad was abandoned in 1958. In 1963, the entire length was converted to a bike/pedestrian trail running from Chicago to the Fox River cities of Aurora and Elgin.
The CA&E ran from the Chicago loop, and my mother often took us to downtown Chicago on the train, not the car. Riding the big third rail electric cars from Elmhurst to the city along the private right of way and on the L (elevated) tracks made a lasting impression on me.
In an unparalleled display of municipal short-sightedness, the railroad went bankrupt in 1957, and no government entity took it over. A judge signed an order authorizing abandonment just before lunch, and all of the trains were recalled to Wheaton by noon, leaving many stranded – and angry and frustrated – commuters with no way to get home. It made the front page of the Chicago papers. I remember it.
The abandoned right of way was converted to a trail in 1963, so it’s actually been a trail almost as long as it was a railroad. We had hoped to ride from Wheaton east at least to beyond Elmhurst, and perhaps beyond, but the 80% chance of precipitation proved too accurate. Being obsessed with this ride, I forced my cousin Mike to ride in the rain a few miles from the Villa Park station to York Road, where we’d caught the train years ago. The station is located near the old Ovaltine factory:
Only a few miles east we crossed York Road. I recall that my dentist’s office was on the second floor of the building on the corner, above a drug store, and I could watch the trains roll by while getting my cavities filled.
It’s now an art gallery
It’s ironic that the adjoining property owners bitterly resisted the conversion of the right of way to a trail (they wanted the property to enlarge their back yards); the path has apparently substantially improved their property values, and the tiny WWII crackerbox houses along the way have been converted to Illinois McMansions.
So the Prairie Path remains on my list of must-ride trails. It is even possible to ride from Elmhurst to my cousin Bob’s house in Plainfield in less than 4 hours, almost entirely on bike trails. Next time ….
Max elevation: 1207 ft
Min elevation: 774 ft
Total climbing: 1211 ft
Total descent: -1332 ft
Average speed: 10.94 mi/h
The Chicago and North Western railroad built a line from Elroy to Sparta, Wisconsin, in the 1870’s. In order to accommodate the steam engines of the time, the grades were modest, and three tunnels were bored through the hills.
At one time (this is in 1907), three passenger trains per day thundered each direction.
Passenger service ended, and the line was torn up, and in 1967 this became the country’s first rail-trail conversion.
It’s now recognized as one of the premiere bike paths in the country, and Sparta advertises itself as the Bicycle Capital of America. The size of the parking lots along the 33 mile route are a good clue that it’s heavily used on summer weekends.
It was a perfect day to explore this trail; the weather was warm but not hot, and puffy white clouds and a canopy of green trees kept the sun away. The trail itself is not paved; it’s covered with fine gravel which probably could be ridden on a skinny tire road bike, but I was glad to have the 40mm wide tires on my bike.
Leaving Elroy the old railroad grade proceeds up a slight (1-2%) grade through lovely farmland (the Wisconsin license plates used to boast that the state was America’s Dairyland).
The yellow tag on my bike is a bike pass; as a state park, you need to pay $5 per day (or $25/year) to use these trails.
The roadbed continued north and west, and the hills (I refuse to call them mountains) on each side narrowed. Suddenly: the first of three tunnels.
It’s dark and cold inside; you must walk your bike because riders have become disoriented and crashed. It’s not very big, and is hard to imagine that there was much clearance for a full sized locomotive and railroad car. The pinhole on the far side got bigger and the opening to the rear got smaller, and about 1600′ later, I emerged into the sunlight. A nice downgrade, and I arrived at Kendall’s, a little town with a depot, restaurants, and Georgia, who had driven ahead and waited for me. She discovered an Amish street vendor from whom she bought some nice presents to take home.
Tunnel #2 was pretty much the same; on the downhill to the next town and upgrade to #3 I passed an old man who had set up an ice cream cart accessible only to riders. I imagine he sells out in the summer; and wish I’d stopped.
Tunnel #3 is almost 3/4 of a mile long, and the porous limestone leaks water which gives bikers a cold, refreshing shower through the eastern half. A school group of middle school boys was walking their bikes the other way, and watching their flashlights bob up and down, and listening to the Halloween noises they were making made the trip very … interesting.
Max elevation: 1050 ft
Min elevation: 984 ft
Total climbing: 299 ft
Total descent: -315 ft
Average speed: 11.19 mi/h
The Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail runs from downtown Mankato to Faribault. Our ride was probably three miles longer than the map above indicates, because I forgot to turn on the Strava timer until we stopped at an intersection. Our trip was abbreviated because we left late in the morning, in what looked like a break in storms; one thunderstorm had rolled through and it was overcast but cool and pleasant. However, the darkening clouds to the west made us decide, very wisely as it turned out, to turn back well before my original goal of Elysian.
As in Iowa, this is a reclaimed railroad grade with a right of way wide enough to permit trees and underbrush to grow up an create the effect of riding in a large, green tunnel.
But since this was Minnesota, there were often glimpses of large and small lakes and streams.
I rode with Dan, the host of the AirBNB apartment we rented in Mankato. He and his wife Sandie exemplify Minnesota nice. What great people. And Mankato turns out to be a fascinating, vibrant, prosperous city about the size of Grand Junction. Who knew? You might think your were transported to Lake Wobegone.
Anyway, the farther away we got from the trailhead, the more ominous the dark and roily clouds to the west appeared. But Dan timed things with his weather app, and we decided that we should turn back before we had gone too far. We stopped for a moment at a bike trail-side lounge, but neither of us was in the mood for the walleye lunch special, so we headed back to Mankato, arriving about ten minutes before the heavens opened up and it rained, and rained, and rained. In the next couple of hours they received almost 2″ of moisture. It’s been a very wet July and August, and the leaves are just beginning to turn. Maybe we’ll get a chance to see more in Wisconsin.
Max elevation: 1050 ft
Min elevation: 896 ft
Total climbing: 856 ft
Total descent: -755 ft
Average speed: 11.00 mi/h
Built in the last few years on the roadbeds of two abandoned railroads, the High Trestle Trail runs from Ankeny, Iowa to Woodward. No wind, mild overcast day, and flat. Very flat. And straight. The map is deceiving; the incline and descent were almost imperceptible
I joined a friend from Cedar Rapids. Over twenty years ago we had participated in a bike tour down the Wisconsin river; he took his son, I took Jackie. we’d kept in touch. Thanks, Facebook…
The trail itself is asphalt and concrete, plenty wide and did I say flat? For several miles, it proceeds northwest from Ankeny through miles of green trees and along rich farmlands. The forest has reclaimed the area between the plowed fields and the railroad, and creates an effect like riding through a tunnel. However, the birds and occasional views of sky and little creeks and the birds and squirrels tell you otherwise.
There’s even a strategically placed potty stop. And signs in each of the towns welcome you to fill your water bottle, enjoy their parks…
The Milwaukee Road mainline crossed the Des Moines River on a very high trestle built in 1912. When the government created Saylorville Lake in 1971, the trestle had to be rebuilt, this time using concrete pillars. The railroad lasted only another thirty years; when the Union Pacific tore down the bridge, they donated the pillars for the construction of a bike path. It’s really quite spectacular:
We joined Sharon and Georgia for pizza at the trailside bike-themed Flat Tire Lounge.
For more pictures, click on the thumbnail: