A long, flat, and generally straight path through forest preserves, towns, and prairie patches, with some scenic hills
Two rich prairie remnants, Elmhurst Great Western Prairie and West Chicago Prairie, other scattered prairie plantings, easy access to forest preserves
61 miles of crushed limestone path
Behind the Scenes
Volunteers, with the nonprofit Illinois Prairie Path Corporation and others, maintain the trails and trailside flora
From I-290, take the St. Charles Road exit west. Take St. Charles past York Road, and turn left/south on Spring Road. After .75 miles, turn right/west on Prairie Path Lane, where parking is available. The prairie runs parallel to the lane, between Spring Road and Salt Creek.
Illinois Prairie Path
by Lori Rotenberk
Photo: Jennifer Aragones
Stretching through Cook, DuPage, and Kane Counties, the 61-mile Illinois Prairie Path arcs through residential areas, bustling business districts, and forest preserves, attracting cyclists, joggers, hikers, cross-country skiers, and equestrians. Built in the 1960s on the right-of-way once occupied by the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin electric railroad, the Prairie Path was the first “rail-to-trail” conversion of its kind in the country. The volunteer movement that created it, led by legendary Chicago-area naturalist May Theilgaard Watts, sparked a national trend.
Straight for long stretches, with occasional bends, the Illinois Prairie Path travels nearly due west from Maywood, forking in Wheaton, eventually spurring toward the far-western suburbs of Aurora, St. Charles, Geneva, and Elgin. These spurs ultimately connect to the Fox River Trail.
Many of the remnants of original tallgrass prairie exist today because of railroads. Although there are few sweeping prairie vistas along the Illinois Prairie Path, in two main sections visitors are indeed walking or biking alongside original Illinois prairie — thousands of years old — strikingly offset by dignified modern streetlights. One of the best large parcels, Elmhurst Great Western Prairie, is a narrow, six-acre original remnant stretching eight city blocks from Spring Road to Salt Creek. Elmhurst’s Keith Olson, a former Prairie Path board member and amateur naturalist who lives only a few blocks from the path, combs the right-of-way collecting seeds to insure that the native flora flourishes.
The other notable remnant is West Chicago Prairie. Situated immediately south off the Geneva Spur on the western portion of the Prairie Path, this preserve is more than 300 acres of diverse prairie and buffer, with winding dirt paths.
In these notable prairies, as well as smaller “pocket prairies” scattered over the route, trail users may see shooting star, cardinal flower, yellow coneflower, Carolina rose, compass plant, cup plant, blazing star, dogbane, rattlesnake master, and Indian grass. Volunteers have actively encouraged these natives along the path. Some, such as in Villa Park, have planted prairie gardens.
Bikers can cruise over waterways such as Salt Creek, the east Branch of the DuPage River, and the Fox River. Of the trail’s many bridges, at least one is an historic iron railroad crossing. Wooded regions provide a canopy of shade, although many of these are of invasive buckthorn, not native trees and shrubs.
Photo: Paul & Jean Mooring
Cyclists and pedestrians can find trails into most of the forest preserves the Prairie Path encounters, including Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville, with its large lake and the 150-foot Mt. Hoy lookout. In Glen Ellyn, west of Hill Avenue and north of the Glen Oak Country Club, Prairie Path users can see the “Special Eight,” a newly acquired property featuring an uncommon glacial kame.
In Wheaton, the path offers a good view of Lincoln Marsh, where sandhill cranes stop on their migration route. Trail visitors can also study plants at Founders Park. A few miles northwest of Lincoln Marsh is the Timber Ridge Forest Preserve, where benches overlook the West Branch of the DuPage River. Pratt’s Wayne Woods, in Wayne, offers paths, shade,and open wooded areas.
For more information on the Illinois Prairie Path, or to join a volunteer workday, call (630) 682-9297 or visit ipp.org.
The well-established Illinois Prairie Path has spawned a slew of businesses catering to trail users. Among them is The Bike Shop in Glen Ellyn, 449 N. Main Street, (630) 793-4030, which began its operations specifically for cyclists using the trail. “We’re here for the flat tires, loose chains, and all the other things that plague trail riders,” service manager Drew Hettinga says. Independently owned food carts selling hot dogs and cold drinks dot the Prairie Path route. Small gift shops and sandwich haunts have also adopted the “prairie” name.
Another such business is the Two Brothers Brewing Company in Warrenville, a half-mile from the path. Jim and Jason Ebel opened the brewery in 1996, and, in an attempt to create a local feel, Prairie Path Ale became their first brand. The company, which also brews Domaine DuPage and Brown Fox, offers free 45-minute tours the first Saturday of each month. Tours include beer sampling. Call (630) 393-4800.
Many of the older suburban towns have local historical societies providing interesting background on the communities. The Villa Park Historical Society Museum, 220 S. Villa Avenue, (630) 941-0223, is located in the historic Aurora, Elgin and Chicago Railroad station, alongside the path. Slightly off the path, the Fox River Valley Trolley Museum, 361 S. LaFox Street (Illinois Route 31) in South Elgin, (847) 697-4676, features old train and trolley cars that rode Chicago rails. Or try the DuPage County Illinois Historical Museum, 102 E. Wesley Street in Wheaton, (630) 682-7343. Admission is $3.
St. Charles is home of the Kane County Flea Market. For directions to the market from the path and an updated market schedule, call (630) 377-2252. The market goes all year. Admission is $5.
Photo: Ruth A. Smith
During the summer and into early October, Elmhurst sponsors a bustling and popular farmer’s market, located on the north side of Valette Street, just east of the York Street intersection. For information, call (630) 279-5530.
Villa Park also holds a French Market each summer, selling not only farmer’s market fare but also crafts and other food products. The market sets up shop on Park Boulevard adjacent to the Prairie Path. It runs every Sunday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
If you need to stop for fuel as the day wears on, brake for a hearty meal at the Mill Race Inn, an old restaurant located on the river in Geneva. The Mill Race is located at 4 East State Street, (630) 232-2030. Prices are moderate.
The Prairie Path goes through downtowns such as Glen Ellyn and Wheaton, so there are other dining options near the path. On the way through Wheaton, try the Egg’lectic Café on 145 N. Hale Street, (630) 690-9001. Or tempt your sweet tooth at Suzette’s Creperie, (630) 462-0898, at 211 W. Front Street.
If you’re looking for a weekend away from the city to explore Kane County, Geneva might be the ticket. The Oscar Swan Country Inn is a local bed and breakfast frequented by path users. It is located at 1880 W. State Street, (630) 232-0173.
For those in the mood for a more rustic adventure, the Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville offers 60 family campsites just north of Silver Lake. The campsites, which include restrooms with showers and available electrical hook-ups, are open May through September on Friday and Saturday nights only. For information or to make a reservation, call (630) 933-7248.