I’ve been fascinated by Wolf Lake since I was a teenager, but — incredibly — I never visited it until this year. The lake straddles the Illinois-Indiana border, and the tollroad to Indiana Dunes bisects it, offering tantalizing views of wildlife, nature and fishermen on the west side, and massive industry to the east.
The lake sits like a shiny patch of hope on land ravaged by relentless human activity. In recent years, tremendous efforts have been made to clean up the region and restore natural habitat. Consequently, areas around Wolf Lake start to look more inviting, lush with wetland greenery and teeming with birds. Bald eagles have been spotted overhead.
Nevertheless, the lake retains aspects of dual personality, with civilized, developed bike trails on the east side, and wild, unexplored causeways on the west, seething industry all around, and exuberant nature and wildlife making a home in its midst.
We went on our Brompton exploration on a cold day, bringing along a couple of Brompton bicycles. Starting out from the parking lot adjacent to the Pavilion near the south-east edge of the lake, we headed along the southern shore, and back up north along the bike path that crosses the lake, running parallel to I-90. Then we ducked under the Tollway, and followed a combination of disused trail and dirt path to take a gander at the western, more wild half of the lake. We ventured out on one of the numerous dirt causeways and followed it quite a way to a rickety metal bridge, and a rusty fence around a wildlife sanctuary that has sprung up around a defunct refinery. However, because of inclement weather and having bikes not designed for extensive off-road travel, we decided to leave that exploration for another occasion, and perhaps return with fatbikes or mountain bikes.
After going back up the causeway with our Bromptons, we followed some small streets on the Illinois-Indiana border back east toward Lake Michigan, and around the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond with its iconic neon sign. We found ourselves back at our original starting point fairly quickly, but we weren’t quite ready to give up exploring, so we rode into the town of Whiting for some lunch.
From there, we headed again toward lake Michigan, and south on Standard Ave along the sprawling, apocalyptic landscape of BP Refinery, Praxair and Arcelor Mittal. There may be a way to sneak through the industrial behemoths on bikes, but at this point, we chose to turn back, and we found more things to pull us along, including a very civilized lakefront park in Whiting with a long pier jutting into the big lake, and a semi-wild lakefront bike path that took us all the way back to Horseshoe again.
All the traipsing back and forth amounted to about 15 miles of riding. You could certainly streamline these explorations into a more purposeful loop, or lengthen the trip by including the western portion of Wolf Lake. If you go that route, we recommend a somewhat off-road-worthy bike (even a hybrid with a relatively wide set of tires), as some of the most interesting sections around that part of the lake are unpaved.
In nicer weather, there are plenty of places for a bring-along picnic either by Wolf Lake or the Whiting lakefront. However, in cooler weather, you may want to explore the in-town offerings at 119th Street in Whiting.
Getting there: while it’s certainly possible to bike from Chicago to Wolf Lake, the entire journey would likely take the better part of a day depending on your starting point. From Downtown Chicago, you can take the Lakefront Path to South Shore, and follow Route 41 to the Burnham Grenway, which will take you to Eggers Grove, just north of Wolf Lake. There are ongoing projects aimed to link the existing trails together into a more coherent network, which will hopefully make route planning a little easier in the near future.
If you’re not up for a day-long excursion, you can go by car taking I-90 to the Cline Ave exit. For a car-free alternative, consider the South Shore Line, which runs from Downtown to both Hegewisch and Hammond, and currently allows bikes on many of its trains.