Late Winter on Chicago’s North Branch Trail

by Justyna Frank
north branch trail winter

When something sits in front of you every day, it can be easy to forget it’s there at all. On the Northwest Side of Chicago, we have the North Branch Trail, and I am often surprised by how few people have been on it, or ridden its entire length. Some don’t even know about it.

The North Branch Trail is surely a gem among Chicagoland’s network of bicycle trails. It has everything a great bike trail should have: distance, scenery, variety, along with excellent pavement conditions and generally well-designed street crossings (a notable exception being the deplorable crosswalk at Touhy). The NBT will take you through woodland and prairie, along the river and its adjacent wetlands, and if you follow it to the end, between Tower & Dundee Roads you will come to the Skokie Lagoons, which can almost make you forget that you are still in the big city.

The North Branch Trail begins just west of Gompers Park, on the North Side of Foster Ave near Kostner. From this point, it is about 17 miles to the end of the trail at Dundee Rd. (The Gompers Park/LaBagh Woods section will eventually be linked to the existing Skokie Valley (Sauganash) Trail and Weber Spur Trail at Bryn Mawr & Kostner.) However, there are many points of access, as well as several daytime parking lots along the trail (map here), so you can adjust the length of your trip according to your preference.

You can easily turn this ride into an all-day excursion, with a mid-day break at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, accessible through the gate off Dundee Rdoad (admission is free if you cycle in!). In warm weather, you can even turn your outing into a day-long mini-vacation with lunch and maybe a beer at the Botanic Gardens, followed by an hour or two of paddling a kayak and birdwatching on the Skokie Lagoons (which you can rent at Tower Road). Since we headed out at the mild tail end of February, we skipped the CBG this time, and planned to enjoy and outdoor picnic instead on a sun-warmed riverbank.

North Branch Trail is paved along its entire length, and suitable for all types of bikes. However, if you’re in the mood for a more rugged outing, you can also ride the bridle path that parallels the section of the NBT roughly between Golf Road and the Skokie Lagoons. Bikes are allowed on equestrian paths, but cyclists must yield to horseback riders. Horseback riders are far fewer in number in these parts than cyclists, so —although you may encounter some— it’s just as likely that you’ll have the whole path to yourself.

The bridle path is an unpaved hard-pack surface, and is suitable for most bikes except the super-skinny-tire racing bikes. Anything else, including a hybrid, touring bike, MTB, kids bikes (and even a hybrid pulling a child trailer) is good to go. The only word of caution is that during a thaw or rainy season, the path gets very muddy, and some sections may be impassable.

The horse path itself is broad and fairly easy to follow, separated from the paved trail, and complete with its own dedicated overpasses, and an underpass below I-94. In a number of places it comes much closer to the riverbank than the paved path, and offers a different and somewhat more wild experience of the forest preserve. It’s intersected by a number of narrow footpaths that offer additional exploration possibilities, however the legality of riding a bike on those paths in unknown.

But even without testing the limits of the law, there are plenty of places where you can get off the bike and take a break, or even a mini camping trip, as we did on this occasion, taking advantage of a hideaway spot along the bridle path to test some equipment for an upcoming bikepacking adventure. This time, we packed thermos of tea and a picnic, but if you’re feeling more ambitious, you can bring along a compact stove, and cook your meal outside, and –at least for an hour or two– really feel like you’ve gone camping.

Seriously, ride the North Branch Trail. Take a day, pack some tasty food, bring a friend — you will not regret it.

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