Des Plaines River Trail / by Erin Wade

Sometimes traveling for work offers up cycling opportunities. This past week I found myself with the chance to try out the Des Plaines River Trail.

DPR Trail

This is a relatively long trail, as far as it goes - 56.2 miles, according to the TrailLink app (from which that screenshot is taken), covering an impressive stretch of territory across Lake County and into Cook in the northeastern corner of Illinois. Surfaces listed on the app include asphalt, crushed stone, dirt, and gravel. The section I rode - a 7.82 mile stretch from just north of Route 132 to Route 173 in Gurnee Illinois - was predominantly crushed stone.

DPR Trail Route 132 to Route 173

As the name implies, this is a lowland trail. It runs along the Des Plaines River, and includes multiple backwater marshes in direct view of the trail. The surface is well cared for - in my experience, many lowland trails in Illinois - paved or otherwise - struggle with the obvious combination of water erosion and limited maintenance budgets - there are often potholes and ruts due to wear and water undermining. It had rained earlier that day and portions of the trail were a little soft (I was glad to have the fenders on the Expedition - first real test of them), but it was otherwise in excellent condition - no holes, no washed away sections, and any undulating sections were minimal and avoidable. I was honestly impressed with the condition of the trail. I will note that it was probably too soft to be comfortable riding on a road bike, and it was definitely slower going even on the trike.

It’s a winding affair, and it passes thru multiple parks along this section. One of my first views as I came around a curve into the early part of my ride was of high tension power lines, and I thought "well great" (drip some sarcasm on that), but my fears that I’d be spending a lot of time in the company of electrical transmission were quickly allayed, and much of the ride is lovely, with an interesting variety of scenery given that it runs thru a river valley.

There are, of course, the marshes and wetlands periodically dotting the trail

Green Water

And I saw multiple white egrets on the ride. They were shy, and difficult to catch on camera, though I did glimpse this specimen thru the trees:

I have egrets

He’s far away and hard to see, but a little editing brings him up somewhat closer:

Considering my egrets

According to my Peterson Field Guide for Birds of North America this fine fellow could either be a snowy egret or a great egret. Differentiators would size and the color of the bill, but I didn’t catch those details in person, and the picture doesn’t resolve enough to tell.

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Portions of this section of trail run along railroad tracks, and they are absolutely in use. During my 80-minute ride three trains went by - one Amtrak and two freights. Anyone who has lived near trains knows you can hear them from a considerable distance, so you’ll know when they are there, and you will briefly be within 20 feet of the tracks.

Just the tracks, Ma’am

The trail sometimes winds tightly enough to allow for some fun on the curves, sliding a bit on the crushed stone.

Long and winding trail

There are also brief sections of rise and fall - an unusual feature, in my experience, for a waterway trail.

In addition to wetlands, portions of the trail are open prairie...

Flowered glen

...while others are fairly heavily wooded (and some of the wetland areas are in the woods as well). The trail cuts its way thru County and Sterling Lake Forest Preserves. I was riding at the end of the day, and working against sunset as I returned to the start.

The impending darkness is why I stopped at Rt 173. This was where I’d planned to ride to, offering up a 15-16 mile round trip that I could get in before complete nightfall. And I did manage to reach that point before dark.

Rt 173 Crossing

I don’t really smile

However, on the way back the wooded sections were dark enough I switched my headlight from flashing to steady in order to light my way.

This is a fairly heavily populated area, and there were others on the trail - cyclists, hikers, and at least one runner (and it’s also an equestrian trail; I saw no horses, but I did see... evidence of their passing) - but it was not crowded. Since, as I mentioned, I was there at the end of the day, it may be busier at other times. The trail does have several road crossings, some of which are relatively busy, so you do want to take care. The signs - like several others I’ve seen on trails - indicate that you should dismount your machine and walk it across. I’m quite sure this virtually never happens, but the signs are there for the liability coverage, I suppose.

All in all it was a nice ride over some beautiful territory. I’d note too that this section of the trail is, quite literally, just down the road from the north entrance to Six Flags Great America. I could see this as a great option for a cyclist to hit in the morning before taking the kids to see Bugs and Daffy at the amusement park.