The Illinois Prairie Path is a long stretch of path picking up in River Forest in the immediate west suburbs and stretching as far southwest as Aurora on one leg, and northwest to Elgin on the other. The trail experience varies greatly. I have yet to ride the entirely of the Aurora branch, so the information related here will cover the main stem between the eastern trailhead and Wheaton and the Elgin branch between the Great Western Trail and Fox River Trail junctions.
You can catch the Prairie Path from the end of the Forest Park Blue Line pretty easily, as well as from a number of Metra stops. I usually hop on the trail where it intersects 5th Avenue between Madison and Van Buren. While the beginning stages of the trail are nice (pavement! porta potties!), this is somewhat offset by the sheer quantity of street crossing, most of which are without any signal. To put it succinctly, the IPP between Maywood and Bellwood BLOWS. The most glaring example of this particular problem is featured below. It’s not unusual to see at least 4 cyclists piled up waiting, sometimes in the middle of this 5 lane.
Shortly after braving this section of the IPP, you are faced with new challenges. Trail conditions range from fair to 2 inches of mud under 3 inches of commingled water and ice. Has it rained in the last 2 days? The IPP feels like riding through actual garbage. There are puddles; there is certainly mud. More, there are horrible surprise sand traps, particularly near bridges, that will grab your wheel. Even when the trail is dry, you can expect a number of ruts. I wouldn’t advise riding this trail with anything more narrow than a 28, and would also caution against slicks.
Another unfortunate feature of the trail through Wheaton is that there are a lot of other users. I’m not talking anything like the Lakefront Path, but it’s certainly less than ideal. You can expect a number of dog walkers and a fair number of parents with strollers. The trail is quite narrow in some places, so you may find yourself waiting to pass. Fortunately once you get on the Elgin branch, this is much less of a problem. All the trail use means you can count on there being water every few miles. Fortunately only one of the water stations is a hand pump (Elgin Branch).
In addition to its quaint water pump, the Elgin branch of the IPP is even less maintained and more rutted. It does have a much added bonus of being fairly shaded. While the amount of trail users on this leg is decreased, it is still trafficked. Many of the folks I see on this leg of the trail appear to be doing various kinds of training rides.
Despite its numerous flaws, the Illinois Prairie Path is there. A long, off road route with numerous connections to other trails, the IPP is the sort of trail we should hope to see more of.